View: Begusarai now has a choice
Begusarai’s Hindus and Muslims need to assert against identity politics and convey that very message of hope.
Recently, in a WhatsApp group, I read the message of a bright Muslim student of mass communication: Ensuring the victory of the Muslim candidate from Begusarai (in Bihar) is a question of the very existence (‘wajud’) of Muslims! Instead of moving away from it, I asked myself, is India’s polity and society still stuck in divisive identity politics? Or, worse, increasingly getting entrenched into it?
On the same WhatsApp group, I asked that if the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidate standing for the ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Begusarai is indeed preferred, why should he be preferred for his Muslim-ness? Bihar’s Begusarai constituency will see a three-cornered fight on April 29 between BJP Union minister Giriraj Singh, RJD’s Tanveer Hassan and CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar.
There are some Muslims who believe the Left is much less friendly towards the community, rightly referring to the Sachar Report that underlined the lack of political and economic empowerment given to Muslims in West Bengal by the erstwhile Left Front government.
Another argument is why an uppercaste candidate, a bhumihar, like Kumar be preferred by the mahagathbandhan at the cost of a Muslim? They choose to forget two facts: since 1952, a bhumihar has been elected from Begusarai on most occasions; and that a Muslim NDA candidate was elected, only once, in 2009. The problem is that communal Muslims prefer to remain oblivious of the possibility of taking up their community-entrenched model of voting if all Hindus elected only Hindu candidates.
While insisting on adequate Muslim representation, most of them have chosen to ignore even bigger under-representations of the ajlaf and arzal communities among Muslims, considered ‘low castes’ among this purportedly casteless community.
Pre-poll debates bring forth all the fault lines in our society and polity — caste-based hierarchies, rising religious bigotry, majoritarian onslaught, minority persecution, competitive communalisms, Muslim under-representation, etc. But the response to these pressing problems is almost unerringly identity-based chauvinistic politics. Thus, even a nominal representation of such an identity is taken as a substance of empowerment.
In such a scenario, Kanhaiya, a local from rural Begusarai who emerged as the face of ‘JNU student-activism’, symbolises a different kind of politics that seems to cut across caste, religion and gender — ideology being the great polariser when it comes to him. In comparison, RJD’s Hassan was silent on the lynching and custodial deaths of Muslims. But sectarian Muslims get irked when sections of their co-religionists are seen defying identity-based electoral preferences.
The fact is that even RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav gave out a much delayed — and extremely reluctant — response to reported victimisations of Muslims at the hands of right-wing perpetrators. Other Muslim leaders of the RJD Congress combine in Bihar have been no better. So is the case with Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati and their Muslim leaders in UP. The politics of social justice has now been reduced to hegemony of a few dominant castes among traditional political parties.
Support bases are now seen as slavish vote-banks. This is an easy route compared to mobilising on non-identity politics, and concrete socioeconomic livelihood issues. The electorate needs to demonstrate that the old rules of the game —loyalty from a community for a community-tagged entity or organisation without any accountability — are over.
True, not every seat is as fortunate to have a dependable choice of candidates. Begusarai’s Hindus and Muslims need to assert against identity politics and convey that very message of hope. In the late-colonial and early Independence era, Begusarai was seen as the nerve-centre of Leftled aggressive peasant politics and was thereby nicknamed the ‘Leningrad of Bihar’.
Subsequently, it got fossilised, decayed and failed to address the issues of caste, land and class. Begusarai could well serve as a template for the rest of the country in the future, for identity-insecure Muslims, that they need not vote on blind communal identity lines. It may possibly augur well for India’s secular democracy if Begusarai trumps communally divisive politics of both Hindus and Muslims, and inspires the rest of Bihar —and, indeed, India — to move forward to an issue-based democratic polity, rather than a caste and community-corralled one.
The writer is author, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours