Dangerous Triumph of Identity-Politics
A discernible trend in Indian politics is perhaps not getting due attention. And that is the systematic but pervasive consolidation of the trend of identity-politics. Worse, this identity is centred on individuals or small groups such as ethnic minorities, castes, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people. These aggressive groups appear to be least interested in the overall good of the nation as a whole. And such is their power that the mainstream national media literally worships them and goes extra-miles to project them. As a result, to talk of the nation as a whole is increasingly becoming “politically incorrect”. National interests, patriotism, sovereignty and integrity of the country are now considered dirty words.
See what the real problematic issues confronting the Modi government are. It is not the economic issues or unemployment that one often hears from the political platforms. These have been issues before every government in every country, and that includes the advanced countries in Europe and North America. During the 10-year regime of Manmohan Singh, overwhelming majority of the Indian youth was
far from being employed or even underemployed. These economic issues, of course, are important and every government everywhere claims to be doing needful. But the real problems that the governments all over the world, including our own country, are beset with happen to be the identity-issues.
We have farmers who demand free power, free water, cheap fertilisers, free-loans but maximum remunerative prices. We have various castes demanding reservations in education, jobs and even promotions. We have transporters against rising fuel prices. We have traders who want residential colonies to be commercial hubs; they want no building-laws and are terribly upset for being forced to come under tax-net (see people shedding tears over demonetisation and GST). We have film-makers and artists who want their creations to prevail over national laws that talk of reasonable restrictions for law, order and communal harmony. We have academicians who assert to exercise their freedom to question the sanctity of national integrity; in fact some of them question Kashmir and north-eastern states being parts of India. We have Indian Express-columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta(he is Vice Chancellor of private Ashoka University and at the forefront of Modi-hatao brigade), who demands a new “Charter of Freedom “ that provides more safeguards to individuals by repealing what he calls “ a scandal for a liberal democracy: Sedition laws, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, anti conversion laws, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, laws restricting freedom of expression including criminal defamation, cow protection laws that give invasive powers to the state”.
However, what one finds most reprehensible is that it is not group leaders and civil rights-activists who alone are pursuing identity-politics, weakening the State and its institutions in the process. Responsible political leaders, both in the opposition and government, are also practising this pervasive politics. Take, for instance, the case of “Prevention of Atrocities” SC/ST Act, which the Supreme Court had imposed some restrictions on but the Modi government nullified the judgment by re-legislating the Act (now the so-called upper castes are hitting the streets against this action of the government). It was indeed rare that as many as three members of the Union Council of Ministers wanted punishment to a Supreme Court judge for his judgment on a sensitive issue by demanding his immediate removal from a post-retirement job. But that was precisely what senior Union cabinet Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and two ministers of state – Upendra Kushwaha and Ramdas Athawale – did. They wanted Justice Adarsh K Goel, who has recently taken over as the Chairman of National Green Tribunal (NGT) soon within days of his retirement from the Supreme Court, to be dismissed.
What is the crime of Justice Goel? He along with fellow Justice Uday U Lalit, found problems with the “Prevention of Atrocities” SC/ST Act of 1989. Dealing with a case, they had directed, in order to stop abuses for extraneous consideration, that there will not be automatic arrest of the accused and “preliminary enquiry may be made whether the case falls in the parameters of the Atrocities Act and is not frivolous or motivated”.
One here is not dealing with the merits or otherwise of the judgment. The focus here is the propriety of the serving ministers to demand publicly punishment to the judges for their judgments. Of course, it could be argued that Paswan and his two ministerial colleagues were criticising only a retired judge, not any serving judge. But this is a hollow argument. First, as the NGT Chief, Justice Goel deals very much with matters that have judicial implications, including enforcement. In fact, many of NGT pronouncements in recent past have nullified and criticised government decisions. Thus, serving ministers threatening Justice Goel’s job implies nothing short of blackmailing.
