On the face of it, the Supreme Court’s ‘purposive and broad’ interpretation of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act (RPA) which says votes can’t be sought in the name of religion or caste seems a big step forward, the beginning of a brand new politics in the country that is not based on narrow identities. Except, much of this is already contained in the RPA which has provisions to deter communal, casteist, parochial or any kind of discriminatory politics and electioneering. The RPA draws upon Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code which deals with fomenting enmity between groups on basis of religion, race, caste, etc; it also relies on the Religious Institutions Act which forbids using (through affiliates or directly) religious institutions/funds for political purposes. The RPA also bans inducing the voter(s) to choose or reject a particular candidate under the threat of spiritual/community censure.
Even if the idea behind the SC’s 4-3 verdict was to give RPA more teeth—monitoring each speech during an election campaign promises to be a logistical nightmare—it needed to be more nuanced. With a long history of real or imagined caste/religious discrimination and tension, politics is about getting broader sanction to address such issues. In which case, what kind of ‘purposive’ interpretation is to be given to political parties set up to deal with only a religious/caste group’s needs? If they are to be declared illegal, a vital part of politics will be pushed underground. The stated agenda of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, for instance, is “to protect and advance the rights of Muslims, Dalits, BCs, Minorities and all other underprivileged communities in India”; the Shiromani Akali Dal, similarly, has an explicit religious affiliation. Addressing a Khairlanji massacre—or the backwardness of the members of a community/religion—will, like it or not, require framing the issue in caste/religious terms. It is, of course, odd not to strike down caste-based reservations as illegal but to say that seeking votes in the name of caste is illegitimate.
Which is why the dissenting judgment says, “to hold that a person who seeks to contest an election is prohibited from speaking of the legitimate concerns of citizens that the injustices faced by them on the basis of traits having an origin in religion, race, caste, community or language … is to reduce democracy to an abstraction”. Ensuring that politics is not reduced to inciting violence or hatred—whether on the basis of caste or religion—is important, but this cannot be done by outlawing legitimate concerns of citizens that can only be addressed through an election process. In any case, India’s electoral history shows that politics of hatred or entitlement carries you only so far—only parties that have broadened their appeal to take on board other constituencies have, by and large, done well. Not recognising this is giving India’s politics a bad name.