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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 44, New Delhi, October 17, 2020

Combating Identity Politics Through Class Consolidation | Vijay Kumar

Saturday 17 October 2020

by Vijay Kumar *

The present circumstances offer a great opportunity to do political mobilization on the basis of class consolidation. India is a society of a curious admixture of class and caste, and even Left Parties stood compelled to take this into account. On the one hand, our institutions ranging from University to Bureaucracy to Court of Law are supposed to function on the basis of rule of law, on the other hand, the politics, particularly politics of last 30 years, is being conducted on the basis of identity. In particular, the elections are fought on the basis of competing identities. Election is an arena where mobilization is done either on the basis of caste identity or religious identity. The issues of class, and with it, the issue of poverty and ever-widening inequality have been pushed on the backburner. No wonder, the caste and religious politics, inaugurated through Mandal and Kamandal phase, at least in Hindi heartland, rendered the Congress and Left Parties almost irrelevant. The Congress in its hegemonic moment represented all sections of society under capacious umbrella, whereas Left parties mobilized people on the basis of class struggle.

The country is in the midst of three extraordinary crises. Two biggest crises i.e. Pandemic of COVID-19 and complete collapse of economy are inter-related, as the economic crisis triggered by disasters decision of demonetization in November 2016, has further been debilitated by COVID-19, and particularly by unilateral and sudden lockdown without any notice. The third crisis facing the country is the most humiliating incident of annexation of the part of territory in Ladakh by the China in June 2020 with no sign of any restoration of status quo ante. The first two crises are purely economic and have given rise to job loss of massive proportion. The migrant crisis has resulted in loss of job and aggravated the issue of poverty and has given rise to begging. The sudden exodus of workers after thoughtless act of lockdown without notice resulted in suffering of unmitigated proportion. The economic crisis has further been aggravated by drastic amendments made in the Labour Legislations and enactment of pro-corporate and anti-farmers Farm Bills. Since the economic crisis of grave nature are staring us in the face, the same can be interrogated through class politics.

The Constitution, no doubt, granted recognition to group identity by departing from colonial practice in some respect and continuing with it in other. Ethnic quota prevailing during colonial time was dropped in lieu of special protection granted to minority under Article 30. But the quota in favour of SC/SC was not only retained but also entrenched. The retention of quote on the basis of group identity was, however, neutralized by the directive principles which contained radical promise of ushering into egalitarian society.

The Congress government under the stewardship of Nehru started with agrarian reform in aggressive manner after independence. In first two decades after independence, the Congress government introduced agrarian reforms by enacting Zamindari Abolition Act. This resulted in confrontation between the Supreme Court, on the one hand, and Government and the Parliament, on the other. The Supreme Court gave primacy to fundamental rights over directive principles, and, particularly read the right to property in expansive manner. The Full Bench of Patna High Court immediately after the Constitution came into force declared the Zamindari Abolition Act was violative of right to property. It is this judgment that led to the passing of the First Amendment through which Ninth Schedule was incorporated in the Constitution with avowed objective to immunize the law giving effect to directive principles by shutting judicial review. In that initial phase of state formation, the Supreme Court emerged as a conservative institution, whereas the Parliament enacted lots of progressive legislations. From this, it is clear that the politics in the first two decades after independence was done on class consideration. This progressive orientation disappeared from the political arena after Indira Gandhi entrenched her position after 1971 election, ironically on the plank of ‘Garibi Hatao’, which had clearly class dimension, but it turned out to be a mere slogan.
After decline of the hegemony of the Congress, two competitive identities politics came to the fore. First, the BJP started the movement for the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya and tried to retrieve its completely lost ground after securing only two seats in 1984 general election held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The BJP after 1984 disasterous performance started mobilizing on the basis of Hindu identity. This gave rise to counter mobilization on the basis of cast. The introduction of Mandal Commission recommendation for reservation in favour of OBC by V.P. Singh Government further entrenched the competing mobilization on the basis of caste and religion, characterized as Mandal and Kamandal politics, and since then this political mobilization on the basis of identity has been steadily growing and has acquired frightening dimension.

