Discrediting secularism | HT Editorial
West Bengal is witnessing a fierce electoral battle between the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But in the mix is also a third force, with the Left Front and the Congress as partners. This third front has a new ally in the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric of the shrine of Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district, who has been known for his regressive politics, especially on gender. In Assam, the Congress has tied up with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front, a force that has made no secret of its religious base and whose leader has often made communally provocative remarks in a volatile state. In both cases, “secular” formations such as the Congress and the Left believe that the Muslim vote brought in by their allies will alter electoral outcomes.
In a democracy, all citizens have a right to form political parties. In India’s democracy, where so much of politics is driven by identity, citizens also have a right to form identity-based political formations. And at a time when minorities are insecure with the rise of the BJP, it is but natural that they will explore political alternatives led by community leaders. But this is not as much about the political choices being exercised by either Mr Siddiqui or Mr Ajmal. It is about the political choice exercised by the Left and the Congress.
In theory, secular formations should not treat religion as a category of political mobilisation; they should stay away from both majoritarian communalism and minority communalism; and they should be at the forefront of steering political discourse back to the realm of individual rights and justice. In practice, however, secularism has often got equated with wooing the minority voters. This eroded the credibility of a cherished constitutional ideal and created room for the BJP to allege “minority appeasement” and create a majoritarian vote base. The Left and the Bengal leadership of the Congress believes ISF will help bring back Muslim votes from the Trinamool, thus opening up post-poll possibilities in a hung assembly. In Assam, the Congress is banking on a substantial Muslim consolidation to defeat the BJP. But tactical considerations aside, India’s secular forces need to carefully rethink their strategy, for allying with extreme identity-based groups on one side will not help in their aim of defeating an identity-based formation on the other side.