NEERA CHANDHOKE | 20 MARCH, 2017
NEW DELHI: In a parliamentary democracy, and particularly in a federal system, elections happen to be a recurring feature of the body politic. Witness India, a country which is permanently in a election mode. Barely is one election over, that political parties begin to chart out strategies for the next one, and the media begins to speculate who will win and who will lose.
The elections results in Uttar Pradesh should hardly, therefore, cause political anxiety. A government has been chosen for five years, and after five years it will be up for examination, renewal, or dismissal by the electorate. The scale of the mandate might give cause for comment, but hopefully the media has, by now, run out of hyperboles to describe the magnitude of the victory.
This is, of course not the first time a political party has been elected on such a massive mandate. In 1984 the Congress under Rajeev Gandhi won 404 seats in a 533 member Lok Sabha. The Telugu Desam Party under N.T.R Rama Rao came a distant second, securing but a meagre 30 seats. Because India lacked hysterical television anchors, and 24x7 news channels, the visual media could not go into an overdrive.
Still there is tremendous cause for concern.
The 2017 U.P election has catapulted serious issues onto the centre stage of politics. A political party has won an absolute majority, but at what cost? Think of what incendiary rhetoric, and ruthless, soulless, irresponsible strategies do to the collective sensibilities of the Indian people. What is their impact on modes of living together, and on civility that has been created out of the experience of sharing common lives and livelihoods?
In 1984, the Congress played up the martyrdom of Indira Gandhi, and sought to legitimise the horrific violence wreaked upon innocent Sikhs after the assassination of the Prime Minister.
The BJP has won in Uttar Pradesh, but the people of the benighted state are going to pay a heavy price for this victory. Scholarly research shows that people in some regions of the state exhibit a degree of social prejudice against members of other communities. This is part of the sociological process of defining one’s own community as distinctive, simply because it is not like the ‘other’. Members of community X can hold that they have little in common with members of community Y, or that both communities think differently, believe in different Gods, and belong to different cultures. These differences preclude sociability.
But this does not imply that people inflict ritual violence upon the bodies of their neighbours, their co-workers, their associates, the consumers of goods they produce, and their friends from other religious communities. History has shown that in many regions, people through the practices of everyday life establish commonalities based on solidarities in the workplace, recognition of belonging to a common history, shared love for music and folklore, and collective worship at shrines of Sufi saints.
For instance, hardly any member of the majority Muslim population of the town of Malerkotla in Punjab migrated to Pakistan. Malerktola has not witnessed a single case of a communal riot during and after the Partition, simply because its citizens respect their oral tradition, and together worship at the shrine of the founder of the town.
The translation from social prejudice to rank communalism and violence invariably demands a trigger. This trigger is provided by organisations that thrive on excavating historical memories of conflict. The process is accelerated when political parties employ inflammable rhetorical devices to polarise entire communities.
Recollect the Prime Minister’s electoral speech in UP, in which he contrasted the spatial reach of kabristans to that of shamshan ghats. PM Narendra Modi, we are told, has studied political science. He ought to be familiar with the basic lesson of democratic theory, that elected representatives have the responsibility of providing the preconditions of a good life to their constituents.
We vote for candidates because we hope that they will establish the prerequisites of a life that is lived with dignity-employment, health, education, housing, sanitation and nutrition. Should we be voting for candidates who focus on debating how much space should be allotted to cremation grounds versus burial grounds? The turn in political discourse is astonishing, it speaks of the dead but not of those who strive to eke out a living in hostile and crippling circumstances, and of those who strive for a community in which all can live with mutual respect and dignity.
Perhaps the focus on burial grounds is not so astonishing, because morbid visions of land grabs for burial grounds, forms part of an old Hindutva agenda. Nevertheless, in a precariously balanced society, such language and the political imaginary that it conjures, triggers off hatred and animosity.
Resultantly the precarious balance, which has been authored by religious communities, is subverted. Instead of conceiving and working to create a society in which people who worship different Gods, who speak different languages, and who subscribe to different notions of the good can live together peacefully, our politicians foment and nurture the politics of odious divisiveness.
The intention of the BJP to intensify polarisation among the people, has been given an explicit turn by the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, as Chief Minister. He has acquired an ignoble reputation as a Muslim baiter, and reportedly his followers intentionally escalate everyday conflicts into serious instances of communal violence. That a man who has gained notoriety for his hate-filled speeches is the Chief Minister of the state, is the second blatant violation of the basic norm of democratic theory.
Once elected, the candidate who has garnered the largest number of votes is expected to represent all her constituents, not only the one’s that voted for her. Given C.M Yogi Adityanath’s record as a Muslim hater, is he capable of representing the interests, the needs, and the opinions of the largest minority in U.P?
The prospect seems remote, and the future appears bleak. Democrats have grave cause for worry. By appointing a man with a tarnished reputation as the Chief Minister of a major Indian state, the party leadership has not only thumbed its nose at secularism, but also democracy.
There is a third norm of constitutional democracy that has been violated by the appointment of the Yogi to power; secularism. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws. Article 15 (1) assures that there shall be no discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Article 16 (2) reiterates non-discrimination in matters relating to employment or appointment to any state office. Article 25 (1) grants the right to freedom of religion subject to public morality and health. Taken together these articles commit that all Indian citizens have the right to their religion.
Strictly speaking we do not need secularism to grant the right to religion. Nor do we need secularism to mandate that no religion will be discriminated against. Both these rights are protected by democracy.
Secularism establishes that the state shall not be aligned to one religion, which by that attribute becomes the state religion. This combination destroys equality between religious communities, and violates the right to freedom. In 1958, Justice Venkatarama Ayyar (J) in an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court re the Kerala Education Bill reminded us, that the time when sovereigns imposed their own religion on their subjects in the middle ages witnessed civil wars.
Many centuries later it came to be recognised that freedom of religion is not incompatible with good citizenship and loyalty to the state, and that all progressive societies should respect the religious beliefs of their minorities. This is a fundamental precept of constitutional morality. In appointing a known agent of Hindutva and a communalist as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has defied basic constitutional morality.
And this brings me to the final point; the ultimate irony of our times. The BJP does not seem to recognise its own accomplishment in taking over power at the centre, and in many of the states. Rather than going ahead with its agenda of development and governance, howsoever bare these agendas might be, it is obsessed with two things.
It is strange indeed that the BJP has to yet acquire the confidence to govern India in the way Indians deserve, because it is fixated with Nehru, and with what its trolls call ‘sickularists’. To do so, it compromises the basic tenets of democracy that a ruling party is bound by the constitution, by the rule of law, and by the fundamental rights chapter in the Constitution.
In its obsessive desire to undermine India’s secularism, the BJP has landed up destroying institutions, beliefs, practices and the protection offered by the Constitution. The leaders have taken political discourse to a new low. We hear with sadness the death knells of democratic constitutionalism. The appointment of this dodgy Yogi to a position of constitutional power is the last nail in the coffin to which constitutional democracy has been consigned.
(Neera Chandhoke is National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and was formerly Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi.)