During the assembly elections of 2017, I have dedicated the last four series of my column Straightforward to the subjects of injustice with small states, the ferment in the Muslim mind, discrimination against women and the severe shortage of drinking water. These critical issues are unfortunately missing from our political discourse. As the final chapter of this train of thought, I want to shed light on those attitudes which are not just harmful for a democracy but are closely linked with the shattered dreams of three generations.
Let me begin on a personal note. When my father named his firstborn which is me, he desisted from expressing his caste identity. My siblings, who were born later, were also named like this. He had thought that by the time his children grow up, the concept of a caste-less society would have been well-entrenched in the country and his family would have made its own, humble contribution towards it. Along with him, his friends and contemporaries were also busy weaving such sentimental dreams.
In my endeavour to understand these assembly elections, as I roamed from village to village and town to town, I remembered my father’s commitment. Even today, he gets agitated over talk about casteism, but what can one do? One of my Muslim friends once said something very profound: “What else do the fundamentalists expect from us? After coming to India, Muslims have adopted the caste system, learnt to sing and dance and some of them have even begun taking dowry.” My friend was stating a reality. It is a bitter truth that every community living in India has adopted the caste system at one level or the other.
Recently, when I asked people in one of the many parched villages of Bundelkhand who was winning there, they aired their views without hesitation. The truth that unravelled was poignant. People said more than 50,000 voters were from a particular caste. They were faithful to a prominent political personality of the area. This candidate has estimated that if the voters from his caste align with this vote-bank, he’ll win the elections. For this he had no qualms about spending as much money as required.
Cutting across party lines, these assembly elections are also propagating the evil of dynastic politics. Even those parties which opposed it at one time have fallen victim to it. Families whose ancestral business is politics are flourishing in Uttarakhand and other states as well. Regional satraps have aligned with national parties such as the Congress and the BJP at the local level. What can one expect from those people’s representatives who are serious about the fortunes of their family members rather than their voters? The proliferation of dynastic politics has blocked the progress of non-pedigreed party workers and encouraged feudal politics.
One more thing, the kind of discourse the tallest leaders have stooped to win elections is not a happy omen for our democracy. From making divisive statements to personal remarks, every hateful tactic that can be adopted in order to win elections is being used. A saying in the Hindi belt goes that the water and dialect change every 10 kilometres. You may have noticed that the politicians’ statements are becoming bitter and more bitter with every advancing phase of the elections. Sensitive people have been driven to despair. They are praying that the elections should get over soon so that they get freedom from this mudslinging.
Another question that is being asked: Why are these politicians allowed to play with our sentiments for months together? If elections to the Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab assemblies be completed in just one day, why couldn’t Uttar Pradesh’s polls be finished in three or four phases? Another major reason to raise this question is that from village panchayats to the Lok Sabha, we hold so many elections that we have to grapple with this public mud-slinging every few months. Clearly, we need to understand, analyse and improve our electoral mechanism once again.
Still, it won’t be enough to just create a new law about elections. A few weeks ago, the honourable Supreme Court directed that religion and caste should not be exploited during elections. Is it happening? The answer to this question hides in its folds the secrets behind the rot in Indian democracy. We cannot stay oblivious to this.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal