Former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan and All India Muslim Personal Law Board vice-president Maulana Kalbe Sadiq this week issued a joint statement asking voters in Uttar Pradesh to not elect their representatives on the basis of caste or religion.

They asked people to pay more attention to economic issues such as inflation and corruption instead.

Their joint call is likely to be ineffectual in a state such as Uttar Pradesh, where caste and communal factors are particularly strong during elections. The main political parties are unlikely to shift their game plan. Each of them is using identity politics to woo voters in the state, with some form of preferential treatment being offered in a bid to seek votes.

A file photo of former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan

Identity politics has always been an important part of the Indian political scene. The agitations for linguistic states soon after independence were an early reminder of this reality. Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia argued at around the same time that caste was a central reality in Indian society. The communal divide cannot be wished away either. Yet, there were always significant mass mobilizations based on common economic interests. Then something happened around 25 years ago. Both, trade unions and various farmer movements that mobilized people on economic issues went into decline. The field was left open for the politics of identity, paradoxically at a time when the Indian economy shed its inertia. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the agitations for extending job reservations based on the Mandal Commission recommendations set the tone. More generally, an entire politics of entitlements was built around the assumption that the Indian state has to placate conflicting social groups, even as liberals hoped that faster economic growth and greater social mobility would strike a blow at these pernicious habits.

Have we reached a point of no return? In case we have, then the exhortation of Sudarshan and Sadiq to the voters of Uttar Pradesh is merely a quixotic stab at a tough reality that will always dominate Indian politics for many more years. But there is another possibility, albeit a slight one right now: that India is ready to turn its back on the monopoly that identity politics currently enjoys.

The movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare and the recent strikes at the Maruti factory at Manesar could be seen against this backdrop, as proof that Indians can back agitations not based on religious, linguistic and caste lines.

Hazare will launch the second phase of his movement this weekend. There is much to criticize about his movement and the draconian version of the Lokpal law it is stubbornly insisting on, even as the concerted efforts by the government to discredit his team are not worthy of praise either. But there can be no doubt that the Hazare movement managed to shake the middle class out of its stupor. For perhaps the first time in recent decades, middle class protesters managed to put the government on the back foot on an issue that transcended the usual divides. Corruption suddenly went to the top of the national agenda.

The Maruti strikes were perhaps the most high-profile industrial action in many years. To be sure, they surely don’t compare with legendary strikes such as those by railway workers in 1974 or Mumbai textile workers in 1982. One must also remember that official statistics on the labour ministry website show that industrial peace is still the default across India, despite data that shows that the share of wages in national income could be dropping. However, with companies facing a shortage of skilled labour and workers battling high inflation, it is quite likely that the latter could begin using their power to demand better wages and work conditions.

Social unrest is growing across the world, according to data released recently by the International Labour Organization. The multilateral agency has constructed a social unrest index based on a survey with five factors: lack of confidence in national governments (with a weightage of 0.3); worsening standards of living (0.2); dissatisfaction with the level of freedom in the respondent’s country (0.2); worsening national economy (0.2), and access to the Internet (0.1). The biggest increase in the social unrest index between 2006 and 2010 has been in the developed countries. The Middle East and North Africa are next. South Asia is not far behind.

It is difficult to predict what form social unrest in India will take, if indeed it emerges at all. However, it is still worth asking the question: with growing aspirations, are Indian voters more ready to respond to political parties that promise good governance, less corruption, better infrastructure and more efficient social services? And, will the next round of political agitations focus on economic issues rather than identity?

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is the Executive Editor of Mint

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