Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) spokesperson and Ghaziabad Lok Sabha constituency contestant Shazia Ilmi turned the Indian liberal discourse of defending angels and secularism on the one hand and fighting the devils and communalism by asking Muslims to turn communal. Secularism in this predefined debate is about guarding against Hindu majoritarianism. Of course, for the sake of pretence, the self-appointed guardians of secularism would utter the empty pietism that minorityism is as bad as majoritarianism. In parlance, it means Muslim, Christian and Sikh communalism would be as bad as Hindu communalism.
The twist given to the two words, communalism and secularism, in Indian political lexicon deserves a deep cultural-linguistic analysis.
What has unnerved both the so-called secularists as well as the Hindu communalists is the fact that she has broken the glass door separating the two words and the connotations. As a Muslim who belongs to a party that has been labelled anarchist and leftist by the BJP and the Hindu right-wing by the Congress, Ilmi dared to ask for Muslim votes because there is a significant chunk of Muslim voters in her constituency. The tacit assumption in choice of a candidate for a constituency is her or his winnability, again a nice Indian political term which spills over from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) meaning. That is, whether he or she belongs to a particular caste or religion which is numerically predominant. And for the sake of constitutional politeness, this is not stated. Most of the time, there is something eminently nice about forms of politeness with its implication of hypocrisy. That is how societies, cultures and civilisations keep the demons lurking inside all of us on the leash.
It would not be preferable to practice the Ilmi candour because it has the potential of disrupting the polity. If people were to seek votes in the name of caste and religion, though it would indeed be honest to do so, then there will be a need to redraw the constituencies along caste and religious lines. It is not only a cynical thing to do but it is also impossible because no caste or religion dominates any particular constituency. But an innovative way of dealing with this could be as is being envisaged in the women’s reservation bill. For instance, a mechanism could be found by which every caste or religious group could work within a rotational system to find greater representation in political structures.
Ilmi’s appeal for Muslim votes, despite its constitutional impropriety, should not be brushed aside and glossed over. She has brought into the open what has been the silent practice. There are two possible responses to this. Silence is not one of them. One is to discuss the complexity of Indian society’s caste and religious mosaic, and whether it is possible or even desirable, to transform them all into mere citizens, which is what Western liberal democracies have done. It is not as idealistic as it appears to be because to strip a citizen of her or his cultural and religious identity separate from the political identity has an inescapable existential aspect to it. The other way could be to end the practice of choosing a person on the basis of caste and religious identity of the constituency. As a mature democracy we should confront these questions instead of taking shelter behind hollow constitutionality.