India is in a snake pit of Identity politics but RSS and BJP in denial: Can we ever come out?
This essay was first published in the National Herald.
Politics is often deceptively simple, needing nothing more than common sense to unravel its many strands. However, it can quickly get very complex, requiring use of many counter-intuitive concepts to explain its logic. The use of Nationalism as tool for nation-building, in a diverse polity like ours, is one such complexity, that is not easy to grasp. After all, what could be simpler to intuit than the fact that if you unite all Indians behind a common agenda, its achievement could be facilitated? However, when you try and “force” such a unity, using for instance religion, or even culture, as RSS/BJP do, all sorts of problems rear their head. Can we use the analogy/model of Prisoners’ Dilemma [PD] to examine this conundrum?
I have done a simple diagram, that shows a 3-step step-well, dug into the ground. At the ground level, you have a liberal democracy, that has resolved most of its contentious issues, knows what it wants to achieve - liberty, and prosperity for all citizens - and its politics is basically a reasoned debate about how to achieve its declared goal. Some may want prosperity before equality, some the other way around, and so on, so forth. Democracy aggregates such diverse opinions on the issue, and hands over the executive, for a fixed term, to those who have the majority to pursue the common goal.
Note the distinction here. The goal is common, only the means to get there are different. So the minority loses nothing even as it hands the executive to the majority. It remains an equal partner in the nation’s enterprise.
However, all politics is not so well ordered and contained. Borrowing an idea, I picked up from Shekhar Gupta’s tweets, [or may be a column; I don’t remember which], politics can be thought of as being a contention among participants at 3 levels.
1. Who are we?
2. What do we want to do?
3. How do we want to do it?
These 3 levels are illustrated as three steps of the step-well in the diagram, from which a democracy has to work its way out, before it can be called a functioning democracy that we want.
The thing about these steps is that they are very complex, and it is very difficult to evolve a consensus around them. As you go deeper into the well, the issue become more contentious, there is less scope for compromise, and absent the native genius to evolve a consensus, a society can spend decades trying to work out a satisfactory answer to the simple question: Who are we?
“What we want to do” is a simpler, less contentious question, if you have first resolved who you are. Often the answer flows directly from the formulation of the first question. If you graduate from that level, 90% of your deep, not easy to resolve questions, have been put to rest with a consensus.
“How do we want to do it?” can be technically challenging but is usually almost wholly in the rational realm, where logic and reason show the way out. But “Who are we?” is quite simply out of the rational league of questions. It is intimately mixed up with identities, history, narratives of the past, culture, and much else.
The key thing about identities is that they are not “negotiable.” What do we mean by that? Quite simply, you are who you think you are, and this identity - a whole mantle of them in fact - are something you acquire long before you are conscious of them. By the time you recognise them, you have already become them. Being unconscious, you rational side had little to do with their formation. You can’t change them as an adult. They are the core of who you are. Your reason begins outside the circle of this core. Which means any debate about identities will be very contentious, rationality and reason will yield very little by way of a consensus, and everybody has a veto. You simply cannot arrive at the largest common denominator and say - okay this is how we equalise everybody.
When these identities are tied up with race, religion, culture, language, and shared history, they are impossible to erase or negotiate. You could spend decades trying to resolve them and the result would be either an impasse or a partition. It is naive to expect that a significant minority will commit cultural suicide by surrendering its identity to the majority.
How then can you resolve the question of identity in a diverse polity like India? The genius of Nehru, Ambedkar and Gandhi lay in the fact that they side-stepped the contentious identity question by inventing the idea of India, where every citizen could be an Indian, enjoying a common citizenship, along with all the religious and cultural identities that they carried.
In effect you gave them one more identity, with no historical baggage, but one that promised liberty, equality, fraternity; something that all Indians could be proud to carry without regard to race, religion, gender or caste. It was a stroke of creative genius. You gave something valuable to each citizen, taking nothing away in return.
The expectation was that given a modern economy, a national market, and sufficient lived experience in a diverse polity, the common identity would become the primary identity of every Indian, without conflicting with all the others that history gave us. It was, and remains, the most logical way out of the identity dilemma.
So we can say the first question, “who are we?” stood resolved with the birth of the Republic in 1950, when the present Constitution cam into force. For polity that had such a tumultuous history such as India, that was no mean achievement.
There are many countries around the world, who got freedom from colonial rule along with us, but have failed to resolve this question, and continue to flounder in civil war and persistent conflict. The genius of our founding fathers lay in not falling for the pessimism brought on by the ugly partition, and successfully removing the identity question creatively, without letting history trap up in the poisoned step-well of identity politics.
