The social mandate: Identity-based justice over identity-based chauvinism | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

The social mandate: Identity-based justice over identity-based chauvinism

Jun 04, 2024 10:34 PM IST

Indian voters are willing to go beyond their caste identities, but they also see their caste identity as a fundamental marker of their life experience

Hindu voters have redefined what was secular common sense into what is today a Hindutva-laced common sense. But they aren’t invested in constructing a consistent, unified and homogenous Hindu political identity that is constantly at odds with Muslims.

Muslim voters want political voice and representation and reject the denial of democratic rights on the basis of their identity (Representative Photo)
Muslim voters want political voice and representation and reject the denial of democratic rights on the basis of their identity (Representative Photo)

Muslim voters want political voice and representation and reject the denial of democratic rights on the basis of their identity. But they have deep faith in India’s constitution, recognise the necessity of wider electoral alliances with Hindu social groups, and continue to rally behind mainstream Indian democratic formations rather than Muslim identity-centric parties.

Indian voters are willing to go beyond their caste identities, but they also see their caste identity as a fundamental marker of their life experience, consider it a legitimate political instrument of mobilisation, and seek benefits on the basis of real or perceived caste-based injustice.

This is the three-pronged social message that is emerging from the 2024 mandate.

This conclusion is based on the broad contours of the campaign, the public messaging and the political actions of the parties.

On the question of caste, here is what the parties said and did. The Opposition claimed that the BJP was out to change the constitution and remove reservations for Dalits, tribals and backwards; the BJP said it had no such plans, and this was fiction. Instead, it claimed that the Opposition was out to remove reservations for Hindu marginalised groups and give them to Muslims; the INDIA bloc parties said it had no such plans and this was fiction. The Opposition in general, and the Congress in particular, also backed a caste census, proportionate representation for all caste groups, and increased reservations. The BJP rejected the demand but without making it an explicit part of their messaging.

On the question of religion, the BJP, for a decade, kept Muslim political representation negligible or non-existent within its ranks. It treated any assertion of Muslim political identity as communal while encouraging the assertion of Hindu political identity. It reoriented laws to cater to what it considers Hindu sensibility, for instance, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and created an enabling condition for favourable judicial verdicts, for instance, the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. And it encouraged a permissive climate for hate speech targeted at minorities and even made it a campaign plank. The Opposition, carefully, without taking on the BJP’s ideological agenda in stark and clear terms, sought to counter this by quietly consolidating the Muslim vote but targeting more specific segments of the Hindu vote. To do this, they either accepted components of the BJP’s ideological agenda or mounted a more vocal challenge depending on the context and issue.

Also Read: Marathis, Muslims, and transfer of BJP votes hold the key

Against this backdrop, what’s the mandate suggesting? The numbers tell us that voters are willing to pick different threads from different parties.

The fact that voters have given the BJP the status of the single largest party means that there is a certain degree of popular vindication of its moves in the second term, be it the passage of the CAA or the decision to effectively abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir or the incorporation of Hindu symbolism in state affairs. The fact that even “secular parties” didn’t dare oppose either the construction of the Ram Temple or the decisions on Kashmir or openly challenge the BJP on the ideological question except for a vague reference to “Mohabbat ki dukan” or even give proportionate tickets to Muslims in their own candidate list shows the emergence of a Hindutva-laced common sense. This may have been tactical, but the Opposition skirted the ideological fight so to suggest this mandate is a victory for old-style secularism would be a mistake.

But this was also a campaign which the BJP, in general, and the PM in particular, sought to construct on the basis of a unified Hindu identity to take on the caste-related challenge. To construct this identity, the key campaign message of the BJP — and speeches by Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath offer ample evidence of this — was based on an opposition to the cultural practices (remember the mockery about non-veg food) and political actions (remember the constant dismissal of the community as a vote bank) of Muslims and Opposition to the “secular parties” for “appeasing” Muslims. The fact that BJP didn’t get an outright majority, and in fact, saw a dramatic shrinking of its seat tally in a state such as UP Rajasthan or Maharashtra, where this message was the loudest, suggests that Hindu voters aren’t interested in this constant demonisation of Muslims beyond a point. The BJP’s electoral defeat in Faizabad, the home of the Ram Temple, may have been due to local factors, but it cannot but be seen as a symbolic rejection by voters of the constant use of religion for electoral purposes.

For their part, Muslims participated in full measure, as is their right as citizens, in the electoral process. Again, as is their right, just as it is the right of Hindu voters to choose their candidates and parties, Muslim voters consolidated behind formations that could defeat the BJP, a completely understandable measure given the rhetoric they have confronted in the past decade. The parties that Muslims picked were almost exclusively mainstream, moderate Indian democratic formations led by Hindu leaders of different castes.

On caste, the election reaffirmed the centrality of the current architecture of reservations. No party will dare remove reservations for Dalits, tribals and backwards if it is remotely interested in being a politically serious player in the country. But, the mandate has given an ambiguous message on the issue of entrenching caste-based identity and reservation further. The fact that the Congress’s vote share and seat tally has increased, including possibly among young, backward and Dalit voters, indicates that its demands have traction.

But the fact that the BJP remains the single largest party — without endorsing the caste census demand and explicitly rejecting the proportionate representation demand — suggests that there remain very large social constituencies, including among the Hindu subaltern, which don’t necessarily support entrenching the caste identity-based framework further. This is a battle that isn’t resolved and will continue to be waged.

But at the core of it, identity-based justice has won over identity chauvinism. And that is a message that parties should heed instead of constantly seeking to deepen divisions.

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