The shut-down of Mumbai and other Maharashtra cities last week was a bizarre re-enactment of a battle between a British Mahar regiment and Peshwa troops 200 years ago. An obscure battle of no strategic importance catalysed Dalit mobs into paralyzing the state.
Cynics will say this is only to be expected in a country where mobs demand the banning of a film they have never seen about a person (Padmavati) that never existed. The Indian state looks weak and helpless, unable to check any vociferous group, and often happy to cave in to woo any and every possible vote-bank.
I was once asked by a group of foreign investors to make a presentation on the threat to stability, and hence the investment climate, from the multitude of clashes in India that even knowledgeable foreigners find difficult to comprehend. I explained that India, being very diverse, was by nature a land of a thousand clashes. These were based on several divides– caste, religion, language, class and region.
Had all clashes arisen from a single divide, it might have doomed a united India. In the days preceding independence in 1947, the clashes were based almost entirely on the Hindu-Muslim divide, and so led to partition. But in subsequent decades, clashes have flowed from a wide variety of causes. Far from worsening the situation, this has improved it beyond recognition.
The sheer multiplicity of clashes has produced an unexpected equilibrium. People who band together on one divide are bitterly opposed on another. By the same token, people who quarrel over one divide come together on other divides. India is a land of constantly shifting social coalitions.
Political parties have arisen out of these divides and shifting coalitions. In the first decade of independence, the main political parties aimed to attract voters across all divides—Congress, the Socialist Parties, the Communist parties, and the Swatantra Party. But these could not paper over the immense number of social divisions, which gradually created parties based on caste (RJD, SP, the two anti-Brahmin DMKs), region (TDP, BJD, TRS, Trinamool Congress, AGP, INLD, PDP et al), and religion (Akali Dal, Shiv Sena). Many parties span more than one divide.
Only rarely can a party based on a single divide win elections on its own. Every party needs to create a coalition of vote-banks to win. Moreover, a coalition of parties is often needed to form a government, or even a credible electoral front. Thus coalition building has become fundamental to politics. And this gets reflected in coalitions between social groups too.
One side-effect is a rising crescendo of aggressive demands from smaller and smaller vote banks. Even a small group can find big parties vying for its support, and this is one reason for the growing number of groups that agitate, foment clashes, and get rewarded with political respect rather than being jailed for hooliganism.
But this wooing of every vote-bank, with its constant shifting of social coalitions, also creates a society where there are no permanent foes or allies. Today’s opponent is potentially tomorrow’s friend. That reduces the severity of tensions across any one divide, and so produces social stability of a sort.
The BJP has long tried to consolidate Hindu voters. Its success in recent years has been interpreted by some as the rise of Hindutva and majoritarian politics. This is a gross exaggeration. The Hindutva core is simply too small to ever win elections, so the BJP has been obliged to woo a wide variety of vote-banks. In particular, it has focused on promising less corruption and on meeting the economic aspirations of people who are no longer poor.
This is not easy, and the BJP has stumbled badly on the employment front. The current agitations by dominant rural castes—Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Gujjars in Rajasthan, Jats in Haryana—for reservations in government jobs pits them against existing Hindu beneficiaries of reservations (Dalits, tribals and Other Backward Castes). Thus even an economic issue, like employment, gets converted in India into inter-caste rivalry that fragments the Hindu monolith that the BJP would love to create. Here too, the multiplicity of divides produces social equilibrium, though of a noisy and sometimes violent kind.
This is not a happy, fraternal society. Yet a sort of unity emerges out of the diverse mayhem. This unity is most obvious in the singing of Bollywood songs, or cheering of the Indian cricket team in South Africa. But it exists just as surely in the ability of Indian political parties to create the strangest bedfellows.