The tokenism devil in Indian politics



Source: By Debasish Bhattacharyya: The Statesman



After a significant legal debate recently on curbing use of religion to seek votes, a seven-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said elections were a secular exercise and religion should be separated from the political process. The court also said it would offer a proper interpretation of the law that holds seeking votes on the grounds of religion and caste a corrupt practice.


The purpose of the petition filed, however, was to prevent the use of religious appeals for votes under the garb of ‘Hindutva’, which is defined not as a religion but a ‘way of life’. The timing seems important given the elections to five state legislative assemblies (Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa) to be held in 2017. The result of the UP and Punjab assembly elections in particular, as also the political ramifications that would follow the SC decision, will have a bearing on the 2019 general election. Looked at from this perspective, the Supreme Court’s observation is profound and pertinent.


Regardless of the SC ruling on this contentious matter, such debates are significant to highlight democratic deficit, if any, as also to plug the lacunae in the system, thereby bolstering the finer nuances of democratic processes. But I want this debate to broaden its scope to evaluate the critical role of political gestures and actions perceived as political tangibles and intangibles under the guise of democracy. Also, how do they feature in electoral politics? Put another way, let us explore the politics of tokenism that tends to influence minority communities and Muslims in particular. The ideation of the “Muslim vote bank” leading to politics of tokenism operates across the board, ostensibly with the tacit support of a section of the Muslim leadership. The issue assumes greater importance because out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, the Muslim vote can actually influence around 196 seats spread across UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, as also Rajasthan.


The tangible elements of this concept are Islamic attire or ‘skull cap’, worn by non-Muslim political leaders, ‘Orhna’ (shawl) sported by non-Muslim  women leaders covering the head with ends tucked behind ears, speeches laced with political rhetoric, inflammatory advocacy of certain issues, publicity material, meals in Dalit homes, etc. Among the intangible elements, one can record things like the art of wooing minority voters, dissecting the inner working of divisive politics, etc., which exert an impact on the election outcome.


From Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to BJP’s Rajnath Singh to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, all wear Islamic attire and are therefore guilty of tokenism. These leaders look up to Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration who never wore a skull cap and yet fasted for Muslims’ safety during the riots in Delhi and Bengal at the time of Partition. Freed of the constraints of condemnation and critical opprobrium, political tokenism in our country is not just tolerated but celebrated.


This leads me to my second question on why political parties and leaders who truly believe in entitlement and empowerment should resort to politics of tokenism. There is hardly any election manifesto talking about abolition of tokenism culture.  Instead, there is a conscious effort to institutionalise tokenism.


Victor Wallis, who teaches history and politics at Boston’s Berkeley College, writes in an article: “We all recognize tokenism as an excuse for inaction. It’s a way of declaring a problem settled while hardly even beginning to address it. What has not been so much noted, however, is the extent to which it pervades every dimension of politics in the United States. An important attribute of tokenism is that many who acquiesce to it have a sincere wish that the issue in question could be addressed at a deeper level. They recognize the token for what it is, but they reassure themselves with the thought that at least it’s a first step in the right direction - that it’s better than nothing.”


In our country, however, politics of tokenism continues to thrive on the thickening stench of false promises, illiteracy and poverty. The phenomenon of tokenism aimed towards building up a political base is not restricted to religion but also racial / caste tokenism and gender tokenism. Therefore, tokenism in its diverse design or the larger context in which it is put forward must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn lawlessness.


Wallis further writes: “Here is where we see the crowning expression of tokenism: the assumption that the current mode of selecting national political leadership can bring the changes needed in order to secure our collective long-term survival. Within this tokenistic scenario, a constant show is played out to absorb our attention, tap our political energies, and deplete the treasuries of our trade unions and community organizations.”


Developed nations that take pride in informed, effective, and responsible citizenry also turn to tokenism but to a limited extent. Iftar dinners initiated by former US president Bill Clinton, continued by George W Bush and Barack Obama and Obama hosting a Diwali celebration certainly smack of tokenism.


It seems the only element that can counter tokenism effectively is civic knowledge or strengthening education for all. The faster, deeper and wider the spread of education, the better is the outcome. The 2011 census paints a gloomy picture. At 42.7 per cent, Muslims have the highest percentage of illiterates, followed by 36.4 per cent for Hindus, 32.5 per cent for Sikhs, 28.2 per cent for Buddhists and 25.6 per cent for Christians. The overall percentage of illiterates is 36.9 for all communities.


There could well be many educated people, but it is this 36.9 per cent illiterate people that primarily fall prey to politics of tokenism. Political leaders and poll strategists target them to win the election by speaking in accents familiar to them, wearing their face and their arguments. The problem is not merely these leaders who fake or lie but the people for whom truth and fiction are meaningless abstractions. It raises a serious question: how long can democracy survive civic ignorance?

Many believe if democracy has survived in India, it is because of the judiciary - the Supreme Court. Now it’s again up to the apex court to rein in the deplorable practices of our political representatives indulging in tokenism that has sucked so much oxygen out of the political environment forcing real issues to get overlooked. The time is ripe to recognize that there is room for principled disagreement about just where the line should be drawn.