Electoral politics leaves little space for productive dialogue

Electoral politics leaves little space for productive dialogue

Indian politics is witnessing a new kind of a critique of politics and policy being governed by competing identity claims and promising to deliver development and governance that is ostensibly neutral and beneficial for everyone. Recently, caste-census became controversial as to whether it promotes inclusiveness or entrenches further divisions.

The ensuing elections in Bihar too will be a contest between caste-based mobilisation of regional parties, including the new alliance between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, and an imagination of development initiated by the BJP. However, the missing link in this ongoing debate is the idea of solidarity and fraternity that is neglected by both those who wish inclusiveness through identity claims and those who rely on the discourse of development and governance.

Solidarity between social groups and fraternal feelings are the foundations of a healthy democracy but electoral politics in India have been reduced to competing claims. This, without looking for possible means of establishing cross-cultural and cross-caste alliances based on mutual empathy and inter-subjective understanding of the specific issues concerning the various social constituencies.

The leading- lights of the Dalit-Bahujan struggles in India, along with unflinching emphasis on agitation and mobilisation for self-determination also lay thrust on solidarity and fraternity. Jyotiba Phule in his celebrated essay Ghulamgiri calls for a solidarity between all those involved in manual labour, which alone can bring about an ‘ethical self’ and scientific knowledge.

His critique of Brahminism included rejection of a knowledge system based purely on mental constructs. He was the first to establish a school for girls in 1851 and that included girls of all castes.

Phule unequivocally argued that all women, including Brahmin women, made up his notion of shudraatishudra. He argued that subordination of women was a part of the larger process of the subordination of the shudraatishudras. Similarly, Phule was among the first to draw a similarity between the Shudras and the Blacks in America, preceding the more recent debate on ‘caste is race’. Phule’s essential critique of Brahmins was based on the potent hierarchical separation between mental and manual labour that the Brahminical philosophy put in place and further made the coming together of various castes and overcoming caste-based differences and discrimination a Herculean task.

Later, Ambedkar too forwarded a critique of the caste system based on its debilitating impact on civic ethos and fraternity between various social groups. Ambedkar identifies fraternity as a foundation of democracy. He therefore picked up the slogan of French revolution,’Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ as the guiding principle for the anti-caste struggles in India. He recognised caste-based discrimination even among the Shudras and argued in his much quoted essay Annihilation of Caste that `each caste takes its pride and its consolidation in the fact that in the scale of castes it is above some other caste`.
Ambedkar pointed out that `all are slaves of the caste system’ and what it destroyed was what he variedly referred to as common culture, fellow feeling, associated mode of living, social cement, public spirit, cooperation and solidarity. In this sense, he felt ‘cultural revolution’ ought to precede political reform and economic revolution.

Overcoming deep-seated prejudice is a precondition for development and therefore he believed that what Marx and Communists missed out was that Indian social and economic order worked not through ‘division of labour’ but ‘division of labourers’.

The future ideal society for Ambedkar has to be founded on substantive solidarity and deep-seated fraternal feelings in the society. He argued, ‘in an ideal society, there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free-points of contact with other modes of association’. He argued for ‘social endosmosis’ and a ‘conjointed communicative experience’ and not exclusivists experiences being privileged in order to make stronger political claims. Even such claims have to essentially realise the need to move towards more inter-subjective experiences to create a richer idea of the social.

Processes of individuation
Today’s debates in Indian politics, more so the electoral politics and discourse on development, have left very little space for a productive dialogue on how to enhance modes of solidarity and means of forging fraternity. This process of breakdown of all forms of shared spaces converges with the processes of individuation initiated by global neo-liberal economy.

Instead, what marginalised social groups are facing is a choice between cultural assertion and economic dispossession, such as the various subjugated castes in rural hinterlands, or a promise of economic integration with a precondition of cultural subjugation in the case of the Muslims.

There cannot be any meaningful idea of development that does not contribute towa-rds an enlarged idea of fellow feeling among the various social groups. Ideas of liberty and equality cannot be attained without promoting fraternity. Fraternity alone can provide a durable social base for justice.

Initiating and strengthening fraternity needs a fresh political imagination. While interest-based mobilisations have achieved various degrees of success in providing mobility and better life-chances to hitherto marginalised social groups, we have collectively failed to overcome prejudices and enrich trust and initiate a positive dialogue.

The latter can be achieved not just through a discourse on liberty and equality but progressively bringing varied cultural groups closer to each other. The emphasis on difference in modern democracies has to move towards commonality and commonness. Recognising and reconciling with commonness is as important as legitimising differences because celebrating commonness provides for a durable basis for dignity.

The new discourse on development is providing for one such opportunity though without any sustained debate on the significance of fraternity. Development without fraternity would be a failed project.

Taking a clue from Ambedkar, we need to lay priority on achieving a ‘cultural
revolution’ which is best understood as finding roots for solidarity and fraternity, and not through either merely competing identity claims or an empty rhetoric about development.

(The writer is with Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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