Politicians in India have always found it easier to campaign based on a divisive agenda. Though there are numerous ways to play this dirty game, political parties have usually belonged to three camps. The first one is the so-called secular gang. This one plays politics by appeasing minority communities that have sizeable vote banks and also fear-mongering about the dominance of the majority community. This ‘minority-first’ politics worked wonderfully for Congress and its allies for nearly four decades. It, however, did nothing to change the actual dismal condition of the minorities, especially Muslims, who remained backward in all socioeconomic parameters.
The first challenge to this approach came from another kind of divisive politics. When the Congress was dominating Indian politics, half the world was ruled by the Communists. But they failed miserably in India. The world over, the Communist parties and their Left-wing cousins gained power by dividing the world into two opposing camps of proletariat and capitalists. But in dirt-poor India, there was neither a proper working class nor any true capitalists. In a society rife with casteism and feudalism and hardly any industries to speak of, the Communist party’s agenda didn’t find many takers except in pockets. Soon, in places where Communist parties could manage a foothold, they forgot dreaming about the revolution and adjusted to parliamentary democracy. And they also went after the lowest-hanging fruit and imitated the Grand Old Party in minority appeasement.
Caste was the biggest weapon of many parties in the Gangetic belt, which wanted to challenge the Congress and taste power. The Congress juggernaut was stopped in North India by caste-based parties like SP and BSP. All that was required was to find the most prominent and dominant caste in numerical superiority, fuel their pride, and then stitch together whichever communities voted in blocks. In the southern parts of the country and Maharashtra, where the anti-upper caste movement had already run off its steam by the Sixties, language and regional pride was used by the parties to challenge the dominance of the Congress. The Dravidian parties and Telugu Desams got to power playing these games.
In Kerala, the Congress had already formed alliances with minority community parties like Muslim League and Kerala Congress, and Communist party had cornered the prominent backward community in the state. The Congress had learned to live with a power equation where state elections went to caste parties and national elections could be won with some careful caste engineering and minority votes. It suited the agenda of the Congress, caste-based parties and Communists to downplay Indian cultural heritage or teach Indian history, which is perhaps the bloodiest in the world due to constant invasions and violence. It was better to take pride in one’s region, caste or language as these catered to particular vote banks of respective parties. This was the total of Indian secularism and politics.
The right wing was cornered in this game for power till the late 1980s. There weren’t many takers for the agendas like pride in ancient Indian culture and humanitarian socialism—whatever it meant—that the Jan Sangh and the earlier BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had promoted. The vote market was already saturated with ace players pitting one caste against another or one region against others. A newcomer had to find a more explosive idea that would divide the society to capture the vote. Thus was born the virulent Hindutva movement we see today.
Just as the Congress and other parties played the game of whipping up fear of the ‘other’ among their vote bank, so did the BJP among its vote bank. It succeeded in uniting the horribly divided majority community, cutting across caste lines, and it also helped to shatter the careful caste coalitions, at least in the populous northern India. The caste parties managed to stall this new challenge by inflaming caste divide using the Mandal Commission, and the last three decades became a battle ground between the caste parties trying to keep their flock together and the Right Wing trying to find ways to unite Hindus against everyone else. All sorts of dirty tricks were played by all sides, and society was left bleeding.
Finally, the Hindutva forces succeeded in almost wiping off the caste-based parties in the north, rendering the Congress ineffective and Communist parties irrelevant. It has only the language divide to overcome to become a major player in South India. As a last-ditch effort to stop this juggernaut, the caste-based parties of North India have come up with the idea of having a caste census. And the Congress, desperate to cleave back into some relevance, is supporting this. We are back to the Mandal versus Kamandal trap of the Nineties.
In short, every party in India has always played one group of people against another to fool us and enjoy power. Some are splitting the society horizontally into many layers of castes while the others are dissecting it into two halves of majority and minority. There is hardly anyone talking about what really matters to the people. Despite all the glittering GDP growth figures, most of our population is desperately poor and lives in conditions that would put war-torn Syria, Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa to shame. It is despicable that even after 75 years of Independence, the average voter has to choose between religious riots and caste wars.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy