Poverty, not identity, is the issue holding India back

Amrit Dhillon reflects on a Indian Supreme Court ruling that prohibits mention of race, caste and religion in election campaigns

There is a pronounced tendency in India to set aspirations that are so spectacularly detached from reality as to invite cynicism. The current government talks of building smart cities when Indian cities do not have toilets, pavements or street lighting. Bangalore is hyped as “India’s Silicon Valley” when all that means is that it has a lot of tech companies. Earlier governments talked of the removal of poverty (“garibi hatao”) when they knew it was pie in the sky.

Words lose their meaning and become empty slogans when they bear no relation to reality. Now the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has promulgated a lofty ideal that is going to end up being meaningless too. On January 2, it ruled that anyone fighting an election cannot seek votes in the name of religion, race or caste.

“Election of a candidate would be declared null and void if an appeal is made to seek votes on these considerations,” said the judges.

The banning of any mention of religion or caste in election campaigns is a noble idea. Candidates should seek votes from Indians based purely on what they plan to do for their constituency and for the nation. Invoking caste and religion is a nasty and divisive game that Indian politicians have played for too long to set communities against one another and to rise to power on the back of this hatred.

But the court’s ruling disregards an incontrovertible fact of Indian life: the overwhelming majority of Indians are both deeply religious and conscious of their caste. These two aspects of their lives define where they live, whom they marry, what they eat, whom they socialise with, their status in society and their prospects.

We may not like this, but it is an intrinsic aspect of life that cannot be wished away by the sounding of a gavel in a wood-panelled court. Nor is this the way Indian politics is practised. If this rule is implemented, barely a single party will escape disqualification. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of what candidates can and cannot say during a campaign, the fact is that many parties derive their very raison d’être from language, caste or religion.

The two main parties in Tamil Nadu, South India, derive their political identity from the Tamil language and its cultural achievements. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen stands for Muslims. Can its candidates not speak at all of the interests of Muslim voters? What is the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents Dalits (low-caste Hindus) to do? According to the judges, if a Dalit politician tells a rally that more schools are needed in Dalit areas, that will be a breach of their ruling. As to religion, a Sikh party such as the Akali Dal in Punjab will probably have to change its name because the name gives away its religion.

With their sweeping ruling, the judges will not achieve the secularisation of politics that they rightly seek but will unleash linguistic dissembling and euphemisms. As it is, the media, by its own self-imposed ethic, uses euphemisms when describing Hindu-Muslim clashes to avoid inciting hatred. So the members of a “particular community” are said to have rioted and damaged the property of the members of “another community”.

What candidates will do now is find a linguistic way to subvert the ban. They will find weasel words or layer in a subtext to get their messages across. If someone accuses a candidate of violating the court’s injunction, the cases will clog up the courts and judges will be busy brushing up their semiotics instead of handling serious cases.

While there is no doubting sincerity and good intentions, the judges would have been better advised to let Indian politics evolve gradually and organically to a higher level of discourse. Much of the divisive talk about which group of Indians should get what is simply the result of the scarcity of resources. As the country becomes richer, if there are good roads for everyone, who will argue about whether a new road is in a Hindu neighbourhood or a Muslim one?

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance ­writer in New Delhi