"No politician can seek votes in the name of caste, creed or religion," says the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court surely means well but good luck getting religion out of politics. The 4-3 decision is meant to drive home the message that religion, race, caste, community have no place in the electoral process. A candidate cannot seek votes on the basis of that, whether it's his or her own religion/community or the voters'.
That will amount to a "corrupt practice".
Summing up the verdict, The Telegraph writes that the verdict "essentially seeks to drive home the message that religion and other features of identity politics have no place in a secular activity like elections."
Therein lies the problem. Are elections truly secular? Our secularism is not about the absence of religion but the equal and non-preferential treatment of all religions. It's not irreligion but a multitude of religions.
"First, the Western concept of secularism originated in Europe when the separation of church and state had become a major concern. India has never had an organised church, so this concept was not really relevant to us," writes Karan Singh. "The term "sarva dharma sambhava (respect for all religions)" is a far more meaningful formulation for us." Religion, caste, community, creed, language are so intertwined in our daily lives that it's unrealistic to expect politics to be free of them.
While the court says correctly that the relationship between man and God and the way to connect to God are "matters of individual preferences and choices", it is a myth that religion is purely personal and can be separated from the political that cleanly. The state is involved in Haj subsidies just as it is involved in the Kumbh mela just as it is involved in bans on animal slaughter during Jain festivals.
For us, the more pertinent question has always been whether the state ever discriminates between its citizens on the basis of religion or language or creed and whether the state protects life and liberty of all its citizens irrespective of religion or language or creed.
This could be done in the name of preserving communal harmony and law and order or empowerment of historically disadvantaged groups but it leads back to the basic issue – our secularism is about toleration of church/temple/mosque/gurdwara within the state rather than separation of church/temple/mosque/gurdwara from state. For us, the more pertinent question has always been whether the state ever discriminates between its citizens on the basis of religion or language or creed and whether the state protects life and liberty of all its citizens irrespective of religion or language or creed.
We get too caught up in symbolism secularism. Thus we argue about whether Narendra Modi will wear a skull cap or not but the more important issue is whether the government discriminates against Muslims or regards them as second-class citizens in any way.
Lala Lajpat Rai wrote way back in 1924 that the "Indian nation, such as we intend to build, neither is, nor will be, exclusively Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. It will be each and all." Secularism would provide a sort of minimum common consensus on shared values and build bridges.
Unfortunately it's often been used to build vote banks instead of bridges. Secularism has been used as cover for Shah Bano case making it vulnerable to charges of pseudo secularism. The Supreme Court is trying to stem that rot. But it's easier said than done. There are many ways to seek votes on the basis of caste and religion without appearing to do so overtly. Is the promise of a Ram Mandir pandering to a group on the basic of their religious or caste identity? What about an Ambedkar statue? A BHIM mobile wallet app? Where's the line? As we have seen a communal riot like Muzaffarnagar injects politics instantly into an election. When that happens no candidate needs to seek votes in the name of caste, creed or religion. The bloodbath on the ground takes care of votebank polarisation.
The problem, writes Asghar Ali Engineer, is that "secularism in India was more a political than philosophical phenomenon. The Indian National Congress adopted secularism not as this worldly philosophy but more as a political arrangement between different religious communities." It is, in effect, now a power-sharing agreement and one that's re-negotiated every election.
Thus the court ruling will not ipso facto mean that there will be no such thing as the Yadav vote in Uttar Pradesh anymore and no way to court it. Or that a Mayawati cannot try to form a Dalit-Muslim support base. Or that a political party will not be able to send out the message that the interests of a particular group, say Muslims, will be more secure with their party in power than another.
There is obviously overt pandering but even there it's not clear-cut from a legal standpoint. After the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, Shiv Sena's Manohar Joshi promised to turn Maharashtra into India's first Hindu state. His election was nullified by the Bombay High Court but the apex court overturned it. More recently there were stipends for imams and muezzins in West Bengal by Mamata Banerjee's government. That was overturned by the Calcutta High Court but the message had been sent out by her. And it works both ways. The muezzin stipend also provided a convenient rallying tool against her by the BJP on the campaign trail.
The mistake is to assume that ultimately our political parties want a level political playing field where all will compete on the basis of issues not identities. They do not. We were, and remain, a very religious people. And it's no surprise that a political party will seek to endear itself to the electorate through religion as well as much as it does through promise of roti kapda makaan and elimination of kala dhan.
Thus even before the ink dries on the court ruling, political parties are looking for a loophole.
It's easier for politicians to appeal to primordial identities rather than solve complex developmental problems. Religion becomes a convenient way to do that. As Engineer writes "The modern Indian society has proved to be more divisive as it is based on competition. This completion becomes more acute if development is uneven and unjust." And identity becomes the most convenient scapegoat, the easiest way to mobilize a group unhappy about the way the fruits of development are distributed.
Thus even before the ink dries on the court ruling, political parties are looking for a loophole. Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha welcomed the ruling as a "formal slap on secularist forces who play politics of polarization and show unnecessarily excessive love for minorities" but at the same time called Hinduism a way of life and not a religion thanks to a 1995 court ruling, a ruling that this decision sidestepped.
The seven judge bench led by Chief Justics TS Thakur said "We will not re-consider the 1995 judgement and also not examine Hindutva or religion at this stage."
While the court intends to create a level playing field where politicians cannot pander on the basis of religion or caste, our politicians will want to subvert that intent to make the ruling apply to their opponents but not themselves. The Court has lofty aims but how will it work as long as what's sauce for the goose is also not sauce for the gander?