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The Telegraph 21 May 2000 PARIVAR MONOPOLY BY MUKUL KESAVAN What is the best way of making secularism work in India? How should citizens, political parties and democrats deal with the creeping majoritarianism that has begun to redefine the common sense of Indian politics? One answer has been a political coalition of the relatively oppressed. This is the political strategy favoured by Yadav & Yadav, which builds upon the Mandal platform. In this plan, a political coalition unites religious minorities, plebeian clean castes and Dalits and denies electoral majorities to coalitions dominated by upper-caste or savarna parties. The strategy has seen some success in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at the expense of the Congress model, which yoked together Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits. It has also seen much failure because the residual category of the savarna that it creates is not just economically, but also numerically powerful and able to coopt plebeian groups: tribals, Kurmis, other members of the so called backward classes. For example, Arun Katiyar of the Bajrang Dal is a Kurmi. Kalyan Singh, till recently the Bharatiya Janata Party's chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, is a backward class politician. The southern or Tamil example of a lower caste coalition is similar, but also fundamentally different. Historically, the Dravida movement's enemy was not a coalition of upper castes; south Indian society generally doesn't conform to varna typology. The enemy was one narrowly defined group - Brahmins. Southern Brahmins were numerically weaker and much more isolated as compared to the north Indian triumvirate of Brahmin, Thakur and Bania, and therefore, given the rules of democratic politics, easier to overcome. Besides, a secular politics wasn't the object of Dravidian anti-Brahminism, it was a by-product. Dravida Kazhagam politics was anti-Hindu rather than secular, though this might seem a patronizing way of describing the deeply felt atheism and rationalism of the Dravidian project. At the national level, the Dravidian model is not a good blue-print for a secular combination because the social context that nourished it doesn't exist elsewhere. Also, times change and anti-Brahminism isn't the cause it was once. In Tamil Nadu itself, the success of the Dravidian project has led to the subversion of the ideology that powered it. With the Brahmins cut down to size, it is possible for a non-Brahmin Tamil to be Hindu without discomfort. Today, DMK cadres, ministers even, participate in Hindu ritual with impunity; this would have been unthinkable five or ten years ago. An anti-savarna coalition of the Yadav sort is a likelier political strategy in the Hindi heartland, but it faces large obstacles on the road to power. It creates - by the nature of its politics - a large, powerful enemy. Also rainbow coalitions are hard to manage because their constituents often represent rival interests in rural society. There is no natural conjunction of interests between, say, Yadavs and Chamars; more often, there is a durable history of hostility. Besides, as Eugene Genovese, the historian of American slavery has pointed out, rainbow coalitions force the most oppressed (blacks in the United States, Dalits here) to devalue a uniquely disabling experience of subordination, to make common cause with other plebeians. A secular politics can't be built by fudging a common experience of oppression. The chances of plebeian solidarity building secularism in this country aren't compelling. As a general rule, secular coalitions should be as inclusive as possible. Secularism isn't going to be built by nominating high-caste Hindus as the enemy. Making the savarna Hindu secularism's hate figure alienates the most literate, powerful and networked section of the population. Secularism is not a radical project. Nehru's Fabianism and the commitment of Indian communist parties and Marxist academics to secularism has given the idea a pinkness, a vaguely socialist air. Nothing could be more misleading. Secularism in India has historically been the keystone of bourgeois politics. Secularism began life before independence as a way of assembling an inclusive nationalism which could credibly challenge British imperialism on a subcontinental scale. After independence, the secularist project became a bourgeois, liberal-democratic attempt to establish restraining norms that would allow the state, this leviathan, to work credibly for all its constituents. Secularism is to the state and politics what the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Act is to companies and commerce. It is a set of fair play norms that prevents any one religious group, regardless of its size or competence or power, from monopolizing the culture and politics of a nation and its institutions. In an ideal world, deviation from secular practice by the government, public sector undertakings, industry and educational institutions would be monitored by a statutory watchdog body, in exactly the same way as the Environmental Protection Agency in the US monitors compliance with rules designed to protect the environment. Think of a contemporary analogy. The department of justice is trying to restrain Microsoft from monopolizing computer operation. Windows users are to desktops what Hindus are to India. They dominate the computer environment, most software is directed at them. This in itself is not a bad or culpable thing; natural majorities can't help themselves. Things become problematic only when Microsoft begins to parley this numerical strength into an oppressive dominance by using its control of the operating system to rig the market against other software companies, thus stifling competition and innovation and denying users choice. The fact that Hindus are an overwhelming majority in India is not a problem. Nor is it their fault that advertisers, TV programming, magazines, greetings cards manufacturers, shopkeepers, movie makers tend to take their sensibilities into account more than those of Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. How many Hindi film heroes have you seen who wear turbans and beards? The market looks at volumes; that's why Hindi movies are likely to stage a Hindu wedding more often than a Muslim nikah (though there was a movie by that name that did moderately well). It needs to be said, though, that the business generated by a religious occasion isn't always limited by the size of the community that celebrates it. Christmas drums up more business than Indian Christians alone could account for. But even if the market were always to tend towards the presumed tastes of the Hindu majority, secularists would have no cause for complaint, no beef. But if a company like the Sangh Parivar Pvt. Ltd. was to use its hypothetical control of Hindus and its real control of the state to insist that no one distributed Bibles or sold beef, that would be rigging the market. It would be unfair, it would be unjust and some department of justice would be right to intervene.


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Last updated: October 28, 2000 .