Understanding Identity Politics In Its Latest Avatar
Rather than Ram temple, people talk “development”, but they interpret it in sync with the voting patterns of their caste/community
In eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Sravasti – a place associated with the memories of Buddhism – a farmer questions the Narendra Modi government’s narrative around Pulwama and Balakot.
“It is farmers’ sons who join the army. The question to be asked is how did so many explosives come to Pulwama? What was the Modi government doing?” he asks angrily.
Before one comes to the conclusion that there is anger over the Modi government’s handling of Balakot and Pulwama, one realises the farmer is Yadav by caste.
In Ghazipur, about 300-kilometres to the south-east of Sravasti, a person of the Baniya caste proudly proclaims that Modi hit Pakistan in its own territory. “Ghar mein ghus ke maara (we hit them in their own home),” he says, beaming. Asked about the Goods and Services Tax (GST), he agrees it hit business but adds, “But what is important is the nation. Modi has brought us to the fourth position in the world.”
Asked what exactly India is ranked fourth in, he isn’t clear, but the obvious reference is to the Prime Minister’s TV broadcast of a few weeks back, where he announced that India could now destroy satellites in space, becoming only the fourth nation to do so.
These are not isolated instances.
Throughout UP, people do not discuss the Ram temple but strike conversations on material issues. However, their position on these issues is in sync with the political line of their caste and community.
Development and national interest are strewn in their conversations, but these are filtered through primordial loyalties. There is no sense of a common citizenry. Identity politics comes camouflaged as a debate on essentially “secular” concerns.
Yadavs, Muslims, Jatavs and Jats – the last found only in western UP – attack the Modi government on unemployment, inflation, demonetisation, the plight of farmers and the menace of stray cattle destroying fields.
However, the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and sections of non-Jatav Dalits discuss in gushing terms Modi’s “strong personality”, his apparently having brought India on the world map, the provision of gas cylinders to the poor and the opening of Jan Dhan accounts. They also vaguely speak about the “great work” he has done, without being aware of specifics, and his “clean intentions”, as opposed to a “corrupt opposition”.
Shift in identity politics
Clearly, the neat splitting of votes on caste and community lines points to politics based on primordial lines, something not new to India or UP.
What is new, however -- particularly when compared with the first surge of identity politics in north India about three decades back -- is that identity politics is employing the language of development, national interest and governance.
In other words, these words mean different things to different people. Not that this is entirely unexpected, but the fact remains that these positions are anchored in community voting patterns.
Travelling through UP separately in the 2017 assembly elections, the authors had found that opinions on demonetisation were directly linked to one’s caste or community.
When one asked the name of anyone opposing demonetisation as a move that destroyed livelihoods, in most cases the person was either Yadav or Muslim. And those who said demonetisation was a necessary evil to clean up the economy would be either upper castes or non-Yadav OBCs.
A material issue – particularly one that impacted people in a deep, everyday manner – was made sense of within frames of identity politics.
Identity politics had come into its own in a conspicuous manner in UP – and some other northern and western Indian states – after 1989, as LK Advani launched his Rath Yatra for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. In 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished.
Thirty years on, many commentators believe identity politics exercises immense, and perhaps even deeper, power over large sections of the electorate.
However, what is missed in the debate – something our recent field insights bring out – is that this politics has metamorphosed, as discussed above, from an overt assertion of identities to a more camouflaged, even misleading, articulation of it. In other words, identity politics may have deepened, but it tends to conceal itself in development rhetoric.
It isn’t the same as the first surge of identity politics in 1990-92 in north India. At that time, the identitarian turn was overt: identity politics expressed itself in visible signs of community polarisation and mobilisation, like slogans for a Ram temple at Ayodhya inscribed on walls of houses or saffron flags fluttering atop shops.
The present phase is one in which people talk about governance but locate it in the party or alliance they support on community grounds.
Perhaps, repeated political slogans of development by political parties and leaders – and much use of the term in the media without ever explaining what it may mean and to whom – has made voicing “development” concerns a default political response.
However, what these mean to people varies, largely on predictable grounds of caste and community.
The pattern: first note the response and then ask the name of the person and his community identity. Generally, the person’s positions on a host of issues match the political alignment of his caste/community.
In 2017, the first author found just one exception to this “rule” while travelling through eastern UP for over a week.
One student at Tilak Dhari Inter College at Jaunpur said that while voters in his village were divided, he would support Modi for what he saw as development and national pride. “I say this despite the fact that I am a Yadav and my family disagrees with me,” he added, aware of the irony.
All others fitted a pattern: they talked development and national interest, but more to justify the voting pattern of their community than to privilege governance issues over primordial bonds.
In most of these debates, credible arguments do not matter.
For instance, what economists said about demonetisation does not matter to BJP supporters. Similarly, there is no anger about the fact that the global media tried to puncture India’s line on Balakot.
On the contrary, there is an attempt to shrug uncomfortable facts off. These rejections point to a “post-truth” world in general, the only residual “truth” being one articulated by one’s community’s reading of everyday politics.
(Vikas Pathak is Editor, Asiaville, while Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst and author of OUP's book 'Everyday Communalism')