The right to vote and elect a government of one’s choice is at the heart of democracy. That right brings every voting citizen on an equal footing, even if notionally. The voter’s caste, creed, gender, language or ethnicity is not supposed to be a factor. But political parties in India and across the democratic world have always attempted to compartmentalise that vote.
It’s an old algorithm devised by politicians, much before algorithms became the fashionable solution to all difficult propositions. But there lies the pitfall for democracy. In India, even basic amenities have not yet been universalised. So collectivisation and identity politics do not help people leverage their votes.
Witness the personalised campaign in Gujarat around Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple. He was—erroneously or mischievously, depending on who you believe—entered in a temple register for non-Hindus. A defensive Congress jumped in to not only assert his Hindu identity, but also his janeu dhari (thread-wearing) status—a sneaking caste elitism.
Will his religious or caste identity get the Gujarat voters what they need? Narmada water, jobs, GST concessions, education, forest rights? No. But both the BJP and Congress, and TV wallahs, are busy discovering (or creating) the fallout of this unnecessary diversion. This is not limited to India. The underlying debate around Barack Obama’s religion and ethnicity impacted three US elections. Has it helped the American voter? No.
For Rahul to now say he’s from a family of Shiv bhakts, and religion is a private matter, is a bit rich. If it was so private, would he be visiting temples in Gujarat during an election campaign? The BJP, with its Hindutva agenda right on its sleeves, has little ground to complain. Its whole method revolves around making religious identity a legitimate ground for politics. Yes, it had one reason: that’s when a different kind of identity, that of class, was raked up by a Youth Congress ‘intellectual’. The Congress has to really introspect if it thinks this election is a contest between a Brahmin and a chaiwala.