Deciding an election petition 45-years-ago, Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer had lamented: “It is a matter for profound regret that political communalism far from being rooted out is foliating and flourishing, largely because parties and politicians have not the will, professions apart, to give up the chase for power through politicising communal awareness and religious cultural identity. The Ram-Rahim ideal and secular ideology are often politicians’ haberdashery, not soul-stuff. Micro and mini-communal fires are stoked by some leaders whose overpowering love for seats in the legislature is stronger than sincere loyalty to secular electoral process.” [Abdul Hussain, Mir vs Shamsul Huda & Anr, 1975]. Fifteen years later, eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar said: “Never before has the Indian electorate had to face such intense communal and casteist slogans” (India Today, May 1991). The two observations were made during two different Congress regimes. The learned judge breathed his last in December 2014, and Nayar in August last year, both during the present political dispensation at the Centre. Watching the continuing legacy of communal politics and its escalation, they must have indeed been even more disgusted.
The first parliamentary election held after I returned from Europe and settled in Delhi, was that of 1977: Communal overtones in the electioneering process were heard all around, then. It was a novel experience for the nation: A sitting prime minister lost the election in the aftermath of Emergency. That was also the beginning of coalition rule: Some disgruntled Congress leaders who had left the party and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, once each other’s bitterest opponents, had buried the hatchet in pursuit of power. The marriage of convenience, however, did not work. There was another election soon, and the Congress returned to power. The two major political formations, led by the Congress and BJP, have since been playing the communal card. The victims of this tug of war have been the minorities — mainly, Muslims. One side is obsessed with “Muslim problems” and the other, with “Muslims as a problem.”
The 1996 election led to the formation of a Congress-supported coalition government led by a regional leader from the South. Having been tied that year to the chair of the National Minorities Commission, I had a chance to interact with political leaders of all hues and found them generally self-centered. The Congress soon pulled the rug from under the new premier’s feet, calling him “nikamma and communal”. Surviving the onslaught, the ruling coalition found a new leader who fell in the battle of internal scuffles. Warring partners, by their sheer conduct, set the stage for enthroning the rival coalition. The majority of citizens being against communal politics, the professedly secular Congress eventually got another chance to rule the country. But old habits die hard and the new head of the government could not rid the party of its vices and shortcomings. The nature of democracy is to envisage a change of guard, and, in the electoral battle of 2014, votaries of cultural nationalism captured power. And, in a span of five years, it has changed the face of India. Now, it is the time for another election, and communal electioneering is the order of the day, again.
The Representation of the People Act, 1951, conspicuously prohibits communal electioneering by putting in place civil and criminal sanctions against it. Candidates making religious appeals can be prosecuted and, if elected, their election can be set aside. Citing these provisions of the Act in the SC case mentioned above, Iyer had said: “The founding faith of our poll process is to ostracise the communal vice from the campaign.” But never in its lifespan of seven decades has this law been able to make a dent on the evil of communal politics. Nor has the long chapter on “Offences against Religion” in the Indian Penal Code ever been able to stop the brewing of the toxic religion-politics cocktail.
Has, then, communal electioneering become an inseparable characteristic of Indian politics? Are we, the citizens of secular India, to perpetually bear with it?
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 12, 2019 under the title ‘ The communal card’.