Only a party that combines governance with a welfare agenda that is inclusive of social identities such as Dalits, OBCs, minorities and women can surge ahead in the coming elections

One of the key issues that occupy voter imagination with regard to the coming elections is the tension between identity and governance in Indian democracy. Most of the political parties, especially national parties, are claiming to have moved to a governance paradigm as against the mobilisation of social groups on the basis of a ‘narrow’ identity. The Congress claims to have introduced a new discourse on ‘good governance’ with the introduction of economic reforms; the BJP under Narendra Modi is projecting governance to induce growth, prosperity and higher GDP as a solution to many evils plaguing the nation; and the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party says it has introduced a post-identity and post-ideology politics to strengthen democracy by way of foregrounding corruption as an issue concerning all castes, classes and regions.

What exactly was the problem with identity politics? India has seen an exponential growth of identity politics in the last two decades. While it mobilised the marginalised, it ushered in piecemeal changes and introduced competitive mobilisation by different social groups leading to sectarianism and identity-fetishism. This has led to the creation of new social elites among the hitherto marginalised social groups such as Dalits and Muslims, leaving behind the bulk of the population in whose name the specific identity groups are mobilised. It is these elites who then make demands of their own such as the need for ‘Dalit Capitalists,’ unmindful of the fact that such an economy would exploit Dalit labour more than anything else. Further, identity politics entrenches patron-client relations in between the social elites of the identity groups and the rest of the population belonging to those identities.

The worst outcome of sustained identity mobilisation is the proliferation of intra-subaltern conflicts as we have witnessed among the various Dalit sub-castes in Andhra Pradesh, between Dalits and the Other Backward Classes in Khairlanji in Maharashtra, and between the OBCs and Muslims during the recent riots in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. These conflicts are not only replacing the conflict with elites, within and outside their respective groups, but are also making an alliance with social elites possible or rather a necessity to win elections, as is clear from the shift in the BSP’s language — from Bahujan to Sarvajan — making an uncanny alliance between Dalits and Brahmins a viable strategy in Uttar Pradesh. Finally, identity politics has failed to deliver material benefits and open up widescale economic opportunities.

Symbolic mobility

Instead, it has propelled symbolic mobility and psychological empowerment, of the kind displayed by the symbolism of Mayawati, (who installed statues of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar) and Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. While they contribute to ideas of dignity, respect and a sense of the self, and remain important achievements in themselves, cultural mobility invariably leads to demands for a share in the economic resources. This can clearly be observed in the case of Muslims who, especially after the Sachar Committee report, are demanding better educational and employment opportunities. In India, we are strangely witnessing a simultaneous rise of cultural assertion, and economic dispossession, which is what makes our democracy look chaotic and, for some, even unruly. It is for these reasons that there is a new consensus of sorts against the adverse impact of identity politics on Indian democracy among the upwardly mobile professional/urban classes, as well as the rural and urban poor.

While one understands why the new language of Narendra Modi or the AAP has come as a relief for many, we need to ask two follow-up questions. Have political parties and their mobilisations in fact moved beyond identity mobilisation? Is the alternative to identity politics to be found in the language of governance? First, it is a grave exaggeration if one were to believe that political mobilisation has un-problematically moved to a more universal governance paradigm from ‘sectarian’ identity politics. Even a cursory look at all those political leaders who have come to symbolise the discourse of governance will make it evident that it is laced with a ‘liberal’ dose of identity mobilisation.

For instance, Nitish Kumar’s governance is combined with sub-categorisation of the OBCs into the EBCs and the MBCs. Mr. Modi’s corporate governance and growth-centric rhetoric are combined with a deeply polarising discourse against the minorities that he returns to when he alludes to the ‘burqa of secularism’ or claims to being a ‘Hindu nationalist,’ or deliberately compares the minorities to ‘puppies that have come under the wheels.’

It is therefore untenable to imagine that the Modi of 2002 is very different from the Modi of 2012. It is not explicit identity versus governance, as popular discourse has come to perceive, but more of a certain combination of identity with the rhetoric of efficient governance. Similar is the case with the AAP. It has made a pitch for a similar shift to a more identity-blind, transparent and accountable governance, and also cited this as its mobilisational strategy for the elections in Delhi; the most cited case being Shazia Ilmi, a Muslim, contesting from a Hindu dominated constituency (though it is a different matter that it was a one-off case of a prominent face of the AAP losing the elections). Whether it is the composition of the AAP Ministry or the nature of polling where many surveys found Muslims voting in much smaller numbers for the party than others because there weren’t too many Muslim faces in it, identities have not really died out. Identity claims have only moved from claiming exclusive cultural dignity to attempts to combine them with new types of economic opportunities. It is evident in the case of Gujjars demanding the status of STs, or Rajputs wanting to be listed as OBCs. The issue here is not mobility in ritual hierarchy but a share (legitimate or otherwise) in state resources.

Finally, is the alternative to the ills of identity politics to be sought in governance, if it means an exclusive growth-centric strategy that India began with during the phase of liberalisation in the 1990s, which prompted Rob Jenkins to refer to it as ‘reforms by stealth?’ It has since moved to a judicious or otherwise combination of reforms and social welfare policies, such as the Right to Food security, the Land Acquisition Bill, and the Street Vendors Bill, apart from the MGNREGA, riding on which the Congress came back to power in 2009. Or, for that matter, the governments of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have been voted back in the recent elections in 2013 in recognition of the spate of welfare policies that were put in place. Governance as growth has very marginally translated into a trickle-down for the poor, and therefore the need to have more pronounced social welfare policies in place.

Participatory democracy

Having said this, it must be recognised that in spite of ushering in a spate of welfare policies, the prospects for the Congress are rather bleak, precisely because it seems to have failed in delivering and implementing them through effective governance strategies. It lacked transparency and accountability and got caught in a series of high-level scams. This not only makes the government inefficient but also look arrogant in a mood of ‘participatory democracy’ that we are witnessing. Strangely similar is the case with the Left-of Centre parties such as the CPI and the CPI(M) that have continued to raise issues of poverty, ill-effects of FDI on the marginalised, landlessness and displacement, but could neither creatively plug into identity mobilisation nor particularly look accountable and open to dialogue and participatory ethos, which partly explains their declining presence in electoral calculations.

This, however, does not mean we move back to an exclusive growth-centric governance paradigm. Rather, the road ahead is a choice between governance combined with a polarised polity and governance combined with a social-democratic welfare agenda that is inclusive of all social identities such as Dalits, the OBCs, the minorities and women. Identities cannot be undermined or brushed aside, nor can they simply be mobilised for cultural assertion any more without including a concrete and tangible programme of economic empowerment, while governance cannot simply mean growth any more but means the way it contributes through a discourse of accountability, institutional procedures and transparency to widening economic opportunities and a more inclusive democratic order. The chances are wide open, and the party or parties that can effectively combine the two and their new meaning that is taking shape in Indian democracy will, in all probability, surge ahead in the coming elections.

(Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU)

More In: Lead | Opinion