Years ago, I met an American Professor of Political Science who had an interest in Indian politics. He argued with me that in affluent, educated western societies, people voted based on their interests and their ideas, not on identities. Therefore, you could not and did not have political parties based on caste, language, religion, and ethnicity, which was the rule in more “primitive” countries such as India. At that time, I nodded in agreement and devoutly prayed that in the not-so-distant future, my own country would become less primitive.
Today, I have a different view.
Identity-based vote banks are the rule in democracies everywhere. It was a remarkably successful conjurer’s trick on the part of western political scientists to convince us that their voters were not tribal, but members of classes, and adherents of intellectually supple ideologies. At least in India, we openly acknowledge that we are supporters of Jat, Yadav, Mahar, Brahmin, Rajbongshi, Bhutia, Lepcha, Chitpavan Brahmin, Jatav, Maratha, Vokkaliga, Lingayat, Dravidian, Rajput, Muslim, Ashraf, Ajlaf, Azral, Christian, Catholic, Goan Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentacostal, Hindu, Ahom, Saraswat, Nair, Ezhava, Thiyya, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, Pathare Prabhu, Sikh, Jat-Sikh, Mazhabi, Mushahir, Vanniyar, Thevar, Pasmanda, Gounder, Passi, Kuruba, Banjara. The list seems to have no end.
The outreach strategies of the two leading Indian parties may appear dissimilar, but on closer examination, may not in fact be all that different. The Congress has for many years now tried to be a rainbow party with multiple groups inside a broad tent. This worked for a long period. But over time, the Congress lost the support of dominant caste groups in different parts of the country. The Yadavs, the Jats, the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats come to mind as examples. But many others stayed with the Congress.
The BJP is accused by many of being a party that promotes homogeneity. In reality, it is the BJP which has tried to create a new kind of rainbow, supporting the revival of interest in leaders like Suheldev, Lachit Barphukan and Birsa Munda and recognising and encouraging diversity within a larger nationalist umbrella. In the Nagpur session of the Congress, Mahatma Gandhi argued that promoting separate linguistic identities within the pre-Independence Congress would strengthen the national movement. Clearly, the BJP has learnt its political lessons well from the Mahatma.
The economic damage to White working class
In the ‘free’ and ‘brave’ United States, why are poorer White working-class people voting for the Republicans? It occurred to me that they should be called “former working class” White folks. When working classes have no ‘work’, they ought to become ‘former’.
Clinton pushed through Nafta and China’s entry into the WTO — sadly, Dubya (George W. Bush) acquiesced. And these elite globalist projects hurt workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. All far from New York, which Hilary chose to represent. Not satisfied with hurting their livelihoods, Hilary told mid-western Whites that they were “deplorables” and Obama told them that they were “simple”.
You decimated them economically. They would probably have lived with it. After all, a hundred years ago, the US moved millions of people away from farms into squalid neighborhood next to polluting factories. But you didn’t stop at just making them work in such factories. You also insulted their psyche, their culture. Why should one be surprised when a Republican senator in the mid-west writes an autobiography in which he describes his family members as being part of the White opioid-addicted ex-working-class? Identity matters. In fact, identities almost entirely define democratic politics.
For more than five decades now, the Southern white middle and lower classes have become a Republican vote bank and African Americans all over the US are voting for the Democrats. This has been particularly costly for African Americans. If Republicans are convinced that whatever they do, they will not get votes from the Blacks, then there is no incentive for them to adopt policies that may favour African Americans. What is worse is that the Republicans may cease to have any interest in spurning White racist extremists who have gravitated into their support base. This has pretty much happened.
A more intelligent strategy that African American leaders could and should have adopted is to have split their support across both parties so that no one takes them for granted. I would argue that Muslim leaders in India should now start making inroads into the BJP.
Indian Muslims and the US learning
If the BJP feels that Muslims will never vote for them, it is the Muslims who are the bigger losers, not the party. Sensible and sensitive Muslim leaders in India today should learn from the mistakes of the leadership of African Americans and respond positively to the BJP’s overtures to Pasmanda Muslims, who in any event constitute eighty to ninety per cent of Indian Muslims.
In this context, the Muslims can learn a lesson from Indian Christians too. While most Indian Christians before Independence were perceived as pro-British, a prominent section of them, led by figures like Father Jerome D’Souza, consciously cultivated and supported the Congress. This ensured disproportionate representation and importance for them in independent India’s Constituent Assembly. Even today, while many upper-class Indian Christians are either suspicious of the BJP or are influenced by Leftist ideologies to oppose the former, important sections of Kerala’s Syrian Christian community are leaning toward the BJP. The Bohra community among Muslims also seems to have adopted a similar approach.
The permutations and combinations that are permitted and possible within a democratic set-up never cease to amaze. Such adjustments and accommodations are unthinkable in authoritarian countries. In any event, all groups should learn from the mistakes of African American leaders. Even here, the emergence of spokespersons such as Candace Owens shows that Democrats should not take their vote bank for granted.
The LGBTQ groups in the U.S. have exhibited greater pragmatism than African Americans. In a recent vote in the US House of Representatives, several Republicans voted in favour of gay marriages. This happened despite the Republican Party being beholden to radical Christian groups who have religious objections to gay marriages. The fact that of the extremely wealthy gay millionaires have donated substantial sums to the Republican Party has not gone unnoticed.
The recent overtures of the RSS chief, and the government’s conferring of Padma Awards on persons belonging to transgender community are all opportunities and openings within the larger BJP tent, which the LGBTQ leaders should capitalise upon. Leftist parties, which are beholden to the Muslim or Christian clergy, may hesitate to openly support the LGBTQ community. At least for now, the BJP appears to be a better bet.
Irrespective of what my learned American Political Science Professor said to me years ago, the fact is that ‘identity’ matters and it matters very much in democratic dispensations. There are challenges and opportunities on both the demand and supply sides of the equation. Political parties need to cultivate multiple identity groups while not simultaneously alienating the core groups that support them. Identity groups need to make sure they are able to bargain and leverage their support with multiple parties and not allow just one outfit to take for granted. Becoming a reliable vote bank is just not smart.
Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)