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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 27

Implications of Unimaginative Politics

Monday 25 June 2007, by Dev N Pathak


The doyen of sociologists, M.N. Srinivas, wrote toward the fag end of his sociological engagement, distilling his understanding on the inevitable connection between caste and politics in India, that Indians are ‘living in a revolution’. (1986) The revolution was quintessential of a democracy such as India and the moorings of this revolution were the constitutional elements of adult franchise, protective discrimination and land reforms. He foresaw a violent turn in the revolution pitched in by the predominance of populism and the politics of vote-bank. The precursor of this warning thought of Prof Srinivas hinged in a great deal on what he had written in his celebrated work Caste in Modern India and Other Essays (1962) and an essay which he read in 1957 as the President of the Anthropology and Archeology Section of the Indian Science Congress. In this essay Srinivas, as Madan highlights (1994: 42), draws attention to ‘the manipulation of the processes and institutions of democratic politics by caste lobbies generally and by the dominant caste in particular’. The essay, at the end of the analysis, warns about the attendant pitfalls, which include caste-exclusive loyalties as also a narrow view of nation-building.

The relevance of Srinivas’ anticipated anxiety is self-evident even after decades. While the history of politics in post-independence India is fraught with evidences of caste politics (a phrase that is loose but commonplace with citizens of all kind in our country), we even now find a curious continuity and improvisation on the similar theme. All it suggests is that political imagination in post-independence India has been restricted to the notion of vote-bank. This self-imposed restriction has nudged our polity to a kind of dead end whereby it seeks no less than a nose-dive of the incumbent political groups and emergence of a new political methodology. It is a revolutionary task for scrupulous politicians to devise this new imaginative politics.

Hope and Despair in Indian Polity

IN the series of reflections after Mayawati’s thumping victory in the UP elections we hailed the change in political methodology. It was called a paradigmatic shift from the ‘politics of grievances’ to the ‘politics of aspirations’ by many psepholo-gists and political pundits. Certainly it is a promising change when a regional party aspires, and succeeds to some extent, in metamorphosing from the representative of Bahujan to that of Sarvajan. Many of us felt that caste-politics is changing for good reason and rabble rousing is no longer the key to electoral success. The Indian electorate, irrespective of caste differences, has perhaps succeeded in teaching a lesson or two to our politicians and hence an integrationist-inclusivist outlook of Mayawati is found more trustworthy for the developmental agenda. We did not imagine that, the euphoria we felt due to the electoral verdict in UP would so soon be confronted with the embittering caste/tribe violence in Rajasthan and this reaffirmed in the mind of the students of sociology the relevance of Srinivas’ anxiety.

The Gurjjar-Meena tension has a two-fold story. One is that this tension poses a confusion among the categories of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Castes. The huge deliberation on the category of Tribes and the distinction from SCs and OBCs, as we find in academic literature and policy statements, receives a serious challenge from the aspiration of the Gurjjar to be listed as an ST. The same challenge is underneath the ST status of the Meenas given their socio-economic predominance.

The second part of the story comprises of the political click-clock along the axis of the Gurjjar-Meena. The data with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) reveals as to how the Congress and the BJP rivalled in populist measu-res to win over the Gurjjar and Meena vote- banks. Vandita Mishra (2007) reports on the basis of the CSDS data on the issue that eventually “by the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress was far behind the BJP. While 31 per cent of the Gurjjar voted the Congress, 64 per cent voted the BJP.”

The second part of the story offers quite a few insights. The unimaginative politics has deepened the sense of hierarchy even in the unimagined sectors of the Indian society (caste society for analytical convenience). A sort of vindication for the thesis of Dipankar Gupta (1991) vis-à-vis ‘continuous hierarchies and discrete castes’ is resonant in the forgone instance. The hierarchy between caste groups was the concern among the members of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India. B.R.Ambedkar, in the beginning of his political activism, bemoaned the hierarchy present within the lower caste groups itself. He and other members were imaginative enough as they all sought to ensure the protection for the vulnerable sections of society. The requisite political imagination to bring about the needed uplift of the backward and the decimation of hierarchy could not find a taker in the political arena. Thus, hierarchy continues to characterise the Indian society and manifests itself in violent forms even now. Moreover it is alarming that the policy and politics of protective discrimination has to be refashioned altogether lest we should be ready to face the utterly illogical demands from caste groups.

More importantly, it is necessary to note that the caste pressure groups are a fall-out of unimaginative politics, in other words, methodolo-gical sterility in politics that is geared to mobilise only vote-banks. Certain historical antecedents are of heuristic value to illustrate the notion of unimaginative politics.

Nehruvian Doubts and Indian Democracy

SEEMINGLY, long before Srinivas articulated his nuanced skepticism of the political functioning, he had gathered grist for his analytical mill from the instances of electoral politics in India. India was already set on her tryst with destiny under the stewardship of Jawaharlal Nehru and his political imagination that blended socialism with sensitivity to the needs of economic development, Indian diversity and the nationalistic enterprise of integration. The first test to the Nehruvian vision, in fact before the vision could find its full implementation, was in the first general elections in 1952. It is well known that Nehru exhibited true scientific temperament and thus he could maintain a self-critical attitude whenever he had to take stock. During the election campaign in 1951, a staunch believer in democracy Nehru articulated his fear of unimaginative po________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________litical state can be questioned by India and the Indian Government by taking the logic from

International Law itself.

As per tde his doubts as his party made it to a landslide victory. It was not the victory of Nehru or the Congress if we allow our analytical faculty, it was the triumph of a political imagination that promised ambitious nation-building rather than the politics of grievances. Needless to stress, there could have been more visions and alternative models of nation-building other than the one of Nehruvian imagination.

Post-Nehru and after a brief tenure of Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Ram Chandra Guha narrates, surging populism determined and conditioned the course of Indian politics. Political imagination and objectives were confined to the ‘vote-bank’ of which there are numerous evidences in the history of politics in post-independent India.

Democracy in Disarray and Possibilities

TO borrow from Guha’s epitaph, the decades of the seventies and eighties signified democracy in disarray. The argument can effectively engulf the decade of the nineties as well. On one hand, there was decentralisation of power in terms of the party system of Indian politics and emergence of regional parties of instrumental significance. On the other, a lurking bankruptcy of political imagination vis-à-vis populism and vote-bank politics, which renewed the position of the doomsayer who always apprehended a demise of democracy in India.

Some very crucial implications that democracy in disarray bore have to be paid attention to. The idea of social justice and constitutionally guaran-teed rights, for the traditionally downtrodden sections of the Indian society, were used (abused too) to persuade the electorate away from the big party such as the Congress. The vaunted values were only decontextualised so that they could become mere political tools for electoral success. No wonder Lalu Yadav, a one-time protégé of Jayaprakash Narayan and a product of the anti-Indira Gandhi political unrest, now speaks in praise of the Emergency rule.

Moreover, such decontextualisation of great constitutional promises bred antagonism among social groups. We felt this anatagonism in the rhetoric of Lalu Yadav when he ascended the power ladder in Bihar. His anti-Brahmin slogans, now proved to be a dramatic monologue in the politics of Bihar, scared the upper caste of Bihar. A similar tone and tenor distinguished Mayawati during the adolescence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP. Every non-Dalit was called Manuvadi even though the young generation of the non-Dalits did not know as to who Manu was. With this level of political imagination, the ingenuity of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission was hijacked only to find a gratification for the baser political instincts of the parties at the Centre and in the States. A sociologically important tendency in the aftermath of the Mandal was not only self-immolation by the upper-caste students. There were also cases in which upper-caste students had obtained forged Scheduled Caste certificates that helped them travel on concession-fares in the Railways and find jobs.

If we see in the broader spectrum, the recent spate of resistance to the reservation for OBCs was indeed an expression of disagreement to the unimaginative politics of our times rather than a resistance to the idea of social justice and equality of opportunities. There would be seldom any reservation to the idea of positive protection to the vulnerable. Nevertheless the ‘quota theory of social justice’ is only a marker of lazy political imagina-tion that serves the political exigency of a party rather than the needs of the people.

To conclude, the Gurjjar-Meena tension confirms that the way our polity hovers on the issue of reservation that can woo the vote-bank only deepens the sense of hierarchy, even within the groups of socially backward people. The instrument of protection for the vulnerable and deprived, in the regime of unimaginative politics, degenerates into a mere tool of opportunism and divisiveness. Meanwhile, one electoral event in UP, once in a while, teaches both the voters and the vote-seekers to expect something different from our polity. Probably, that is how we can explore bounties even in the disarray of democracy and prove that we are ‘living in a revolution’ for we have to grow up in a democracy.


Dipankar Gupta, 1991, “Continuous Hierarchies and Discrete Castes”, in Dipankar Gupta (ed.), Social Stratification, Delhi: OUP.

M.N. Srinivas, 1962, Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

M.N. Srinivas, 1992, On Living in a Revolution and Other Essays, Delhi: OUP.

Ram Chandra Guha, 2007, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, New Delhi: Picador India.

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