Existing minority communities may not look kindly to another addition to their ranks.
Whether out of compulsion or by conviction, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has dispensed with the high command model favoured by his predecessor Sonia Gandhi. In the earlier system, it was 10 Janpath (acting and speaking through a handful of chosen favourites) that dictated policy in any state run by the Congress Party. In order to keep the ego (read “powers”) of the Chief Minister in check, the Pradesh Congress Committee chief was usually his bitter rival within the party, and whose primary activity was to sabotage the functioning of the government, so that in time the high command would replace the CM with (hopefully) the PCC president. Aircraft charter companies were kept busy in visits of the CM and his ministers to the All India Congress Committee headquarters at Delhi. Many of the ministers would have dreams of replacing their boss, and would retail unpleasant stories about the CM to those regarded as the “eyes and ears” of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The lady would, on occasion, grant an audience to some of these frequent flyers, generating newspaper headlines friendly or negative towards the CM, depending on whether she met his foes or allies. Much of the time of those in ministerial office was spent not on battling the opposition or solving the problems of the state, but on durbar politics. In every election, tickets were distributed on the basis of regularity of attendance at the durbars of senior Congress leaders, with favourites getting precedence over those unfortunates who were unable to attend such durbars (and serenade and flatter the leader in question) bec ause they were busy at the grassroots. Of course, it needs to be added that it was not only the Congress Party that ran a durbar system.
Other parties did as well, and the durbars of prominent leaders of these parties are well known not only to party cadres but to the wider public as well. The large number of “durbaris” accommodated in top jobs within each of these non-Congress parties is testimony to the reality of the feudal spirit continuing in force despite Indira Gandhi having torn up in 1969 the supposedly sacrosanct covenants entered into between the Princes and the Government of India in 1947. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi (entirely correctly) did not make efforts at micro-managing the administration of states such as Punjab and Karnataka, whose Chief Ministers function the way Biju Patnaik and B.C. Roy did during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. Facing an election that could fatally damage not only his political career but the future of his party, the Karnataka CM has deployed a sackful of tactics in order to reduce the BJP vote and increase that of the Congress Party. Among them is his government’s acceptance of the demand of a section of the Lingayat community for minority status, which earlier had been granted to Sikhs and Jains.
In Karnataka, the Congress is aiming at the most reliable BJP vote bank, the Lingayat community, within which state BJP president B.S. Yeddyurappa belongs. The CM’s backing for separate status has led to fears that the Hindu community will be at grave risk of getting splintered, were the separation to take effect. Such fears are misplaced, for the origins of the demand are not anchored in theology, but in more practical issues. The most important is the fact that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru continued with the British-era policy of giving preferential treatment to non-Hindus, a strand of policy which was implemented with added vigour during the ten years of UPA rule. Enactments with a frank bias against the Hindus such as the Right to Education Act were passed into law. The consequence of this law has been to substantially handicap the majority community from setting up and administering schools, thereby ceding the advantage to institutions started by members of the minority communities.
Despite the NDA entering upon its fifth year in office, this far no effort has been made to either scrap the RTE to ensure that every citizen of India be treated equally in the matter of setting up of private schools. Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently wants to wait till a second or a third term before doing away with British-era measures that target the Hindu community, such as the continuation of state control over temples in India. But some Hindus are not prepared to wait that long and doubt that such British-era discriminatory steps will ever get rolled back. They would, therefore, like to join the ranks of the minority communities, thereby winning for themselves the privileges such a tag brings with it in India. The Lingayat community has within its fold several who set up educational, medical and other institutions, but who are finding themselves handicapped while competing with those set up by members of minority communities. Just as the Patidars led by Hardik Patel want to be treated the same as other sections are as a consequence of laws applicable to reservations, so do many of the Lingayats of Karnataka. Imprecations of anti-national conduct by television anchors are unlikely to deflect them from such a course.
While the existing minority communities may not look kindly to another addition to their ranks, the Karnataka CM has calculated that they have nowhere else to go, as few wish to cast their ballots in favour of the BJP, at least in Karnataka. Also, the chances that the Central government will concede the demand of a section of the Lingayats for separate status is zero so far as the Modi government is concerned, a fact that must be known to almost all minority community voters.
Given the tilt of certain official policies in favour of minority communities and the reluctance even of the Central government to remove this, more and more groups within the majority community are likely to demand minority status, not out of distaste for the ancient religion they belong to, but solely to be enabled to compete on an equal footing with competitors from the minority communities. The Congress Party may garner several hundred thousand more votes as a consequence of Siddaramaiah’s dexterity. However, he will have opened a Pandora’s Box of similar demands, until the Modi government finds the will to ensure that equal treatment to all finally becomes state policy.