News analysis

Ban on ethnic politics in India hard to enforce

Political parties, both national and regional, defined by caste and religious affiliations

India's Election Commission vowed to enforce a court order banning politicians from seeking votes on the basis of religion or caste in upcoming state polls, amid uncertainty over the feasibility of its implementation in a country where political parties are identified by such affiliations.

Experts said that, at best, parties would be more careful about making religious or caste references during campaigning.

The Supreme Court, in a verdict passed on Monday, said "religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process". It warned that results would be declared void if a candidate used religion or caste to seek votes.

 Reacting to the verdict, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi said the commission was committed to carrying out the order while announcing the dates for elections in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand from February to March. 

"The order of the Supreme Court will be implemented effectively," Mr Zaidi told reporters yesterday, but he did not go into details.

In India, political parties, both national and regional, are defined by their caste and religious affiliations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to national prominence on the back of Hindu nationalism, and its leaders continue to make anti-Muslim statements. Voters, too, make decisions based on religion and caste, often choosing candidates from their own communities. 

The verdict has now raised questions on whether political parties with names representing a particular caste or religion would also have to change their names. They include the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Akali Dal and Indian Union Muslim League.

Others wondered how groups associated with political parties would be regulated. "The BJP has welcomed (the verdict), but how is it going to conduct itself?" said politician D. Raja, of the Communist Party of India. 

Uttar Pradesh, where elections will be held in seven phases, is a politically important state where the chances of polarisation along religious lines are highest. It is India's most populous state, with about 200 million people.

Analysts said it remained to be seen whether the BJP will raise issues such as the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, a key theme for the party, its affiliates and its Hindu upper-caste voters. 

But federal Home Minister and BJP leader Rajnath Singh, while welcoming the ruling, denied the BJP indulged in religious politics.

Analysts said the only way the verdict would work was if political parties turned on one another.  In one such instance, the BJP complained to the Election Commission about All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi demanding a higher allotment for Muslims in the Mumbai civic budget.

But most analysts felt that use of religion and caste would continue.

"All political parties use religion and caste for garnering votes, even in candidate selection. They may not say it openly, given the Supreme Court embargo, but they will use it implicitly," said Dr Bidyut Chakrabarty, a political science professor at Delhi University.

"This sort of caste and religious identity is so embedded, it cannot be eradicated immediately."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Ban on ethnic politics in India hard to enforce'. Print Edition | Subscribe