Similarly, after much floundering between 1950 and 1990, - forty years in the wilderness - we resolved the question of what we want to do - inclusive growth - and began putting in place the building blocks of a market-based economy, that not only put India in a new growth orbit, but also began to lift the poor out of their poverty traps. India’s success since 1990 was unprecedented, and the sheer scale of it, invited much admiration abroad, even when compared to China. Alas, the good times ended with Modi coming to power in 2014. Why?
Politics sets the stage for economics. Nations can do badly when they get their economics wrong, as we did from 1970 to 1990. But national fail, not through poor economics, but bad politics. What is bad politics? Take a look at the step-well.
As I noted before, as you go lower into the step well, you have to grapple with more contentious, more volatile, more debilitating questions, than at the surface. In 2014, our politics was about how to grow faster, and how to distribute prosperity more fairly. Hardly questions, where any disagreement, could produce a threat to the national security and integrity of the polity.
RSS/BJP/Modi changed the key question in politics from “How do we want to do it” to “Who are we?”
Suddenly, from debating, if we should have export-led growth, and MREGA, we are debating who is an Indian? From the surface of the rational realm, we have nose-dived into the snake-pit of historical identities, over which we have no control, no consensus, and can do nothing about. In short, we have no rational way of resolving issues around identity [because they are by definition not negotiable] but we spend most of the nation’s intellectual bandwidth, struggling with questions that will not add a dime to our prosperity.
Why has RSS/BJP wantonly thrown the polity into this snake-pit of identity conflict? What can it gain from it?
The RSS/BJP claim of nation-building can be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. You do not build nations by dividing the people; you build nations by giving people reasons and identities that unite, like Nehru and Ambedkar did. The majority of Indians are Hindu, and that religion isn’t going away. As facts show, the Hindu identity was never under a threat, nor can it be, given the 80% majority. Whichever way you analyse the problem, the one only reason why BJP/RSS have thrown us into this snake-pit is to consolidate their own hegemony over Hindus. Put crudely, it is the priestly class trying to reclaim their ancient hegemony over the laity. In the process, RSS/BJP will also manufacture an electoral majority, based on communal politics, that gives them a chokehold on state power.
The question is why is this approach to politics bad?
Remember we are now trapped at the bottom of the step-well, grappling with a question, that simply cannot be resolved in the paradigm of contentious identities. It can be transcended, but it cannot be resolved without transcending the paradigm. In short there is no option but to go back to the Nehru-Ambedkar paradigm for a solution. It may take the RSS/BJP decades to admit this, but they simply don’t have an option short of another bloody partition. It is high time rational people sat down and talked to them.
However, coming out of the step-well will be no easy task, even after RSS/BJP recognise the imperatives they face. Graduating from one step to the next is never easy. As in the PD, transcending from one step to the next requires oodles of consensus, and mutual trust between all participants. However, the short-term is filled with perverse incentives for all participants, where cheating confers a tremendous advantage on the cheater [something RSS/BJP are enjoying the unearned fruits of presently] and hence mutual trust becomes impossible.
BJP/RSS will change, Congress will change, sub-nationalism among minorities will create new political parties etc. So with time, even if RSS/BJP want to return to the Nehru-Ambedkar consensus about a secular state, the others may not be ready for it. There is little appreciation of how badly Modi has damaged our polity. Only the future will tell.
Meanwhile what awaits the nation on the identity question?
What is the worst that can happen?
Firstly, CAA, NPR etc are pointers to attempts diminish the legal status of minorities qua other citizens. Second pointer is the systematic way in which the space for minorities is being shrunk in the social and economic spheres, through politics of exclusion. These, combined with ghettoization, will produce the opportunity for a near apartheid nation, something along the Arab-Jew schism in Israel. The structure is not new. We have used untouchability, social and economic exclusion, to successfully keep almost 20 of our population, comprising SCs and STs, subjugated to the majority over the millennia. So that sort of an informal apartheid, maintained by social ostracization and lumpen militias, will not be something alien to our culture.
Is a modern resurgent India prepared to countenance such discriminatory politics of exclusion? If not, then how will equality be restored given that forging of a new consensus will be far more difficult that it was in 1947?
Short-sighted, self-indulgent politics of the RSS/BJP kind has already plunged the polity into the snake-pit of identity politics from which there is no easy escape. The sooner we recognise the problem, the quicker we can begin the repairs. Even then the damage done will be humongous. It is just that RSS/BJP/Modi are denial over the problems that lie ahead. We as a polity have not only lost our innocence, but also our only valid reason to be here, - for the good of all our citizens.