India: from secular to sickular

One can characterize politics as a systematic study of ways in which interest groups compete over the power to shape state policy. In this sense, politics is concerned with the incessant competition to gain power to govern as well as the mechanisms through which a plurality of conflicting interests are managed. Politics also has an entrenched normative tradition that prescribes “good” ways to organize society, or in other words, tries to differentiate between what is socially just or unjust. Here politics is the domain of formulating ethics and norms — of what ought to be and why it should be that way. It is in this second formulation that politics and religion share the same fundamental concerns — an evaluation of what is “good” and “just.” In fact, when it was understood in terms of divinely ordained right to rule personified in the body of the sovereign, all politics, by definition, was religious. To expand on Quentin Skinner’s idea if political modernit}' is defined by the moment where political power is not understood in personal terms, it is also when religion as the raison d’etre of sovereign power is called into question. Transcendental source of worldly rule is replaced by the temporal rule of “the people.”1

To the extent “the people” are sovereign in democracies, it becomes impossible for power to be legitimate in any absolute sense. This fundamental indeterminacy of power underlies the foundation of democracies. Following Claude Lefort’s assertion that universal popular franchise renders the locus of power empty and unrepresentable, Thomas Blom Hansen claims this “gap between legitimacy and power” in democracies leads to an ever-increasing imperative to create and enact “new strategies of legitimization of power.”2 To put it simply, with the dissolution of top-down sovereign (divinely justified/imperial/colonial dominance) power, all exercise of political power has to be constantly legitimized by conceptualizing and articulating the collective good. This may take the form of discourses concerning economy, national security, nationalism, patriotism, freedom, justice, community, identity, equality, etc. In this contested field of legitimizing discourses, religious justifications must compete with other forms of mobilization. All claims to state power must be subject to the discipline of the constitution and the “vote market. In capitalism, competition for votes is also a competition for resources (money, muscle, management) geared toward winning seats.3

In this theoretical context, I examine the relation between religion and politics in post-independence India along three avenues of inquiry. First, 1 show ways in which collective religious identities have formed and congealed since the independence of India in 1947. Second, I analyze the conditions under which and modes through which religious identities are mobilized for electoral salience. Third, I evaluate how and when these social forces couched in religious identities are able to transmit their articulated preferences effectively so as to shape public policy at the federal level. A takeaway from this study is that although a communal vein of politics, soaked in an incendiary mixture of jingoism and xenophobia, has gained purchase among a broad base of voters at the national level, I argue that a closer look might reveal a more complicated picture of “split ticketing.”

The lay of the land

If Europe is seen as a continent, then India must not be seen as just a country. Even in its present incarnation, which came into being in 1947 as an independent country after 190 years of British colonial rule, the landmass that is known as India is better represented as a multinational/multiethnic/multireligious/multilingual/ multicultural/(sub)continent operating as a federal union (with a single common market and currency as well as freedom of movement within its borders) that is administratively divided along ethno-linguistic lines into 28 states and 8 union territories. India does not have a national religion or language. There are 22 official languages. For the purposes of federal administration, Hindi and English is used. It is a vibrant, and sometimes violent, but a fiercely competitive electoral democracy, with eight national parties and around fifty state parties contesting the 2019 elections. There are also hundreds more registered (“tin- recognized”) political parties. India should be comprehended more like the European Union, as many of its states are more populous than member states of the European Union. For example, as of 2019, about 200 million people live in Uttar Pradesh (UP) which is roughly the area of the UK (66 million). India is the also the only country that is home to all major world religions (Table 4.1).

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