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India's diversity in diversity

By Ashutosh Varshney
April 27, 2009 14:08 IST
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Two points about the current elections ought to be noted. First, a rather large number of parties, campaigning for votes, may give the appearance of chaos on the surface, but there is a dominant narrative that ties up the loose political threads. The central issue in these elections is: how will India's power structure accommodate the nation's key diversities? Second, though the overall political prognosis is confusing, some of the basic policies that will emerge are easily predictable.

The first issue - political incorporation of diversities - has, of course, never left India's political process. Using politics to knit together a highly diverse nation has been a significant cornerstone of Indian democracy. Historically, India has had four underlying social diversities: language, tribe, religion and caste.

The first two are geographically concentrated; the last two are present all over the country. Federalism is the main mechanism through which India has handled its geographically-centred diversities. However, because of their national spread, caste and religion do not submit themselves to a federal solution. Affirmative action for lower castes and personal laws for religious minorities have been the principal methods of political accommodation.

In the ongoing elections, though all these diversities are playing a role, the primarily lower caste parties are especially important. Some like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are regional in scope, while others like the Bahujan Samaj Party are showing signs of national ambition. The BSP is running from more seats than even the Congress and BJP individually. And both the SP and RJD have demonstrated unexpected assertiveness.

To understand these parties in terms of the political ambitions of their leaders alone is inadequate. Even the most overtly ambitious politicians must mobilise voting constituencies. Metropolitan India has no experience of how caste operates in small towns and rural India, which constitute over 85 per cent of the country.

Outside India's big cities, lower castes have been ill-treated for a very long time, and lower caste parties have historically sought to change that through the use of State power. Depending on the region their fight is against the upper castes or the upper OBCs.

Poverty is not just a low-income category in India. For most poor people, it comes with the denial of human dignity.

The largest proportion of the poor in India has historically come from the Dalits, OBCs and adivasis, groups that have customarily suffered humiliation and discrimination in a vertical Hindu social order. Being treated badly is not the same as being poor, and that's why the politics of poverty has taken the form of the politics of dignity. To describe its political thrust, every lower caste party has always used some version of the term samman ki raajniti (politics of prestige). (In the US, when issues like this arose with respect to the African Americans, it was called the politics of civil rights.)

Sooner or later, democracy privileges numbers. The numerous lower castes are now exercising their democratically acquired political muscle. Achieving political power in South India since the 1950s and 1960s, the lower caste parties have also made a serious political entry in the North over the last two decades.

Moreover, since each region mostly speaks a different language, these parties have fragmented the country's party system. But they are not simply important in the regions; they are now playing a significant role in the formation of a national government.

Basically, little Indias are trying to negotiate their overall place in the larger India.

Until India is 50 per cent urban and/or it reaches a per capita income of $5,000, which is a serious possibility in the next 15 years, the 'little India' pressures in politics will continue. Until then, the two national parties will have to find ways of incorporating the democratically-induced plebeian thrust.

Unlike post-Mao China, India's villages are not yet part of the bustling Indian economy that the world has celebrated over the last ten years and will take some time to get there. Their relative lack of incorporation in rising urban incomes leads to the continuing influence of lower caste parties. Regional lower caste parties are India's version of plebeian politics.

However, regardless of which government comes to power, or its composition, India's foreign and economic policy will remain basically unaltered - just like under the Third Front government during 1996-98. There is no fundamental political dispute in India over the country's new economic and foreign policy direction. Serious changes in these two policy realms can be expected only if the communists become central to the next government.

For economic policy, that means embrace of markets, with regulations; and for foreign policy, the new consensus favours friendship with the US, albeit with hiccups, as the basic national interests of India and the US are increasingly beginning to converge.

India's big disputes are, and will be, over religion and caste.

The three most wrenching political issues in the near future can be easily predicted: whether affirmative action should be expanded to the private sector; whether India should pay special attention to better integrating its Muslims in the socio-economic mainstream; and whether propagation of religious ideas and conversion can be free and without constraints, as the Constitution currently permits. These disputes will require political adroitness.

Fundamentally, elections in India are no longer about policy disputes. They have become an occasion for various communities to negotiate a better space in the power structure. Policy discussions acquire seriousness after elections are over and governments come to power.

Ashutosh Varshney is Professor of Political Science, Brown University. His latest book is Midnight's Diaspora. This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times.
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2009

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