Can misuse of ‘religion & caste’ in polls become a reality?

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

The two key institutions of democracy, Supreme Court and Election Commission, have given their ruling against religion and caste based pre-poll campaigning with utter disregard to ground reality.

Before, the ink would dry up on their directives, Sakshi Maharaj, the BJP firebrand MP, has invoked religion whilst addressing a group of “Sadhus” assembly for Temple inauguration. Promptly, an FIR has been filed against Sakshi Maharaj. Will it stop political leaders from invoking religion and castes to be the centerpiece of pre poll campaigning?

Both the Supreme Court and the EC are living in a “fool’s paradise” or fooling themselves only.

India is a highly conservative society – religion and castes are deeply embedded in the psyche of people. They play a vital role in promoting and consolidating “group consciousness or cohesiveness” and a shared purpose. Like the proverbial “Cat” having nine lives, even religion and castes will spring up to life at the time of elections at all levels in both covert and overt forms.

Academically, the relation between religions, castes and politics is well established. Some sort of separation between them is an ideal quite difficult to achieve and sustain. Remember minority groups are increasingly resorting to communal and caste politics to gain political rights and entitlements.

Of course, secularism as practiced in India is a bogey and fraud.  What is clearly in vogue is   appeasement politics instead of real secularism – tolerance and respect for others religions and castes.

Even in a highly developed nation like the USA, religion and race played a key part in electing Donald Trump as its President.

Everyone is aware that hate speech can spread wider social unrest. A hard line approach is usually opted to curb such xenophobic menace. Yet, it has failed to stop political parties and leaders from invoking religion and castes – two trump cards – for winning elections, particularly in UP?

Admittedly, India is facing extraordinarily complex crises and conflicts. In reality, not a single day passes without separatist/secessionist, communal, caste and class conflicts engulfing the society.

With increasing uncertainty confronting people due to lack of job opportunities, economic hardship, and demographic transitions (population explosion, migrations and identity crises), people generally seek solace in religion and caste in the Indian milieu.  Add to it, increasing glamorization of religions and castes under political patronage resulting in polarization on narrow sectarian lines.

And, political leadership and parties have been exploiting such shifts to gain power by mobilizing public support by rallying around under sectarian lines to stop cultural and social change.

Indian politics, just as American politics, is profoundly corrupt; and its processes are a sham. The real fight is over identity, morality, and religion. They just cannot be eliminated what with a wide range of ethno nationalist parties, religious parties, and secessionist/separatist parties in the fray.

Stating the obvious, democracy in practice is a rigged system in which money, muscle power and special interests manipulate public opinions for the benefit of the few. They indulge in outright lies or disinformation promising the ‘moon’ to the people.

In sum, Indian democracy is decaying. All democratic institutions stand corrupted. Populism and appeasement are getting consolidated. Laws have no place. Civil society is yet to gain a robust place.

So, mere directives by the Supreme Court or the Election Commission cannot prevent religion and castes determining final electoral outcomes. A look at the distribution of tickets on communal basis in UP reveals the reality. In retrospect, merely passing idealistic/theoretical directives will not deter political leaders and parties from invoking them. It glaringly exposes intellectual bankruptcy.

Is representative democracy best suited for the chemistry of the Great Indian Society which is vertically and horizontally divided? The fundamental incompatibility should be glaringly obvious.

Factually, democracy is least suited to India’s chemistry – pluralist society divided on multi racial, multi ethnic, multi religious and multi caste lines. Let me cull out the political/practical of wisdom of democracy by many sages from mankind’s history in support of my premise.

One, Winston Churchill stated “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Two, “Democracy”, as per Will Durant, means “Worship” of mediocrity” and hatred of excellence. No wonder, Indian democracy favors those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.

Three, Rousseau stated that the size and chemistry of the society often decides the nature of the government. Since a government is only as strong as the people, and this strength is absolute, the larger the territory, the more strength the government must be able to exert over the populace.

Four, Socrates had argued that democratic leaders were by definition dishonest, and intellectuals of all kinds insisted that instead of pooling citizens’ knowledge to find the least-bad outcomes, democracy pooled their ignorance to find the exact opposite.

Above reflections are truly relevant to democracy as it has been practiced during the past 67 years, which has thrown up self servicing persons as leaders. Not only Indian democracy is messy, but in a dire and distress situation which can only be resolved by a dynamic, decisive and bold leadership.

Ironic but true, narrow parochial sentiments like race, religion, class and castes govern the voting behavior of people. Its reason is simple. People get carried away by false promises or else have no clue what they’re doing. Surely, grand sentiments can’t sustain politics by themselves.

On the larger global plane, political observers believe that democracy is in retreat. Populism and illiberalism is on the rise. The enemies of democracy are growing bolder by the day. Liberal values such as transparency, rule of law, accountability and respect for human dignity are being widely trampled. Autocrats and even some politicians openly traffic in fear, xenophobia and paranoia. Abuse of power is on grand display. The best examples are France and Turkey.

Nowadays, confronted by Islamist terrorism and the influx of refugees, European nations care a damn about democracy. They are making people to view “civil liberties and human rights” as a luxury in today’s global terrorist onslaught. Their hardliners believe that freedom of speech should be treated as yet another danger to the system. For example, after November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, free speech in Europe have been hit from all sides. Bloggers suffer arrests for something as simple as a tweet. Egypt too has cracked down on digital dissidents.

Finally, 2015, according to latest annual survey by Walker, is the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The tyrants of today are more sophisticated than those of the past; rather than outright totalitarianism; they erect a facade of democracy and subvert it from within. They hold elections that are not competitive, use government-approved shell groups to edge out genuine civil society, pass laws outlawing free association and speech, and force the news media into submission by pulling the strings of the owners and editors.

Even the Islamic State, the most illiberal regime, is using social media to radicalize, recruit and terrorize. Even in South Asia, they are making an aggressive foray to gain and consolidate.  Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage.

So, what is road map ahead for democracy to thrive in Indian context given the larger global developments? Lack of political consensus on electoral reforms is real. So, it is best left to people to take the final call. In retrospect, what is needed in whichever political ideology or order India follows in posterity is enlightened leadership – decisive and dynamic – with a vision for the future course of India to traverse.

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