The C in Congress

Should the Congress party be described as casteist and communal? This is not merely a rhetorical question. It goes to the heart of the kind of India the Congress has imagined.

Both caste and religious identities are social realities. They are also the axes along which a range of deprivations are structured. Despite progress, the marginalisation of Dalits in India remains morally obscene. And we have produced a politics that increasingly marginalised Muslims. Good social policy has to address these realities. It will warrant affirmative action. The case made at the time of Independence that reservations may be necessary for Dalits remains strong; in the current paradigm it is unfair to deny backward Muslims reservations.

But social justice has been reduced to mere political opportunism. The price is being borne by the very groups we are trying to empower. The negative consequences of our discourse on social justice are immeasurable. First, a discourse of discrimination and oppression that was specific to the history of Dalits has been hijacked by all kinds of groups. So any discourse on social justice is now seen, not as rooted in ethical imperatives, but in an open grab for power. The specificity of morally appalling discrimination has been lost under the fog of demands for representation. Second, reservations, in their current form, have produced the worst of all worlds. They are a cheap gesture that disguises the root causes of marginalisation. In politics, they have diverted energies from addressing the root causes of deprivation. If politics had the same unanimity over quality education as it did over reservation, India would be a different place. Third, they have perpetuated an interest in conflict. Lalu Prasad's big crime in Bihar was not just that he kept it backward. It is that the state encouraged violence so that caste polarisation would remain a factor of mobilisation.

But there are other subtleties as well. Arguments that invoke merit in the context of attacking reservation are bad faith arguments. The problem is not necessarily that reservation is a deviation from something called merit. It is that the only form of inclusion that the state can come up with is one in which it is easy to mark groups like Dalits as less competent. Reservation has, in the form it is structured, increased rather than decreased prejudice. And everyone has an interest in perpetuating this vicious cycle. There are other subtle issues as well. The Indian private sector's record on inclusion is very weak. But in an economy where labour laws are rigid, informalisation rampant, educational institutions do not perform signalling functions, Dalits will find it harder to get entry.

Take another issue which should concern us all. Muslim youth are often unfairly and unconscionably targeted by the police. A lot of this may have to do with discrimination. But it is equally likely that the roots of this are the same as those that make custodial violence in India so common: the weakness of the police force. Impunity in police often has roots in weakness, not prejudice. When it does not have the adequate means, social esteem is low and it is put under pressure, police forces will do all kinds of things to be seen to get results. So discrimination against Muslims will be better addressed, not by reservations, but by police reform. It is not insignificant, for example, that at the level of high courts, quantitative evidence, judged by acquittal rates, suggests that minorities are not discriminated against, once the case comes to trial. This same judiciary has upheld every measure on reservation. But now we want to give members of constitutional bodies a caste and a religion.

These are complex issues. But under the slogan that caste and religion are realities in India, we want to straitjacket every issue through the prism of caste and religion. Ashis Nandy once made the powerful point that communalism was not about the "facts of religion". It was about its self-conscious use as a political tool, often by people who did not believe in it. Casteism, is also not about the fact of caste. It is about the use of caste to make three claims. First, that people have compulsory identities which they cannot transcend, ever. Institutions should act as if no one can be more or less than their caste. Second, the point of social policy is not to empower individuals to escape the deprivations of caste, but to trap them in it. Third, that the only possible test of the legitimacy of institutions is if they mirror social reality, not if they transform it into something better. All of the Congress's actions, from its support of the methodologically dubious caste census to its policies on reservation, suggest that it has become casteist in this sense.

It has also become communal in the sense that Hamid Dalwai so presciently diagnosed decades ago. It perpetuates the idea of minority as a political category, so that it can keep them in its place and use them. And, in the context of the Lokpal bill, it has cynically used them again. The Congress has ruled India for more than 50 years. But if India is more unjust along caste lines, minorities are more marginalised, surely the Congress is to blame. What is it about its paradigm of politics that it can effectively help neither Muslims nor Dalits? The caste parties may have narrow agendas; sections of the BJP may be pathologically incapable of thinking beyond identity. But what is the Congress's excuse?

The Anna movement has rightly been castigated for the morally obscene use of the caste of children. Recently, it was reported that Rahul Gandhi referred to Sam Pitroda's caste in an election rally. Is this really the party of Jawaharlal Nehru or even Rajiv Gandhi? We ought not to disguise the appalling realities of caste, where appropriate. But using them in this way? Someone remarked on reading this story, "Rahul ne to Sam Pitroda ki bhi jaat dikha di." Even if the intention was benign there is a truth in this. Is it not appallingly diminishing when we create an institutional culture where the first thing we want to point to is someone's caste? I thought the idea of India was to escape precisely this original sin. And now Lokpals, tomorrow judges, all will be identified through caste.

Perhaps the Congress is in love with the "C" in its name. Corruption was not enough. It had to become corrupt, casteist, communal and cynical. India's tragedy is that there is no national level challenger to this party that is diminishing us all.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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