Presidential and VP Elections: Race Won by Identity Politics?

TK Arun

Political parties and legislators see the identity of the candidate first, and consider the politics they represent to be irrelevant; this represents the success of the BJP’s clever use of identity politics of caste to reinforce and consolidate Hindutva politics.

Droupadi Murmu is ready to be sworn in as the next President of India. Many parties in the Opposition decided to vote for her, rather than the combined Opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha.

For the Vice-President’s post, the BJP has nominated Jagdeep Dhankhar, Jat leader appointed as West Bengal Governor by the Modi government. Odisha’s ruling party BJD has already peeled off from the Opposition to declare its support for Dhankhar, whom Modi described as kisan putra, son of the farmer. Opposition nominee Margaret Alva will, no doubt, find herself in the company of Yashwant Sinha, once the VP election is over.

The Shiv Sena voted for Murmu on the ground that she is a member of a scheduled tribe. India has never had a tribal representative as head of state, so how can political parties that respect tribal rights refuse to vote for this candidate, so went the reasoning. This has struck a chord with many others as well.

Dhankhar will also most likely win votes other than those from the BJP and its allies. After all, he is a farmer and a Jat from Rajasthan.

Caste and Hindutva politics

Political parties and legislators see the identity of the candidate first and foremost and consider the politics they represent to be irrelevant. This represents the success of the BJP’s clever use of identity politics of caste to reinforce and consolidate Hindutva politics.

The relationship between the so-called Hindu glory the BJP upholds and tribal welfare is highly problematic. Droupadi is a name from the Mahabharata. There are two well-known instances in the Mahabharata where mainstream Hindu heroes mistreat tribal people.

One is that of Ekalavya, whom the Pandava’s arms trainer, Drona, refuses to teach, on the ground that he, as a nishada, is unworthy of being taught the skills the princes were being taught. Ekalavya observes the training from hiding and practices on his own, becoming a masterful archer.

On a hunting expedition in the jungle with the princes, Drona finds their hound coming back yowling with a dozen arrows shot into its mouth. He wonders not at the animal’s suffering but at the skill of the archer who managed this feat. Soon, he identifies the youth behind this masterly display of how to shoot arrows true and fast: it is Ekalavya.

Drona realizes that he would be a match for his favorite student, Arjuna. He asks Ekalavya who taught him to shoot arrows like this. Ekalavya replies that Drona himself was his teacher, whom he had observed from hiding. Then Drona demands his gurudakshina, the student’s offering to the teacher, as payment and token of gratitude for the lessons imparted. Ekalavya promptly agrees.

Drona demands the youth’s right thumb. Ekalavya cuts off his thumb and offers it to his Guru. Opposable thumbs are, of course, an important part of what makes humans human.

‘Expendable’ tribal lives

That is one instance of tribal engagement in the Mahabharata. Another one relates to the house of lac, purported to be a holiday cabin in the woods, in which the Kauravas plan to kill the Pandavas by fire. The five Pandavas and their mother are tipped off about the conspiracy, and when it is to be executed.

The night before, they host a nishada family, comprising a mother and her five sons, roughly the same age as the Pandavas, at the house of lac. They are fed well, and generously offered places to sleep in the house of lac. Then, when they were all fast asleep, the Pandavas set the house on fire and escape via a tunnel that has already been dug below the house. The next day, the Kauravas find the remains of the house and of six people, a woman, and five youths. They cheer the success of their plan to rid themselves of their pesky cousins, challengers to the Kuru throne.

The Pandavas are the good guys in the Mahabharata, the side supported by Lord Krishna, as the side fighting for Dharma. The Pandavas think it perfectly acceptable to sacrifice six tribal lives so that their own lives can be saved. In the battle between Dharma and Adharma, tribal lives are evidently expendable.

Is this the value the BJP now wants India’s tribal population to accept and applaud? Does making Murmu the President of the Republic, a largely ceremonial post, change anything on the ground for traditional forest dwellers? Does the BJP brand of Hindutva represent a variety of ethics and embodied theology different from the one upheld by the Pandavas, who are endorsed by Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata?

This is a question not just for the BJP, but also for those of the Opposition who deserted their joint candidate to support Murmu on the ground of her identity.

Mahabharata and current society

It could be argued that the Mahabharata is a thing of the past and does not reflect contemporary society’s attitude towards tribal people. Contemporary society’s attitude filtered through a news story that accompanied the report on Murmu’s likely triumph in the presidential polls: 121 of 125 members of different tribes were arrested and charged under various laws, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, following a Maoist ambush that killed two dozen paramilitary personnel, were acquitted by National Investigative Agency special court.

Most of them, 108, walked free — after having spent five grinding years in prison. The fate of three still languishes in a juvenile court. One had died in jail and 13 others continue in jail, facing charges other than those of which they have been acquitted. Jharkhand had a BJP chief minister when these tribal villagers had been rounded up and put in jail.

The provisions of the Forest Rights Act, which give tribal people a decisive say on utilizing their land for development projects, are right now being diluted, to say that tribal concurrence can be obtained after their land has been taken over for ‘development’, rather than before, as required by the Forest Rights Act.

With the choice of a Jat leader as its candidate for Vice-President, the BJP wants to woo Jats, a dominant agrarian caste in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Western Uttar Pradesh, and farmers, presumably still smarting from the three farm laws that made them protest for an entire torturous year. Once again, sections of the Opposition wonder at the wisdom of antagonizing the Jat community by voting against a potential Jat Vice-President.

Symbolic empowerment

Without any clarity on reforming Hindu society to give substantive equality to the subaltern groupings of the traditional Hindu hierarchy, the BJP has hit upon the idea of symbolic empowerment of the backward. The Prime Minister would wash their feet at Kumbh, their representatives would be made ministers, and statues would be installed of their traditional heroes. But when their young girls are raped and killed, their bodies are burnt in haste under police protection, and the rapists walk free.

This project progresses well, even as the Opposition helps it along, by being confused about what to choose from among identity, politics, and identity politics.

The article was first published in The Federal as President and VP elections: Identity, Politics or Identity Politics? on July 19, 2022

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About the Author

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TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Renowned Columnist based in Delhi.