Bane of identity politics

Ironically, identity politics attempts to empower social groups by asserting the same identity which was the cause of discrimination.

As the election process in five states is hurtling towards conclusion, the desperate bid to polarize voters on the caste and communal lines is also acquiring a hideous dimension making it difficult for the Election Commission to enforce the model code of conduct. Union law minister Salman Khurshid openly thundered that he would advocate the cause of backward Muslims even if the EC hangs him and the Commission had to take the unprecedented step of writing to the President for appropriate action against him.

No sooner had the controversy subsided with the regret expressed by Khurshid than another Union minister Beni Prasad Verma made the same announcement that the sub-quota for the minorities out of 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs would be enhanced to 9 per cent if the Congress party came to power in the state. Both the ministers made the announcement in Farrukhabad from where Khurshid’s wife Louise Khurshid is a Congress candidate. Verma even dared the EC to issue notice to him but later feigned amnesia.

The BJP, in order to mobilise the backward castes, has lambasted the carving out of sub-quota for the minorities as an attack on the interests of the OBCs. It has also resurrected the issue of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Mulayam Singh Yadav is promising 18 per cent separate reservation to Muslims not explaining how he would breach the ceiling of 50 per cent laid down by the Supreme Court. Mayawati calls every move of the EC anti-Dalit.

Though identity politics has been playing a significant role in the Indian politics, its role is becoming more and more pronounced though it is also true that there is a recent trend to vote on the basis of development. The political empowerment of low castes, religious identities, linguistic groups and ethnic conflicts have contributed to the growth of identity politics. For about two decades, the Congress party dominated the political horizon of the country to such an extent that it appeared to be a single-party system.

Ram Manohar Lohia gave a jolt to the Congress hegemony by introducing the identity politics. It was he who gave the slogan -- ‘Sansopa (Samyukta Socialist Party) ne bandhi ganth, pichde pawen sau mein saath.’ (SSP has taken a pledge to give to backwards 60 out of 100.) Identity politics signifies a sense of hurt and injustice meted out to a certain section of society which is sought to be rectified politically. Ironically, identity politics attempts to attain empowerment and recognition of social groups by asserting the same identity which was the cause of discrimination against them. Thus, the same markers are not only being used but also reinforced as an assertion of selfhood and identity based on difference rather than equality.

Identity politics

After Ram Manohar Lohia, Kanshi Ram played identity politics with a confrontationist posture—‘Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko maro jute char.’ (Beat the Brahmins, the Banias and the Kshatriyas with shoes.) His supporters defiled Raj Ghat as he sought to project Ambedkar in front of Gandhi as representatives of two opposite streams of politics dubbing Gandhi as Manuvadi. Mayawati is carrying that legacy forward more aggressively.

Another major political leader to take refuge in identity politics was V P Singh who as prime Minister implemented the recommendation of the Mandal Commission’s report recommending 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs on the basis of caste in a jiffy without any consultation, confabulation or debate, just to ensure that the rally organised by Devi Lal, who had been dropped from the cabinet a few days back, flops. He also gave a boost to Dalit politics by awarding Bharat Ratna posthumously to B R Ambedkar. That was the first case of awarding Bharat Ratna to a departed soul.

V P Singh also played the minority card by announcing holiday on Milad-ul-Nabi (Prophet Mohammad’s birth anniversary). The BJP countered it by the movement for the creation of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Andre Beteille feels that the Indian polity has consistently tried to negotiate the allegiance to a liberal (individual) spirit and the concerns and consciousness of community. In the opinion of Bhikhu Parekh, this process has recognised a wide array of autonomous and largely self-governing communities. It has sought to reconcile itself as an association of individuals and a community of communities, recognising both individuals and communities as bearer of rights.

Caste-based discrimination has been a grotesque reality of the Indian society. So, this may be a phase of reaction which comes after the phase of repression. But trying to reinforce and reinvigorate the same markers which caused discrimination earlier may give political power to the underprivileged and satisfy their psychological hunger but their material requirements cannot be fulfilled unless there is interest politics. Voters have shown maturity in recent elections. Lalu Prasad who played identity politics so aggressively has now become a political pariah. It does not mean that there is no place for identity politics in Bihar any more. In fact, Nitish Kumar has combined identity politics with interest politics.

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