As India prepares to elect its 15th Lok Sabha: "the biggest, largest political, democratic show in the world"; we will witness yet another spectacle, a tamasha and hopefully, a peaceful election of a new government in a country that is so uniquely...hmm...Indian.
As is often said, in India "we do not cast our vote; we vote our caste", elections will all be about herding the 3700+ "vote-banks" of religions, castes, sub-castes by scores of political parties into various permutations of coalitions to form a "majority" government. Indian politics is rarely about competition of ideas or issues or ideologies but a huge negotiating table with all castes/religions/regions represented based on their numerical strengths hoping to get hand on the various levers of state power.
Many would find this blatant deeply divided, splintered identity based politics appalling...I believe it is a step forward, where the elite have lost their monopoly control over the main political parties.
The intelligentsia's response to this is lot of hand wringing and self-loathing about "bad" politicians who exploit the illiterate and poor. The upper class elites who decry identity politics, also don't care to vote. At least they didn't have to. The upper classes/castes have managed to maintain their environmental privileges i.e. near monopolization of jobs, good (free) education, & professions.
Caste-based identity politics is not "bad" politicians taking advantage of illiterate rather represents a legitimate hunger & aggressive demand for equality, justice and freedom.
Even after decades of Independence, the caste you were born into determines your education, profession, income, quality of life and opportunities presented. And till recently the lower castes and less privileged have accepted the inequities as predestined "karma" most probably from previous births.
But since the 1990s, with opening of the economy, legacy of Mandal Commission, greater awareness and access to economic opportunities, "genteel" expressions of reform are being replaced by a more militant demand for change and reform.
And since power is never relinquished without a fight, the backlash to this movement is also equally gaining ground mostly in the form of radical, nationalistic Hindu parties. Demands for affirmative action & social justice is met with arguments of meritocracy, highlighting inequality is met with need for nationalistic spirit of unity, demand for religious freedom with fears of proselytizing and claims of "historical" wrongs, police brutality with need for security and war of terror, and when all else fails plain denial works just fine. Even today Indian census deliberately avoids gathering crucial caste/religion related data or in many cases just refuse to count key minorities.
India has a long road to reach the point where an individuals "karma" is not predestined at his/her birth rather a choice available equally to all. Rather than seeing identity politics as regressive, it should remind us of the inequalities. And till caste determines an individuals destiny, caste based politics will continue to play a big part in Indian elections.
The uniqueness of India is that this battle will happen using ballots and not bullets..mostly..hopefully!!!
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