Undermining the politics of secularism
In an election rally, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had contrasting messages for the two major religious communities of the state. She appealed to Hindus not to vote on religious grounds, on the basis of “Hindu-Mussalman”, and fall for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s attempt to divide people on religious lines. She appealed to Muslims that they must not let minority votes get divided, warned them not to fall for the rhetoric of Abbas Siddiqui (who is a part of the Left-Congress alliance), and warned the community that it would face the “biggest danger” if the BJP came to power.
This message, in a way, sums up all that is wrong with the politics of secularism in India. Ms Banerjee clearly did not see a contradiction in asking Hindus not to vote as Hindus, and asking Muslims to vote as Muslims in a consolidated manner. It was in tune with her party’s strategy of winning a majority of the minority votes and a minority of the majority votes. But this undermines secularism, just as the BJP’s attempt to win a majority of the majority votes by stoking their anxieties, and constructing Muslims as the “other” undermines secularism. In fact, by pointing to attempts to consolidate the minority vote, the BJP is often able to stir up Hindu political consciousness across caste lines.
Unless Indian politics is able to move beyond this excessive focus on group identities, and creation of binaries based on these, this approach will only get more entrenched. The BJP’s majoritarian politics is a challenge to India’s composite and diverse social mosaic, but the Opposition’s politics, with open appeals to minorities to prioritise their religious identity, weakens the secular project too.