Crippling Majoritarianism and Political Polarisation – An Analysis
It is impossible to make a case on the positive outcomes of sectarianism or majoritarianism politics, albeit the argument on “democratically elected mandate of the people” makes for an impenetrable defense. After the accession to power by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, there has been a noticeable shift towards majoritarianism and sectarianism in India. India’s demographic landscape clocks at 80% of the population consisting of Hindus. Thus, the philosophy of the party has largely been to consider India as essentially Hindu and its society to be seen in terms of Hindu ideas and ideals.
It also requires that all Indians stick to the Hindu ethos, regardless of their religious affiliation. Partisan attacks on the autonomous political institutions of India have since escalated; opposition parties have been increasingly wary of supporting pluralism and secularism, and there has been an upsurge of hostility and violence towards minority groups. Coupled with the economic development of India, shifts in the media environment, and the emergence of competitive caste politics, divisive political leadership has gradually taken the polarization to a boil.
History of Political Polarisation
The existing political polarization and identity politics in India dates back to the very foundation of our nation. This division has its origins in the colonial era and the two opposing perceptions of the idea of India that arose at that time. One strain of thought envisaged India as a secular country, in which membership was specified not by one’s religion but by one’s place of birth. Mahatma Gandhi, the key leader of the Indian independence movement and the founder of the Congress Party, was the most significant adherent of this view. He regarded the Indian nation as a harmonious array of religious cultures that needed to be considered as equals, along with many other Congress leaders like Nehru.
In direct contrast to this, Hindu nationalists argued that Hindu society established Indian identity and that by accepting the strictures of this dominant culture, minorities needed to assimilate. By founding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary volunteer group devoted to promoting Hindu nationalism, Pro-Hindutva political activists turned Savarkar’s proposal of challenging the secular conception of Indian nationhood into a mass movement in 1925. The RSS, which became the Hindu nationalist movement’s fountainhead, gained support from a network of sister organizations known as the Sangh Parivar. In postcolonial India, the conflict between these conflicting concepts of Indian nationhood has continued to fuel the polarization. However, the Congress Party pursued a form of pseudo-secularism by exploiting religion as it served the party and treating religious minorities as vote banks, instead of viewing constituencies as legitimate entities. Arguably, such shortcomings set the tone for the emergence of Hindu nationalism.
Factors driving Majoritarianism
One of the key drivers of polarization is India’s economic transition over the past three decades. A Congress-led government pursued an economic liberalization policy beginning in 1991 that reshaped the Indian economy, intensified urbanization, and generated a sizeable middle class. The wealth disparity thus created, favored the BJP in tapping this demography by promoting a development-oriented agenda. Polarization has also been fumed by shifts in the media environment, particularly in the past decade. Biased or partisan-leaning networks have been highly dominant in the world of corporate journalism, at the detriment of nonpartisan forms of reporting. The pace at which misinformation and lies are distributed has further been accelerated by social media.
An equally significant factor fuelling polarization and the growth of majoritarianism has been the growing importance of caste-based parties. The BJP doubled down on religious polarization as OBC parties started to gain a greater share of the vote in the 1980s and 1990s. This method has allowed the BJP to distinguish Hindu Dalits, the community of Indians at the bottom of the hierarchy of the Hindu caste, and lower OBCs within the caste-based parties from dominant OBC classes. The BJP was thus able to win over Hindus who would have voted along caste lines otherwise. The consensus view from the polls of 2014 and 2019 shows that the skilled use of Hindu nationalism by the party played a key role in blunting caste divisions and gaining landslide victories.
Impact of Majoritarianism
The toxic political discourse of India, in which politicians demonize their critics and minority communities regularly, has fuelled an alarming uptick in hatred and violence, more often than not promoted by political leaders. In recent years, immigrants, minorities, and human rights advocates have been steadily targeted by militia and majoritarian groups, sometimes with impunity. And, alarmingly, after senior BJP officials dismissed Anti-CAA protesters and Anti-Farm Laws protesters as traitors and Pakistani agents, sectarian violence has erupted in the national capital ever since. The blatant Hindu nationalism’s resounding electoral popularity has also forced the opposition parties to adopt a soft version of Hindutva, thus forcing them closer to its majority position on questions of identity and leaving few existing advocates of pluralism. The polarized politics of India have not spared matters of crucial significance to national security.
Most prominently, ahead of the 2019 polls, the Pulwama terrorist attack in Kashmir fuelled bitter partisan polarisation. The autonomous institutions of India have also suffered dearly in this polarized political attrition. As the Indian economy has deteriorated, the government has put rising pressure on the Reserve Bank of India. The frailties of Indian organizations charged with protecting transparency have also been highlighted by the existing polarization. The promise to fight corruption has been largely ignored by the government, undermining the efforts of institutions like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Central Information Commission (CIC). Likewise, the Judiciary and the Election Commission have also come under a lot of scrutinies.
The international image of India as the largest liberal democracy in the world with constitutional values of secularism, liberty, plurality, and tolerance is being challenged and the soft power of India could decline. The adoption of secularism by India was not meant to suppress Hinduism, but majoritarianism and to satisfy its diverse minority spectrum. In comparison, the relentless rhetoric that national issues are an “internal matter of affairs” does not serve to reinforce this situation. The fight against sectarianism must concentrate on combating the divisiveness of political discourse. To begin with, social media has to be controlled by both state and non-state actors to resolve the role it plays in spreading propaganda and inciting violence, albeit the issue remains to be complicated in the democracy setup.
Tech firms have already reacted to the steps in effect by restricting and controlling content on their websites, in particular by disabling bulk messaging in order to avoid the mass dissemination of false or incendiary messages. In addition, public protests have been used by numerous elements of Indian civil society, including intellectuals, campaigners, musicians, and journalists, to raise awareness of increasing extremism. While this may aid in raising awareness, or “spark a revolution” as one may say so, a permanent and long-term solution would be to make way for alternative politics, with an emphasis on pluralistic values that have ousted the religious narrative from governance.