Millennium Post

Reviving politics of identity

Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav’s 75th birthday celebrations have concluded. It has had the desired effect of creating more than a political ripple. The elite English media has seldom connected with the pulse of the masses, repeatedly proved by the outcome of the electoral results, and in this case too they managed to walk into the trap laid by the wily political fox from Etawah.

The choice of Rampur as the venue for the celebrations should have suggested to the mediapersons which was the constituency Mulyama Singh Yadav was trying to consolidate ahead of the 2017 assembly polls. His old comrade and senior minister in Akhilesh Yadav government, Mohammed Azam Khan, who may be a hated figure for the media or political rivals but much loved for his ‘capabilities’ within the Samajwadi Party leadership and rank and file, was chosen for the job. 

Rampur has a large presence of Muslim votes, initially loyal to the family of Rampur Nawab. Azam Khan’s political rise has been as rival claimant to the Muslim vote in the region. The abrasive trait of his demeanour has been cultivated by him as a counter to the eclecticism of the Nawab family. He makes no bones about being the representative of the hoi-polloi.

No wonder that he justified the splurge at Mulayam Singh’s birthday on the same term saying that did only the ‘Nawabs’ have the right to celebrate their birthday and not the common man. Equally not surprising was the thunderous applause he got from the people assembled for the celebration.

In fact Mulayam Singh’s birthday spectacle almost outdid similar exhibitions of wealth put up by his daunting rival, Bahaujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. In addition to her diamonds and solitaires, Mayawati had surprised many at one of her birthday parties on getting presented by a huge garland of currency notes in 1000 rupees denominations. This was a few years back and the 1000 rupees note carried much higher value than what it carries today.

Over the years the leaders espousing the cause of those who have been forced to live on the margins have shown the greater tendency towards ostentation. In fact Dalit leaders outside the Congress umbrella, right from the times of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, have seldom shown much need for making a statement on identifying with penury by wearing khadi.

Dalits scholars over the years have justified this ‘elitist trait’ saying that a leader from a poor background doesn’t need to show that he is poor, on the contrary, he must motivate his folk to rise and embrace the way of the life and style of the elite. They further espouse rejection of Khadi claiming that Mahatma Gandhi, a barrister by profession, discarded foreign clothes to identify with the half-naked masses. Likes of Ambedkar and Mayawati did not need to prove that they were from a poor background.

Coming back to the media walking into the trap set-up by Samajwadi Party, several among us lapped up the curtain raiser issued by Azam Khan about the funding of the two-day spectacle. When questioned about the finances for the grand event, for which Khan had worked overtime as he had his own personal reputation as the uncrowned king of Rampur at stake, said money had come from Taliban, a terror group and Dawood Ibrahim, the  underworld don. ‘Why does it matter where the money for celebrations is coming from? Some have come from Taliban, some from Abu Salem, some from Dawood (Ibrahim), some from terrorists...,’ Khan said, which some thought was a sarcastic response by an irritated Minister. The comments from Khan were well-designed and well-drafted and it had its desired effect. Media ran the Mulayam Singh birthday story 24x7.

At the main function, a  during the public meeting, Khan completed the ambush, deriding the media for questioning the funding of a ‘Samajwadi birthday bash’ on the one hand and on the other going gaga over the concerts which Prime Minister Narendra Modi held during his foreign visits at New York and Sydney. Khan’s allegation made sense to the captive audience, as media indeed has so far not bothered to ask questions about the organisation of Modi concerts, rather some of the television channels have fallen over one another to demolish those who tried raising a question.

The politics of Narendra Modi needs that he holds the concerts and the politics of Samajwadi Party needs that Azam Khan hosts a massive bash for his leader’s 75th birthday. The larger question is why these leaders don’t make a point to address the real issues of corruption, inflation and maladministration beyond lip-service. Narendra Modi has come to power riding on the agenda of providing good governance and reining in inflation. But his party, after gaining unprecedented majority on the floor of the lower house, has chosen to espouse the politics of identity leaving the development module to gather dust. Why can’t the agenda of identity and development walk hand-in-hand? Why is the politics of Narendra Modi getting bogged down as much by symbolism as the politics of Mulyam Singh Yadav? Unfortunately even the politics of former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, the best known development icon in recent times, has come to accommodate principles of identity over the agenda of progress.

In fact, several years ago another progressive politician Rajiv Gandhi frittered away an unprecedented mandate by falling for the politics of identity advocating the cause of Muslim fundamentalism vis-a-vis Shah Bano case. 

There were however a few who decided to put the politics of identity on the backburner and push for the agenda of development. The two prominent names which immediately come to mind in this context are those of former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Unfortunately both failed to reap electoral harvest for their initiatives.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post

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