During the height of the Mandal and Kamandal phase, public intellectuals were divided on the issue of countering religious identity through caste identity. Late Rajani Kothari, India’s distinguished political scientist and others argued that political mobilization through cast could counter the communal politics of BJP. On the other hand, Prof.Andre Beteille, doyen of sociology, and renowned journalist Sham Lal continuously differed with prescription of Kothari. Prof. Andre Beteille, consistently lamented the proclivity of political parties to mobilize electoral support on the basis of caste and community and argued that the identity politics led to erosion of trust which in turn was destructive for the institution. Prof. Beteille recorded that the class issue also emerged on account of urbanization, modernization and other developmental forces, but the same was neutralized by competitive electoral politics on the basis of caste and community and democracy gave fresh lease of life to the caste and community and has erased the class consciousness. Prof. Beteille also emphasized that the Constitution envisaged the country of citizen, whereas the democracy ensured that country was composed of caste and community. Prof. Beteille further added that “the society which neglects economic inequality between citizens in order to promote social and political parity, cannot be liberal society”. Of course, this acute discernment was made by Prof. Andre Beteille in the context of ever-widening introduction of quota/reservation which is single biggest impediment for mobilizing the citizen on the basis of class and economic issue. The reservation policy has made the democracy more inclusive, but also has accentuated caste identity by calcifying it. Eventually, the emphasis for political mobilization through caste resulted in powerful counter mobilization on the basis of religion and that led to emergence of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014.

The earlier confrontation between the Supreme Court and the Parliament was on the issue of right to property and re-distribution. Since the introduction of Mandal Commission recommendation for Reservation in 1990, the Supreme Court and the Parliament have been at the loggerhead on the issue of reservation. The Supreme Court has been keen to put some lid on reservation by introducing the concept of creamy layer and fixing ceiling of 50%, whereas the Parliament and the State Governments ruled by almost all political parties barring left, owing to pressure from below, are equally hell bent upon creating all sorts of quotas. The introduction of all sorts of quotas has given alibi to political parties for their masterly inaction in eradicating the poverty.

Now it is clear with the benefit of hindsight that identity politics around toxic Hindutva cannot be countered through political mobilization on the basis of caste. The emphasis on competitive identity politics has resulted in complete neglect of the issue of governance. The class dimension has almost eclipsed. The result is that bread and butter issue or other issues central to the lives of people, particularly poor people, never gets projected as an election issue. The empirical evidence has demonstrated that society that gives prominence to caste and religion over citizenship leads to widening of inequality, and the widespread poverty tends to dull the urge to raise demand. Further, the competitive identities politics de-radicalize the political discourse by shelving the issue of re-distribution which is in perfect conformity with logic and para-logic of neo-liberal economic order.

Now the BJP under the Prime Ministership of Modi has become hegemonic power, a la, the Congress party in first two decades after independence. The mobilization on the basis of caste identity has proved out to be utterly ineffective in countering mobilization based on religious identity. Thus, the issue of class and its solidarity has emerged as pivotal issue for countering the communal mobilization of BJP.

The present economic crisis of extreme severity has thrown the opportunity to bring the issue of class into centre stage. As poverty and inequality have risen alarmingly, there is an imperative need to indulge in political mobilization through class struggle. The issue of job loss, poverty, ever widening inequality and other issues pertaining to economy and governance deserve to be put on the forefront. At this historical juncture, there exists an immense possibility of mobilizing the people on the issue of economy having pre-dominantly class character. The rushing through Farm Bills by Voice Vote and passing the Labour Bill by dispensing with all the safeguards and rights guaranteed to workers should lead to mobilization on the basis of class, and it is incumbent on the Congress and Left Parties to take the initiative of mobilizing voters on class solidarity, starting, paradoxically, with impending election in Bihar, a State notorious for caste violence, but is also hit hard by the exodus of migrant workers on humongous scale.

(* Vijay Kumar is Advocate, Supreme Court of India)

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