CHENNAI: Is it the end of Ram Mandir as an election campaign prop? Can a candidate be disqualified if the Church issues an edict to its faithful during Sunday mass in his favour? What about the parties like Indian Union Muslim League and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen that proclaim community affiliation in the name itself? What would happen to the Sikh parties in Punjab, including the ruling SAD? What about parties like the PMK, whose appeal in the last election was an exhortation to the intermediary castes to join forces against what it perceived as ‘Dalit love jihad’? And what would happen to Dalit outfits who have finally managed to mobilise politically to empower their community that has suffered centuries of discrimination?
The Supreme Court’s landmark verdict against using religion, race, caste, community or language during poll campaigns has raised a volley of questions about its impact on electioneering in the country where caste and community, religion and language are often the deciding factors.
Going by the verdict, the campaign to build Ram Mandir, the biggest political and electoral platform created out of a religious issue, cannot be part of the poll promises.
The creeping influence of religion on elections is widespread across the country, from the extremely backward pockets of Dharmapuri, where caste honour is a deciding factor, to Kerala, the State that prides for its human development successes. In the Northeast, there have been several instances of local churches instructing diocese members to vote for – or against – a particular candidate. Similar is the case in Kerala, where there are even examples of smaller parties identifying with a particular Christian denominations like Roman Catholics, Marthoma and Orthodox.
In fact, Parliament member P C Thomas was disqualified for seeking votes from the Christian community using Pope’s image. The disqualification came under Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, the section that was under discussion in apex court.
Every election, the SNDP and NSS, the organisations representing the two biggest and most influential Hindu castes – Ezhavas and Nairs – in Kerala, announce their decision to back the fronts they find favourable. The SNDP had floated a party and aligned with the BJP in the last Assembly polls. Kerala is also the strongest ground for the Muslim League, a key player in State politics purely because of its influence among community members.
In Tamil Nadu, it remains to be seen how the move would affect outfits whose calling card is their ability to swing their community’s votes to any party that they deem favourable. The PMK, the party of the Vanniyars, is a case in point. The party came out of Vanniyar Sangam that was formed to represent the numerically strong community that, however, did not have the same influence as that of, say, the Thevar or Gounder communities. Its appeal is centred on the interest of the community. It thus is shocking but certainly not surprising for any here that the party once called for political mobilisation of fraternal castes like Kongu Gounders and others against Dalits who ‘enacted love drama’ to ‘steal their daughters’.
However, though the multifarious examples of the toxic use of caste, race, religion, community and language during election campaigns show the dangers in mixing these with politics, an over-arching view against raising these matters might miss the nuances as noted by the three dissenting judges in the verdict.
A pertinent question the three raised was the case of communities that have faced centuries of oppression, for whom social mobilisation is the answer to the injustices. To put it in the perspective of the Dalit community in Tamil Nadu – and India as a whole – for instance, can the cry for justice from the thus far marginalised be equated to the assertion of the dominant religions or communities?
As the judges noted, “The Constitution is not oblivious to the history of discrimination against and the deprivation inflicted upon large segments of the population based on religion, caste and language. [They] are as much a symbol of social discrimination imposed on large segments of our society on the basis of immutable characteristics as they are of a social mobilisation to answer centuries of injustice. They are part of the central theme of the Constitution to produce a just social order.”
Barring a candidate from speaking on the legitimate concerns of the citizens about the injustices they faced because of caste and other factors would be, they added, “to reduce democracy to an abstraction.”