Almost coinciding with the Election Commission of India’s announcement of dates for elections to five State Assemblies, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People’s Act (RPA) in Abhiram Singh v/s C.D. Comachen (dead) by Lrs and Ors. (Civil Appeal No. 37/1992) seems destined to be honoured more in the breach. The Supreme Court ruled that politicians cannot invoke religion, race, caste, community or language to seek a mandate from voters, and that such practice would result in annulment of the election.
The day after the ruling and before the ECI announcement of dates, which kicks in the model code of conduct, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati addressed a press conference wherein she advised Muslims not to split their votes (between non-BJP parties) and added that her Scheduled Caste votebank would not be swayed by hollow promises (from rival parties).
In this manner, caste and religion, the cornerstones of our electoral politics since 1947, were matter-of-factly invoked by India’s most openly caste-based political party (BSP was founded by late Kanshi Ram to consolidate lower caste votes). The party is struggling to stay in the reckoning in the critical state of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due next month.
Mayawati helpfully explained her political sums: The Samajwadi Party is on the verge of a split, so Muslims should not divide and waste their vote on either segment. Despite making such explicit statements, she denied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charge that she believes in caste-based politics and claimed that the BSP has distributed tickets to all castes based on the concept of Sarvjan Hitaya (well-being of all). Thus, Muslims have been allotted 97 tickets, Scheduled Castes 87, OBCs 106, and Upper Castes 113. Mayawati added that the BSP has supported finance-based reservations for upper castes, Muslims, and other religious minorities in Parliament.
The BSP intends to exploit emotive caste issues such as the suicide of Hyderabad student Rohit Vemula, whose caste identity has been a matter of dispute between his biological parents; and the undeniably shameful incident of lynching of Dalits in Una, Gujarat. The BSP supremo disparaged the Prime Minister’s launch of the Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) App, named after Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, to promote cashless transactions, and remains critical of the demonetisation programme.
The Bharatiya Janata Party proposes to fight the polls on the twin planks of demonetisation and the post-Uri surgical strike in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir – both emotive and highly secular subjects with no caste connotations. Its rivals are expected to be dismissive of both.
Of all political parties, the BSP is emphatic that Caste is a socio-political institution with deep roots in the hoary origins of Hindu society; it admits that economic deprivation is not co-terminus with caste ranking. It is undeniable that low social ranking has caused deep scars in society; even monotheistic faiths discriminate against lower caste converts.
Beginning with Untouchability, many social, economic and cultural issues have a pronounced caste angle and cannot be addressed without acknowledging caste. This is evident in recent demands for extension of Other Backward Classes (OBC) quotas to landowning, regionally-dominant castes, most notably Jats in Rajasthan and Haryana, and Patidars in Gujarat. Each agitation was deliberately violent and posed serious challenges to the respective States.
Legitimate or otherwise, the demands were framed around the issue of caste identity and deprivation, and mitigation efforts (offers of reservations within State quotas, mostly unsuccessful) have to be framed in the same language. If persons contesting elections are denied the right to address citizens’ concerns regarding perceived injustices faced by them and originating in religion, race, caste, community or language, it would “reduce democracy to an abstraction,” as Justice D.Y. Chandrachud pointed out in the dissenting judgment.
The issue of reservations in educational institutions and government employment are at the heart of the politicisation of caste but has not been touched in the Supreme Court verdict; yet it threatens to cancel elections if votes are sought in the name of caste.
Reservations in educational institutions, especially in coveted courses like medicine and engineering, include lowering qualifying standards. Students are pushed by ambitious parents to take admission but cannot manage the academic pressure; they either fail or even commit suicide. The seat for that term thus goes waste. But there is no rethinking regarding the worth of a degree (if finally secured) if the doctor or engineer it produces is not good enough.
Worse, in recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that seats for which reservation quotas cannot be filled in a particular year are to be carried over the next year, and not released into general quota. This has intensified caste tensions in society like no other measure. The position is similar with government jobs, and these issues have made reservations a ticking time bomb.
The nomenclature of parties like the Akali Dal and All India Muslim League is possibly the least of the problems, for innocuously named parties like the Popular Front of India are far more lethal. But parties that seek to redress regional pride such as the Telugu Desam founded by cine star NT Rama Rao, or seek a separate state, such as K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi, also become illegitimate under this sweeping interpretation of electoral malpractice. It makes free speech virtually impossible.
This raises questions regarding the enforceability of the Supreme Court ruling. Although Mayawati’s press conference was covered live on television, neither the Supreme Court, senior lawyers, or any political party deigned to censure her breach of judicial diktat. Prime Minister Modi, at a huge rally in Lucknow, only said, “Will politics stoop so low? Why were some people troubled when we launch a mobile app after Bhimrao Ambedkar?”
Caste is too complex to be tackled by simple bans. Also, blatant appeals to religion, caste and other parochial loyalties have always been prohibited and there is no dispute regarding the Supreme Court’s attempt to lift politics above narrow identities. However, though the RPA specifically bans inducing voter(s) to choose or reject a particular candidate under spiritual or community censure, not one word of criticism has been ever uttered when the Catholic Church repeatedly exhorts citizens to vote in a particular way in States where the community has substantial presence. Such issues raise legitimate fears that the ruling may be implemented by cherry picking rather than by a reasoned understanding of what constitutes genuine electoral malpractice.
First published The Pioneer, Sparing the Caste root, and striking at the tree
1. Rethinking caste - why it cannot be so one dimensional
2. Caste as social capital
3.The truth about caste
4. Demystifying caste