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Identity Politics to the Fore

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
04 Jul 2022
Draupadi Murmu is a sixty-four-year-old Santhal tribal woman from Odis

According to Article 60 of the Constitution of India, the responsibility of the President is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law and to be at the service and well-being of the people. The person most competent to do so should ideally be elected to the office of the President. It is towards this end that the sixteenth Presidential election is scheduled to be held on 18 July 2022. Draupadi Murmu and Yashwant Sinha have been named as the nominees of the Bhartiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and the joint Opposition respectively. As the nation is heading towards the election, it is worth having a closer look at the résumé of each nominee to understand their possible competence and the politics behind their nominations.  

Draupadi Murmu is a sixty-four-year-old Santhal tribal woman from Odisha. Born into various forms of deprivation, she began her public life as an administrative assistant in Odisha irrigation department after which she went on to become a teacher at a public school in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. She joined the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1977, became the councillor of Rairangpur Nagar Panchayat in Odisha and was also appointed as the national vice-president of the BJP Scheduled Tribes Morcha in the same year.

Twice she became a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Odisha, first in 2000 from Rairangpur and second in 2009 from Mayurbhanj. She was chosen to be the Minister of State with Independent Charge for Commerce and Transport from 2000 to 2002 and Minister for Fisheries and Animal Resources Development from 2002 to 2004 in the coalition government of the BJP and Biju Janata Dal (BJD). For her exemplary conduct as an MLA, Odisha Legislative Assembly conferred on her the Nilkantha Award for best MLA in 2007. From 2015 to 2021, she served as the Governor of Jharkhand. Scripting history, Murmu has become the first person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe, to be nominated as a candidate for the Presidential election. 

Talking about the reason for her nomination, the BJP said that it went by the criteria of the candidate being a woman and a tribal hailing from the eastern part of the country. Gender, caste or tribe and the geographical location, in other words, the identity of the candidate is of utmost importance. With Murmu’s identity as a person from Odisha and a tribal, BJP can bank on the support of BJD and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) both of which are crucial for winning the election. With her as the President, BJP has the possibility of enhancing its appeal and acceptability among the tribal voters, especially during the forthcoming elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat where a total of 128 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes.

Born into Kayastha (considered upper caste) family in Bihar and currently living in Jharkhand, the eighty-four-year-old Yashwant Sinha with a master’s degree in Political Science belongs to the 1960 batch of Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He began his career as a Sub-Divisional Magistrate and later as a District Magistrate. Then he went on to render his service as the Under Secretary and Deputy Secretary in the Finance Department of the Bihar Government, and Deputy Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Commerce. Between 1971 and 73, he worked as the Secretary (commercial) in the Indian Embassy in Germany and between 1973 and 74, he worked as the Consulate General of India in Frankfurt. In 1977 he was appointed as the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister of Bihar.  From 1980 to 84, he worked as the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Shipping. Under the influence of the socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan, he resigned from Indian Administrative Service in 1984 and joined politics, becoming a member of the Janata Party (JP). In 1986, the party appointed him as its General Secretary, and three years later when Janta Dal (JD) was formed, he was appointed its General Secretary.

In 1988, Sinha became a Member of Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member, and in 1990, Finance Minister of India in the government headed by Chandra Shekhar. Following a split in JD in 1990, he joined Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). Within a few years, Sinha quit SJP to join BJP which appointed him as its national spokesperson in 1996, a responsibility he carried on until 2005. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Bihar as a BJP candidate in 1995 and served as the leader of the opposition in the Bihar Assembly until 1996.

He went back to Lok Sabha in 1999 and became Finance Minister until he was appointed as the Minister for External Affair in 2002. Once again, he became a Rajya Sabha Member in 2005. He resigned from BJP in 2018 and joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2021.   

Talking about Sinha, the joint statement issued by the opposition parties said, “In his long and distinguished career in public life, Sinha has served the nation in various capacities — as an able administrator, accomplished parliamentarian and acclaimed Union Minister of Finance and External Affairs. He is eminently qualified to uphold the secular and democratic character of the Indian Republic and its constitutional values.”

Undoubtedly Sinha has an impressive profile. However, it is not a politically good enough profile in comparison to that of Murmu. Sinha may have the required experience and competence, but Murmu has the identity that can harness the support of certain political parties that will give her a good edge over him. The joint opposition said nothing about Sinha’s identity because it is not good political fodder.

