The paradox of material politics in Indian elections

Is cultural politics taking a backseat and economic factors are making a decisive return in Indian elections? Let’s check their resonance with the people in the poll-bound states.
The paradox of material politics in Indian elections

Indian politics has been overwhelmingly dominated by markers of ascriptive identities like caste, community, ethnicity, language and region. The dynamics between them make them useful mobilisation tools for political parties. These contestations are at their most intense during elections, when the faultlines along ascriptive identities emerge as dominant political forces.

This empirical fact about Indian politics has been criticised by a dominant section of the civil society that laments the subservience of people’s occupational identities like their profession, class and other economic markers. Since occupational-identity-driven material politics is considered more desirable over ascriptive-identity-led cultural politics, the interplay of the two is becoming a defining feature of Indian democracy. In this election season it is pertinent to map the political interface of these two modes of observing asymmetrical identities.

Beyond the numbers, there is one common thread binding the electoral politics in four out of the five poll-bound states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. All the parties seem to have learnt lessons from the latest Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka elections. There, issues such as reinstatement of old pension schemes, corruption, farm loan waiver and unemployment allowance to vast groups of people mobilised government employees, the young and farmers behind the Congress. Does it mean cultural politics is taking a backseat and economic factors are making a decisive return in Indian elections? Let’s check their resonance with the people in the poll-bound states.

Assembly elections address localised and material issues more prominently than national elections. Hence one finds the BJP and Congress making welfare-centric outreach to various sections, apart from balancing caste and community equations. The increasing competitiveness of state politics has shifted people’s aspirations—they first treat new welfare schemes as the generosity of political parties and leaders, but soon feel entitled to receive them and force the parties to promise more. Many see this mode of populist discourse as good politics but bad economics, and lament the apparent irrationality of the people and the parties alike. Contrarians argue that if government policies give an easy passage to corporates, the same treatment for the people shouldn’t be seen as undesirable. Rather, they assert these popular schemes should be seen as people-empowering measures.

In this backdrop, the Congress’s promise in Chhattisgarh of loan waiver to all farmers who have borrowed from cooperative banks has given the incumbent government a perception edge over the BJP. The fact that the saffron party didn’t reciprocate the promise in their manifesto has left many party workers and supporters disappointed. Another material outreach targeting vast groups of voters is the different allowances to the unemployed youth, women and senior citizens, on which all the parties are on the same page. The narrative in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana is dominated by issues of policy outreach, their impact and the state of governance over the last five years. Further, a significant section of the civil society is hyperactive in comparing the electoral issues with the rhetoric of democratic desirability and people’s empowerment.

While a cursory look may suggest that political parties addressing the occupational identities of voters is a victory of material politics, a closer look reveals a different picture. In Himachal Pradesh—a state where upper-caste Rajputs and Brahmins constitute an electoral majority that craves government jobs—the promise of reinstating old pension schemes was clearly an attempt to mobilise numerically dominant castes.

Similarly, the emergence of Other Backward Classes (OBC), who constitute a bulk of farmers, as a decisive segment in electoral politics is the main reason behind the return of the promise of farm loan waivers, primarily by the Congress. The BJP on its part is trying to address the artisanal OBC castes with popular policy outreaches such as the Vishwakarma scheme. These schemes address occupational identities, but what becomes problematic on the ground is that people quickly deconstruct the caste- and community-centric intent behind such apparent material politics. Take the case of Chhattisgarh, where many OBC respondents to our survey who were sympathetic to the BJP rued the party’s non-committal approach to farm loan waiver. They claimed that the BJP let a significant section of the OBCs, otherwise winnable, to the other side at a time Dalits and tribals do not constitute the Congress’s core support base. Since upper castes and government employees do not constitute a decisive share of the Chhattisgarh electorate, the pension scheme issue is completely missing in the list of promises.

This paradox of material politics, where occupational identities are nothing but an obfuscation of the old caste- and community-based identity politics, is an emerging pattern across states. The centrality of identity politics in the rhetoric of development is revealed by blatant cases of exclusion and inclusion of one section over another. The model is similar to the one employed in Bihar, where the intent of addressing the weakest sections of Dalits was served by including various Dalit castes under the category of ‘Mahadalit’, contingent on the political friendships of Nitish Kumar and his party.

Unfortunately, the reality remains the same. The ongoing mode of politics around occupational identity is just another spin in the dominant mode of caste and community identity—a fact obvious to the people and leaders. This is neither good politics nor good economics.

Sajjan Kumar

Political analyst associated with PRACCIS, a Delhi-based research institution

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