Religion and politics have always existed as toxic, but inevitable mixes. Especially in the context of a democratic system of elections in which the primary fear is that numerical majority rule can turn into majoritarianism, ensuring that vote bank politics doesn’t happen must be the main concern. Vote bank politics essentially converts different groups defined and increasingly rigidly classified across divisions in identity, into mere statistical coordinates of the winning electoral representatives. As a result, group based representation, or winning over certain groups becomes a core process of election time, even though the groups may be completely ignored once elections are over. We see this in case of caste based voting, or religion-based parties emerging. Vote bank politics can be tremendously empowering if giving a voice to the marginalised is taken into account, for instance, the Dalit Bahujan slogan derived from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s words ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize’ emphasizes upon the importance of political power for a historically (and contemporarily) oppressed peoples/system of groups. However, a common trend that emerges through vote bank politics, thus giving it a negative connotation, is that the status quo of exploitation and suppression of voices is maintained. For example, rarely do we see a party campaigning for women’s reservation in the Parliament, or raising feminist issues—which shows how much of a vote bank women are considered to be. Similarly, environmental problems have never been election planks, a fact that proves the importance that environmental lobbies are denied. In other words, winning over Hindus (as a generalised entity and not a multiplicity of existences) or Yadavs (as a numerically and socio-economically significant caste group and thus the centre of party agendas) is more convenient than winning over people who don’t matter in the larger scheme of things. This erases the illusion of democracy being a space for undoing this historical silencing, a realization that vote bank politics helps us to come to. The public mood is eternally dominant, male, upper caste (usually, or lower caste when the need so arises), and large in number. And division into networks of votes rather than human beings exercising political choice is the obvious result.
Recently, the Madhya Pradesh government has appointed five Hindu religious saints as Ministers of State, with one of them being the infamous Computer Baba (a moniker changeably attributed to—him having used the computer first among other babas, him carrying a computer all the time, him having a brain faster than a computer, among other versions of followers). Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is known to have said, “Some people are doing politics for votebank…one must refrain from doing these things,” words worthy of being recorded and circulated. But, words rarely become deeds. This move has been seen as an act of appeasing the babas protesting against an ostensible scam of planting tree saplings against the banks of the river Narmada. The babas have understandably said, “There is no need for it now.” This decision has come in the wake of the upcoming state and national elections, and sets a pathetic precedent for other religious leaders for a simple logic—if these ‘social servants’ can be given ministerial positions, so can we. The main argument in favour of Yogi Adityanath’s candidature for the UP elections was that he has had political experience due to representing his constituency Gorakhpur many times, and that his political wisdom must not be dismissed at the expense of his religious identity. The babas in this case have no experience to speak of.
The traditional connection made between ascetics and a complete relinquishing of material worldly goods in favour of an immaterial enlightenment, which is also evident in severe penance, has been broken down here. Running after political power and economic resources (many of them live luxurious lives due to their followers’ offerings) appears to be a characteristic they have wholeheartedly adopted. As part of consumer capitalism, they have also marketed their ‘divine wisdom’ as services to the rest of humanity, but at a cost. This makes them products and owners of products in the system of exchange, wherein believers engage in economic and ‘faithful’ transactions, with the aim of receiving spiritual benefits in return.
The bigger problem is that making religious leaders political representatives marks a regression to the ‘Dark Ages’ when questioning and critical evaluation was not possible—everything was justified in the name of God. In a diverse society composed of multiple strains of belief, having one belief rule everyone is inherently polarising and marginalizing in nature. This is not only reflected in press conference speeches, but also in something as seemingly unrelated as economic policy (for example, the beef ban also greatly affected beef export businesses, many of them owned by Muslim households in Uttar Pradesh). Does this move imply that the simple connection of winning over people of the majority religion is the best tactic of winning any election? Isn’t this reductive link a definite possibility?
– Contributed by Tript
Picture Credits: iheu.org