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Identity Politics

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Voting was held on Monday for 72 Lok Sabha seats in the fourth phase of the ongoing elections. This phase is being considered particularly crucial for the BJP as it is the incumbent in a large number of seats and has to defend against a strong challenge posed by the opposition, mostly in the Hindi Heartland. This is particularly so in UP, where the SP-BSP-RLD combine is seeking to consolidate the caste votes that each of these parties represents. In fact, for the entire day, the media was obsessed with how the caste arithmetic would work out, given the chemistry (or lack of it) between the components.
It is, of course, quite tragic that in the present day, when the challenges being faced by society are so much beyond local enclaves and ghettoes, there is space for such kind of politics. While parties are accused of indulging in nationalistic or communal rhetoric while pretending to be focused on noble ideals and objectives, the caste-based parties are openly focused on ensuring castes and communities ‘stick to their own’. And nobody dares to question the premise that people would vote on this basis in considerably large numbers.
Why is it that a member of a certain caste is expected to vote in a certain way irrespective of other considerations? What is the benefit that accrues from having an MP or MLA from one’s own caste, regardless of ability or integrity? Is it the narrative that they are under attack from the other castes or communities in some way and they need to be defended? Or, are these leaders expected to function in a way that favours members of the caste? What does past experience show in this regard – did these castes get a larger share of the pie when in power? It is true that when either the SP or the BSP were in power in UP, all the so-called plum postings went to members of the castes they represented. So, do people vote for these parties because they feel more protected, or because the earnings from positions of power trickle down to them? There is no doubt that the leaders of these parties are enormously wealthy in a most inexplicable way, but how much of it has benefited their voters?
The question is: do the people feel more empowered because of this association with power or have they an understanding of their personal requirements such as better schools, hospitals, infrastructure and services, as also job opportunities from an expanding pie. There is no doubt that this was at the heart of the 2014 mandate. Will this distinction be made in the present, or will power be negotiated on the basis of caste identities in the coming government? India’s progress will depend on what the people decide to choose on these hot summer days.