The politics of division

This is the 19th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Politics in India sometimes seems like a card game. A few days ago, when Pratibha Patil’s candidature for president of India was announced, the newspapers were full of how the UPA was playing the “gender card.” Her record in politics was not at the heart of her nomination – Patil is a woman, and because of that alone, politicians were expected to support her.

Vir Sanghvi wrote last Sunday of how Prakash Karat vetoed every name the Congress threw at him till he was outwitted by the choice of Patil. “If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil,” wrote Sanghvi, “he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.” A news report told us of how the Congress “attacked the BJP for not supporting Patil for the post of the President of India and accused the saffron party of being ‘blatantly’ against the cause of women.” (It can be presumed that had the UPA’s candidate been male, the BJP would have been “against the cause of men.”)

While the BJP did not succumb to this dubious logic, they were certainly worried. Their assumed ally, the Shiv Sena, had reacted to Patil’s candidature by applauding the fact that she was from Maharashtra. The Maharashtra card! (At the time of writing, the Sena is yet to make a final choice – they haven’t yet put all their cards on the table.)

Cards, cards, cards. Ten years ago KR Narayanan won support across the political spectrum because of the “Dalit card”. Five years ago APJ Abdul Kalam benefited from the “Muslim card”. Both men have their fans, and I even know one person who likes Kalam’s poetry, but the political support they got derived from their Dalitness and Muslimness respectively. Parties that could not afford to be seen as anti-Dalit or anti-Muslim found it hard to oppose them.

The office of president is largely ceremonial in India, and it doesn’t bother me if we choose our figurehead according to caste or religion or gender. But the very fact that these factors count underlines the grip of identity politics in this country. The primary factor in Indian elections is not governance but identity, not what you do but who you are.

Consider Bihar. Lalu Prasad Yadav was in power there, either directly or through his wife Rabri Devi, for 15 years, in which time the state strengthened its position as the most backward in the country. And yet he kept getting voted to power. His government’s performance did not matter – He had positioned himself successfully as the representative of the Yadavs and the Muslims, and they wanted their man at the helm of things.

Mayawati, who has ‘the Dalit vote’ all wrapped up, came to power in the recent UP elections by cannily wooing the Brahmins with the help of Brahmin politician Satish Chandra Misra. The BJP, playing identity politics of a different kind, lost out because in much of the country, caste matters more than religion. And both matter more than governance.

There is a vicious circle at play here. I believe that social divisions such as caste get diluted by prosperity – if there is more to go around, you resent others less, and inspire less envy. In the melting pots of our big cities, for example, caste is not as big a factor in how people view each other as it is in the villages. (I am speaking in relative terms, of course – there is plenty of caste discrimination in our cities as well.) As people get more and more prosperous, they become less and less insecure, and crutches of identity become less relevant. I grew up in a relatively privileged household, for example, and don’t even know exactly what my own caste is. What’s yours?

Now, given that identity politics is the oxygen of our politicians, consider their incentives: Are they likely to do anything that will remove the divisions on which they thrive? Would it have been in Lalu’s interests to take Bihar on the road to development? Can true ‘social justice’ – when caste and religion don’t matter – be the rational aim of any political party?

Reservations, whether intended that way or not, are a political masterstroke. Under the guise of ‘social justice’, they create a politics of entitlement which increases social divisions, instead of removing them. College kids who may not otherwise have given a damn about caste grow into adulthood resenting whole categories of people. Indeed, just consider how ill-will between the Gujjars and Meenas has grown recently because of such politics.

I’m not saying that politicians actually sit down and make Machiavellian plans on how to increase the divisions that they depend upon. But see how their incentives are aligned. Their getting elected does not depend on governance or sound economic policy, but on catering to and keeping intact the divisions between us. Are we going to let those divisions define us, or can we break free?

Previous posts on this subject: 1, 2. And here’s an essay I wrote on a similar theme: “Don’t Think in Categories.”