Although this writer may not claim any personal acquaintance with Maneka Gandhi, she has always seemed an individual and a politician untainted by small-minded, sectarian predilections. Whenever she has spoken in Parliament, she has come across as a leader with rational poise and non-discriminatory devotion to detail.
Yet, some of her averments during a public address at Sultanpur on April,12 must cause deep anxiety among citizens who may have reposed faith in the slogan “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas” (with everyone, for everyone).
In a direct reference to Muslim voters, she said that, although she expected to win her election, it would be hurtful to her if that victory did not include Muslim vote. Further, that, should Muslims desist from voting for her, they may not then expect to go to her with any hope of getting their work done, since, far from being a Gandhian procedure, electoral support is always a trade-off.
In passing, an obvious quick retort to that position on behalf of the Muslim voter might have been “if the BJP will not give one single ticket to a Muslim, why expect any Muslim support.”
But, the issues this unfortunate Maneka-speak raises are far more grave and far-reaching in a systemic perspective.
Are we to conclude that political forces that succeed at the hustings in a first-past-the-post electoral system may then legitimately work only on behalf of those who have voted the ruling dispensation to power?
Even if this be a sinister sub-text, even Narendra Modi has not thus far ever said that the 69% who did not vote for his party in the General Elections of 2014 need expect nothing from a government led by him.
Clearly, Maneka Gandhi’s call for a quid pro quo assumes a winner-take-all form of administrative and political culture—a characteristic more of totalitarian regimes than of multi-party democracies.
But, in the context of India’s undeniable diversity of social profiles, the singling out of Muslims invites another sort of question as well.
How, for example, may Maneka Gandhi presume that she is about to get votes from all sections barring only Muslims? Facts on the ground might suggest that few, if any, Dalit votes might accrue to her and her party. Yet, is it not interesting that she has not addressed the same sort of caution to them as she has to Muslims in her constituency?
Indeed, most candidates of any party have recognizable social bases on whom they rely to go forward, and most also manage some percentage of votes even from those sections who are not part of those social bases.
Why not, then, call upon all of them to cast their votes favourably, or else? Is it anybody’s case that Muslims have never voted for the BJP in some measure or the other? Indeed, during the Vajpeyi era, they did so with some zest. And if they are not inclined to do so now, should that not be rather a worrying question for the BJP than an occasion to issue barely-concealed cautions?
In what she has said to Muslims, one is inevitably led to think that even she subliminally, considers and judges Muslim community vote—if there is any such homogeneity in that vote, something that sephology will decisively disprove—more exclusively than she does other voters. What name may then be given to a social attitude that does so?
To return to the larger macro-constitutional issue: is it to be thought that the secular-democratic state and its governmental agencies may legitimately cater favourably only to those segments of the electorate whose role in voting the ruling party to power may have been more pronounced than that of other segments?
Maneka Gandhi may recall that such accusation used to be leveled with gusto against Left-ruled states, and with some justice. Is Maneka she then borrowing a leaf from those sorts of examples?
Clarifications apart, one would like to think that the full implications for a pluralist democracy of what Maneka Gandhi has said are already dawning on her. It cannot be the case that a hundred percent of the votes cast in an election must either go to the party that wins a majority or that citizens who choose to vote differently must expect the neglect of the democratic state which, after all, draws its legitimacy from Constitution that requires no such wholesale conformity.
Indeed, an elightened government, one would think, must cater most of all to those who have isssues with it, and, through assiduous attention to what grouse they have, seek to win them over to the ruling fold.
It is of course true that step-motherly governmental treatment has tended always to exist in Indian democracy, but rarely has such treatment been so cavalierly enunciated and justified.
All that does not augur well for the flourishing of dissent within the body politic and within the political class. Nor does a demand for loyalty bear good tidings for the Institutions of the state and of the bureaucracies who run them.
That such state institutions have come to be used with a seeming vengeance over the last few months especially almost exclusively against political opponents is clear evidence of what can happen if the Maneka thesis is extended beyond its limited purview.
If pluralist democracy may best be defined as an intelligent and caring, lawful and non-discriminatory management of differences, and selflessly for the forward movement of the common weal, then India’s politicians may yet have extremely fraught lessons to learn.
A salutary gloss on the Union Minister’s position has, meanwhile, come from her co-party candidate from Mathura, Hema Malini. She has said she does not share her thinking , and believes that once elected, the successful candidate is obliged to work impartially for all citizen-voters.
A Fulbright Scholar and PhD from Madison, Wisconsin, Badri Raina taught English literature at Delhi University for four decades, He is a well known commentator on political, social and cultural issues.