Some debates in the heat of the battle of 2019 are a throwback to the past, reminiscent of the distance we have veered off the kerb of acceptable ideas about what the pact of India and its people was about. Two distinct statements come to mind that show how close we have been to embracing discarded ideas of separateness, unmindful of the road — crossing near-impossible hurdles — to invent the idea of our republic.
In the fulminations of the RJD in Begusarai where Kanhaiya Kumar is contesting as a candidate of the Communist Party of India, or in what Narendra Modi had to say on Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s contest from Wayanad, an important but somewhat neglected chapter from our political history came into sharp focus.
On April 1, speaking in a rally at Wardha, Modi expressed disdain for Rahul Gandhi for standing from an area “where the majority is in a minority”. The implication being that it cannot be a legitimate representation if Rahul Gandhi is voted in by the “minority” community. Conversely, fulminations against the Bhumihar-comrade Kanhaiya for daring to contest from Begusarai, where the RJD’s Tanveer Hasan is also contesting and so seeking Muslim votes, was made out to be an act against “secularism”.
It is common sense, people say — that since India votes according to its micro-identities — to seek votes as per caste, sub-caste, region and religion. But to have been able to forge a modern idea of each citizen having one vote has been a big leap for India, as it negotiated several kinds and levels of inequalities and differences, diversities and inequities. This was an idea that was provocative at the time and bore the seed for social revolution, as each voter mattered equally and only as much as the other voter.
But both these recent astounding statements, one consistently made by RJD bigwigs and the other by the PM, calls into contention this very idea of the electorate. In the case of Kanhaiya’s candidature, seeking votes from all, the RJD saw red, as drawing Muslims away from a “Muslim” candidate was somehow wrong and a threat. The PM too, anxious to trash Gandhi’s choice of Wayanad as his second constituency, sought to diminish representation from there, as being tainted in some way, as it was where Muslims and Christians together, are more than Hindus.
By drawing attention to electorates like this, parties as contrasting as the BJP and RJD did not realise how close they were to making a case for separate electorates — a controversial and long-discarded idea from colonial India, which was always eager to sharpen the cleavages in Indian society.
The year 1909 marked the beginning of separate electorates. The Poona Pact is recalled by how the British wished to further carve out the “depressed classes” as separate electorates. Gandhi fasted over the issue and after protracted pressure,
B R Ambedkar agreed to doing away with the demand and agreed to reserved seats instead.
It was only a few months after Partition, as the Constituent Assembly debates were in progress, that a sub-committee looking to examine if separate electorates should be continued gave up on the idea. There were Muslims in the committee, headed by then home minister, Sardar Patel, leading the argument for a joint electorate. The move was towards a democracy where your central identity would be of a citizen; where you would vote as equal to every other citizen, and not demand a set number of representatives for either Muslims or Christians or Sikhs.
Oddly enough, those who now argue for the need for a “Muslim” leadership miss this point entirely: Each MP, after the doing away of separate electorates, is sworn to look after each citizen and constituent, and this is at the heart of the “unseparateness” that the Indian Constitution sought to forge.
In statements focussing, perhaps unmindfully, on what “the people” must represent (“Muslims” be represented by “Muslims” and “Hindu” leaders elected from where the people are “Hindu”), we have come dangerously close to flirting with the dark moment Bertolt Brecht speaks of in Die Losung or The Solution: “Stating that the people/Had forfeited the confidence of the government/And could win it back only By redoubled efforts/ Would it not be easier in that case/ for the government to dissolve the people/And elect another?”
This article first appeared in the May 6, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Electing a new people’. firstname.lastname@example.org