Even though BJP has reached out to people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes over the years in a big way, and these people have been voting for the party at national as well as state elections significantly, it still has an image of being a party of the rich and upper-caste Hindus. Born into a family belonging to the Other Backward Class (OBC), Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s positioning of himself as a tea-seller and a chowkidar, and BJP’s choices for the office of the President of India, a Dalit first and then a tribal serve as a well-calculated Hindutva-backed identity politics subverting the narrative of BJP being a party of the rich and the upper-caste. It also communicates the message that BJP’s religious and cultural nationalism embraces the marginalised sections of society, namely the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The concept of nationalism that emerged out of India’s freedom movement embraced all people, religions, languages, castes and tribes of the country not only as desired and important but also as equal in respect and dignity. Almost all the political activities centred on the Indian Independence movement were largely propelled by the nationalist narrative that ignored the numerous identities of a people for the sake of their single identity as Indians. However, there has always been a parallel nationalist narrative based on identities related to religions.

Both in pre-independence and post-independence India, the Hindus and Muslims have always been conscious of their religious identities and differences. They have also been conscious of their respective majority and minority status. Therefore, to strengthen their rule in India, when the British introduced governance based on democracy in view of including Indians in the government, the Indian Muslims requested separate reserved electorates for their representation in local bodies and legislative councils. The Muslims were of the opinion that in every combined electorate, the Hindus will have the majority and hence, the former would be deprived of genuine political participation with legislative power in their own country unless they have separate reserved electorates based on their religious identity.

It was in this context that the political party, ‘All India Muslim League,’ was born in 1906 for Muslim representation in the British-Indian political system. The British granted their request in 1909 which automatically granted them constitutional recognition of a separate religious community. The idea of the separate electorates eventually resulted in the idea of a separate nation, Pakistan. Since the formation of the ‘All India Muslim League,’ independent India has seen the birth of several political parties based on identity politics.

Even though the march of progress and modernity annihilating people’s affinity towards their divisive identities is the ideal, identity politics takes over the political field as specific interests and demands of different groups of people become the order of the day in most societies. Regardless of whether these interests and demands are legitimate, as political parties begin to exploit the identity dynamics in society, identity politics becomes a political strategy. A group’s assertion that it is an indispensable group significantly different from others with a shared history of neglect, segregation, deprivation or injustice deserving recognition and justice normally defines the logistics of its political strategy. It was this political strategy that the National Front government led by V.P. Singh unveiled in 1990 when it declared that it would provide 27 per cent job reservations to socially and educationally backward classes in central services and public undertakings as per the Mandal Commission recommendations.

Post-independence India is constantly confronted with its people’s identities based on their religion, caste, tribe and language. Identity politics essentially being emancipatory politics, its principles are in consonance with the provisions of the Indian Constitution upholding the inviolability of people’s identities, and the importance of safeguarding them so as to ensure them equal opportunities in every sphere of life. Identity politics can certainly subvert majoritarian ideologies, assert the silenced subaltern narratives, propel the marginalised to the mainstream, provide a voice to the voiceless, guarantee justice to the wronged, and in doing so strengthen democracy. At the same time, it can introduce dangerously divisive ideologies into society, weaken its harmony and cohesiveness, undermine its federal fabric, make its very boon (its rich diversity) appear like a bane, and set one group against another.

The recommendation of the Mandal Commission was along the line of Article 46 of the Constitution which states that “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” However, V P Singh’s announcement of his government’s plan of implementing 27 per cent reservation to socially and educationally backward classes caused much social and political unrest as well as division in Indian society. People belonging to the upper castes of Indian society were vehemently opposed to the implementation of the recommendation. Nevertheless, on 16 August 1992, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the 27 per cent reservation for backward classes.

When the country was simmering in the reservation controversy, BJP decided to throw its hat into Identity politics. The BJP did not want to oppose the reservation and antagonise the OBC community that comprises 52 per cent of the people in the country. At the same time, it did not want to support the reservation and antagonise the upper-caste people. BJP decided to unite the Hindu community, deeply divided on the Mandal controversy, around a Hindu religious identity and consciousness around the dream of constructing a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri Masjid. In September 1990, L K Advani, the then-president of the BJP, undertook the controversial Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya carrying an axe, a sword, a trishul, a bow and an arrow — obvious symbols of violence and war, not of peace.  Though aborted on the way, the Ram Rath Yatra united the Hindus against the Muslims leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. That was identity politics par excellence.

Since 1992, Indian politics has only been getting increasingly dominated by identity politics. While identity politics may be seen as a sign of greater political participation of people, especially the subaltern people, it is also a cause of concern in contemporary Indian politics noticeable even in its Presidential election.  

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