January 2, 2017; New York Times
On Monday, India’s Supreme Court ruled that candidates for political office cannot appeal to voters on the basis of religion, caste, community, or language. The Court maintained that India is a secular country, and these categories are therefore irrelevant to the political process.
The ruling stated, “Religion has no role in electoral process, which is a secular activity. Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible.”
The statement sounds like a step toward a balanced political system, an effort to provide a more equal opportunity for able candidates without strong support from a particular religious community.
However, that rule may prove to be minimally practical in a country where religious and community identity is the strongest political factor for a significant portion of the population.
India is home to a dizzying variety of ethnic and religious identities. There are six major religions listed on the Indian census, plus over seven million people who do not practice one of those six religious. There are 14 official languages with hundreds of dialects, and even Hindi, which is the most prominent language, is not spoken by a majority. There are 35 states and thousands of ethnic and tribal groups.
Ethnic and religious identities have played a significant role in shaping Indian history. India is a composite of previously independent states that have undergone various combinations and alliances over the centuries; the current borders are less than 100 years old. In addition to the famously horrific wars during the partition between India and Pakistan and the ongoing conflict over ownership of Kashmir, a number of riots and attempted ethnic cleansings have kept communal wounds fresh since independence in 1947.
Of India’s six major political parties, four are secular and two are Hindu nationalist. The latter includes India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close links to the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In fact, India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi of the BJP, is widely accused of having allowed religious riots in Gujarat to take place in 2002, when he was the Gujarati Chief Minister. More than one thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in the riots.
Political leaders have not expressed much faith in this resolution. “If this judgment is taken literally, then pretty much every single party in India could be disqualified,” said Ashok Malik, a fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
On occasion, identity-based politics are a tool for good in India. For instance, the Indian parliament maintains quotas for underrepresented groups like Muslims, who are only 13.4 percent of the population. Studies have shown that better Muslim representation in government “leads to large and significant improvements in child survival rates and improvements in educational attainment.” The Dalit, or Untouchable, caste is also allotted a quota of 84 seats in the national parliament.
The Times of India claimed that “identity-based political movements as exemplified by the Dalit-centric BSP or the Tamil-based DMK aren’t negative in themselves. In fact, these political movements have helped sections of society that have felt marginalized highlight their grievances.”
In India, as elsewhere, identity politics are a reliable source of political capital when candidates’ abilities to publicize their platforms or personally reach their constituents are limited.
In 2015, only 22 percent of Indian adults had access to the Internet, due to lack of both infrastructure and affordability. And even if they had access to candidates’ websites and political news, 35 percent of India’s towns and villages have literacy rates below 50 percent. How do you argue on the issues when half of the people voting for you don’t have easy access to information?
The efforts of India’s government and its longtime ruling party, the Indian National Congress, to secularize politics and govern without regard to religion or status go back to Independence. National leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi struggled to unify India’s communities and promote national identity. The recent ruling by India’s Supreme Court is a nod to their efforts and to the desire for peace and equality that many Indians share. However, to enforce that ruling, they will need the support of politicians who rely on community identities for support. We may see a new kind of campaign and some new candidates in the next election.—Erin Rubin