The best thing about democracy is that it provides options to the zero-sum game where the winner takes all. Even the losers, in a democracy, retain their right to participate in decision making and benefit from state actions. We have seen too little democracy in India; the largest and the developing World’s best functioning democracy, and too many zero sum games being played.
One such game revolves around identity. Why is India still stuck in traditional identity models based on religion and caste? Babasahib Ambedkar’s big fear was that decentralization would further deepen these traditional identities by entrenching elite power, whilst centralized democracy, guided by more evolved minds, could pave the way to a more liberal future for the marginalized. The literature suggests that, perversely, centralized democracy has actually strengthened traditional identities across the board, rather than substituted them with more modern identities.
Dravida politics in Tamil Nadu; Dalit and backward caste politics in the North has led to political empowerment, which is welcome. But entrenchment of caste identity runs contrary to the aspirations of modernity, principally since caste is a non-meritocratic classification. One either belongs or does not. It bungs citizens into a static identity framework and denies them the right to choose and develop alternative non-traditional identities.
India inherited the Muslim “identity” issue from the colonial mindset, which used it to its advantage. The acrimony and violence of the partition strengthened the divide. But the “Hindu pride” movement of the BJP/RSS in the 1990’s sharpened the cleavage. Whilst provoking the less liberal it assuaged the guilt of the liberal Hindu and encouraged them to merge their Hindu identity with their politics. The Indian tricolor has both saffron and green. But Hindus rarely don the latter, whilst Muslims rarely use the former.
Sikh identity was just a mix of bravado, large heartedness, the absence of religious bias, a preference for chicken tikka and deliciously hot langar, available for anyone, in Gurudwaras. Till the events leading to 1984, Sikhs were integral to the Hindu tent. Today their children shave their beards to join and the Akali Dal is the dominant party in Punjab.
Focusing on identity, for short term political gain, is a zero sum game. Identity is the last refuge of political mediocrity. Parties, which are bankrupt in ideology and short on demonstrated success, are the ones most likely to use “traditional identity” as a means to gain political support.
Modi is demonstratedly keen to get away from the popular perception of being a “Hindu nationalist” but it is not easy unless the BJP dilutes its links with the RSS. Modi cannot win without the fringe Hindu and Muslim, urban vote. But the fringe voter is unlikely to support a deepening of traditional identity.
Muslims increasingly have an urban presence. They are functionally integrated into the lucrative, crafts based export and machining industry and pervasive in informal, skill-based employment thereby building social capital within urban communities. But outside Gujrat, Muslims view Modi only through the lens of Hindu identity politics.
Modi will, consequently, be denied a significant section of the urban vote, which should naturally have accrued to him since Modinomics is primarily, an urban vision. This illustrates the self-defeating character of identity politics. The decline of the Congress is another example of a self-goal. The Congress built its support based on identity politics since the 1970s. But once Muslims, upper caste Hindus and Dalits were weaned away by more efficient, identity based parties, the Congress floundered.
Unfortunately, India’s newest party; the AAP is also engaged in a zero-sum game. This game is about exposing the corrupt. Kejriwal must appreciate that voicing the demands of the Aam Admi does not have to be done in the shrill, make or break confrontationist form, he has adopted. It may get him media attention to denigrate Najeeb Jung, the courtly, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, but it is unlikely to get him votes. Just as Mani’s diatribe against Modi’s chai serving past, has floored Mani, whilst elevating Modi.
Gandhi stood out as a negotiator by being an accomplished “incrementalist”, not by presenting a zero-sum fait accompli. What distinguished him, from those he led, was his ability to be firm but civil and eager to first explore if incremental change could happen, within the four corners of the existing law. Enacting a law is no assurance that the desired outcomes will follow. Making the enactment of a law as the fulcrum of a government’s achievement is the lazy politician’s route to populism and a zero sum approach to governance. We have lately seen too many such attempts.
Good governance is about problem solving at the margin, using stealth, guile and innovation with an eye out for maximizing value for money. It is not about proclaiming a grand vision of “total revolution”. What citizens value most, is the least disturbance to their daily lives and incremental but steady improvements in the quality of life. Supreme sacrifices by citizens to attain a vision call for conditions to be intolerable. The problem for the politicians of modern India is that life is not insufferable in India even for the poor. Democratic safety valves operate to keep the pot from boiling over. Had it not been so, the Communists and the Maoist would have realized their revolution long ago.
Please Arvind, you don’t need a multi-hull, state-of-the-art catamaran to navigate calm, inland waters. A simple canoe would do as well. Don’t hanker for a nuclear bomb to eliminate a few rodents.