Secondly, it is absurd on the part of the three ministers to pick only Justice Goel, leaving out Justice Lalit. After all, the judgment diluting the rigours of the SC/ST Act was penned down by both Justice Goel and Justice Lalit. Thus, accepting for time being the logic Paswan and Co, why should Justice Lalit escape their punishment? Will it then be wrong to infer that their message against Justice Goel is also the message for Justice Lalit that he should mind his future judgments or else…..
The Hon’ble ministers do not realise that the independence of the judiciary is based on, among others, the well established convention that a judge cannot be targeted for his or her judgment. A judgment is of course is open to criticisms, but it is never the case that the judge himself or herself is under attacks. The judgment remains in force, is set aside or modified by another judicial order by a higher court or is made irrelevant by a new law passed by the legislature.
The fact of the matter is that these ministers have only politicised the verdict of the two Justices, keeping their “Dalit constituency” in mind, nothing else. In the process, they forget that as ministers they represent all Indians, not a section of them. Thirdly, and this is most important, by coming out openly against Justice Goel on the issue, they have damaged the sacred concept of “collective responsibility” of the ministers in a parliamentary democracy. In a cabinet –form of government, a minister represents the whole cabinet and is accountable collectively with other ministers. Does this mean that what the three ministers said on Justice Goel was the view of the entire Modi cabinet?
However, as I have stated above, these instances of identity-politics can be seen these days all over the world. India is not unique to the phenomenon. I must point out here the famous political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), excerpts of which have appeared in some select publications. He argues that how unlike the 20th century when politics was defined by economic issues – the left, politics centred on workers, trade unions, social welfare programs, and redistributive policies. The right, by contrast, was primarily interested in reducing the size of government and promoting the private sector – politics today is defined by questions of identity, with political leaders mobilising followers around the idea that their dignity has been affronted and must be restored.
Fukuyama reminds us how classical philosophers realised the importance of “the craving for dignity” – Socrates believed that such a need formed an integral “third part” of the human soul, one that coexisted with a “desiring part” and a “calculating part.” In Plato’s Republic, he termed this the thymos, which English translations render poorly as “spirit.” In politics, thymos is expressed in two forms. The first is what Fukuyama calls “megalothymia”: a desire to be recognised as superior. “Pre-democratic societies rested on hierarchies, and their belief in the inherent superiority of a certain class of people—nobles, aristocrats, royals—was fundamental to social order. The problem with megalothymia is that for every person recognised as superior, far more people are seen as inferior and receive no public recognition of their human worth. A powerful feeling of resentment arises when one is disrespected. And an equally powerful feeling—what I call ‘isothymia’—makes people want to be seen as just as good as everyone else. The rise of modern democracy is the story of isothymia’s triumph over megalothymia”, Fukuyama argues.
In itself, this is a good and healthy development. There can never be any question on the importance of “equality” in a democracy. But what Fukuyma’s painstaking research shows that the story of isothymia has led to such a situation that now the battle is not about equality of rights but about maintaining one’s identity and extolling its virtues. This perhaps explains why in India we now see Scheduled Caste leaders demanding to be referred as “dalits” and gays proudly displaying their sexual orientations. In fact, in India isothymia is being accorded superiority over megalothymia. There are demands for “special treatments” (such as reservations, separate personal laws, group-specific laws and rules that prevail over normal laws and rules), as against “equal treatments”.
What happens when one group’s special rights hurts another group’s special rights? We have seen how books, films, arts and paintings of some are opposed by equally powerful caste and ethnic groups. Do not we need order and discipline? Do not we want protections of our lives and properties against the aggressive pursuits of identity politics? Therefore, I will end with by quoting Fukuyama – “Societies need to protect marginalized and excluded groups, but they also need to achieve common goals through deliberation and consensus. The shift in the agendas of both the left and the right toward the protection of narrow group identities ultimately threatens that process. The remedy is not to abandon the idea of identity, which is central to the way that modern people think about themselves and their surrounding societies; it is to define larger and more integrative national identities that take into account the de facto diversity of liberal democratic societies.”
By Prakash Nanda