I was born in 1989, a year that proved to be a turning point in the history of politics, due to a wave of revolutions that swept across the globe.
Starting with Poland, communist regimes in the Central and East European countries (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania) were overthrown in favour of democratic rule. China witnessed the first revolt against communism in the student protests at the Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall that had divided West and East Germany for 28 years was dismantled in November. Brazil held the first presidential elections in 29 years. South Africa elected the FW de Klerk government that began the five year-long process to end apartheid.
That year also saw the rise of the National Front, a coalition of Indian political parties led by the Janata Dal, which emerged victorious in the December general elections to form the country’s government. The end of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as India’s Prime Minister marked the demise of Nehruvian socialist policies of the previous Congress-led governments.
Two years later, the PV Narasimha Rao government, in which Dr Manmohan Singh served as the finance minister, brought about the reforms that liberalised the Indian economy and opened up the domestic market for private and global players.
I was among the first generation of young Indians who enjoyed the fruits of this policy change. This not only transformed the country’s lifestyle, but also seemingly liberated millions of people from the shackles of poverty.
Despite the impressive achievements since India’s independence, power has always been the central driving force in Indian politics. It still continues to be the primary motivation for many to enter this field. Politicians might claim to be devoted towards the country and the development of its people, but often, their true intentions are to capture and misuse this power for personal gains.
The sad reality is that, for 70 years, the general public has been continuously fooled by countless election campaigns and speeches to vote for someone they think has their best interests at heart. This has led to a dangerous consequence: the country’s educated urban youth are beginning to lose faith in the democratic system and are not participating in the electoral process of the world’s largest democracy.
They often question that since most politicians are the same and most political parties essentially have similar agendas, what difference would their vote really make? This undermines the spirit of free and fair elections, because a society that is ill-informed can be easily misguided. This further emboldens the elected leaders to pursue their vested interests.
Populism has become the most commonly-used tool in Indian politics. Often, it is a sure-shot way of achieving electoral success. According to Narendra Subramanian (Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University), populism refers to the act of parties that distinguish between the ‘people’ who are believed to have limited access to spheres of influence, and the ‘elite’ who are dominant in these spheres and culturally distinct from the masses.
Most populist political parties categorise people based on language, occupation, levels of education and religion. These groups are then targeted with freebies and incentives to appease them. They then seek the votes of these groups to attain political power.
Religious and socio-economic populism have been the two most popular measures employed by Indian political parties. For instance, for several decades, the Muslim minority in the country has been used as a vote bank by major political parties – some of which have even gone to ridiculous extents to appease them.
The Indian Constitution recognised economically-disadvantaged sections of the society, especially the Dalits and the Adivasis, by including them in the lists of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) of India. Ambedkar, the chair of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, recognised the need to uplift these oppressed communities. Therefore, articles were included in the Constitution that provided reservation for these people in elected bodies, public sector jobs and government-run higher education institutions for these people.
However, while this was introduced as a temporary measure for a period of 10 years, successive governments used constitutional amendments to extend this period – and these reservations are still in place. Despite the fact that most of the reserved seats, in many cases are taken up by the affluent members of these sections (while the really disadvantaged ones) still remain marginalised, political parties continue to use this as a populist measure to garner support during elections.
India became an independent nation when the British formally transferred power on August 15, 1947. However, this freedom came at a heavy cost. Just a day earlier, India had been divided into three parts: West Pakistan, India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
While India decided to remain a secular nation, Pakistan was allegedly conceived to be an Islamic republic. This division on religious lines resulted in one of the largest and bloodiest migrations in human history. Over 15 million people trekked for hundreds of miles to cross the haphazardly-drawn borders into the ‘correct’ nation for them. Over a million died in the process, and hundreds of thousands never made it across the borders.
Since then, the nations have fought four wars with each other (in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999). In fact, Pakistan has become the epitome for everything that Indian politicians believe is wrong. So much so, that anyone who remotely raises their dissent with the government’s views and policies is often labelled an ‘anti-national’ immediately, and then asked to ‘go to Pakistan’.
Even though both countries speak similar languages and have similar cultures, they are staunch enemies in the public eye. In my opinion, even a simple cricket match between the two nations creates an atmosphere as tense as the one that President Obama was in, when the US Navy Seals were hunting down Osama bin Laden.
“Padmavati”, the most recent ‘P’ of Indian politics, is not just a Bollywood film. Over the past few weeks, it has become a classic example of what happens when a democratic process is subverted for political gains.
For the uninitiated, “Padmavati” is a movie based on a fictional poem allegedly written by the famous Sufi poet, Malik Muhammed Jayasi, in 1540. The poem is an allegorical story of how Delhi’s sultan Alauddin Khilji unsuccessfully tried to capture the queen of Chittor (in modern-day Rajasthan), who was renowned all over the country for her flawless beauty. Legend has it that when Khilji attacked the Chittor fort, all the men died defending it while the women performed a mass self-immolation to save their honour and dignity. This is a story most Indian children would have heard from their grandparents.
A section of the Rajput community, which claims to include the descendants of the Chittor family, took offence to the film. They raised concerns that their queen was wrongfully depicted and their history misrepresented in this yet-to-be-released film. There were widespread protests against the film, and even the chief ministers of some states vowed to ban its release.
Members of the Karni Sena threatened to behead the film’s director and chop off the nose of the film’s lead actress, with one going to the extent of even announcing a bounty as high as $1.5 million for this task. The film’s producers failed to get it certified in time for its scheduled release on December 1, 2017, and had to ultimately succumb to political pressure and its release was delayed indefinitely.
In all this commotion, one question remained unanswered – how could someone comment on a film’s content without watching it, and why were all major political parties giving so much importance to a fictional film? The only hidden agenda was that the ruling party realised that this would distract people’s attention from their failure to deliver. It’s also possible that they saw this as a perfect ploy to gain more votes in the Gujarat state elections.
Once again, this was a perfect example of how political power was used to misguide the general public, while still remaining true to populist intentions and furthering the vested interests of capturing even greater power.