The past few months have seen several social groups protesting, sometimes violently, to either protect or extend special privileges to their members. This resurgence of identity politics sits uncomfortably with a liberal constitutional order that is built on the rights of the individual.

The Congress government in Karnataka agreed to give minority status to the Lingayat and Veerashaiva communities last month. Dalit groups have taken to the streets to protest against a recent Supreme Court order to fortify The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 against misuse. Earlier, there have been demands for special privileges from relatively affluent communities such as the Jats in Haryana, the Patidars in Gujarat and the Marathas in Maharashtra.

The two main national parties—the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—have at different times played caste and communal politics to further their electoral agendas. Many regional parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samithi too have played identity politics with equal, if not greater, panache. Indian electoral politics, essentially, does not allow any major political party to take a stand against the grant of special privileges to a community with a substantial number of votes.

In the “first past the post" system of electing representatives, the power of democratic mobilization gives communities a veto over the rights of the individual. In an Indian election, a political party has to cultivate a small number of communities which can deliver block votes. And when the swing of a few percentage of votes can change the electoral verdict, even being able to wean off a faction of a community away from the rival party may work wonders—this is exactly what the Congress is trying in Karnataka.

In such a scenario, it is no surprise that the order on the SC/ST Act has come from a non-elected institution, the Supreme Court. The judiciary often leans towards activism but it still remains the one institution that can be expected to stand for the rights of the individual when they are in conflict with the privileges of a community. It is almost futile to hope that a political party will come to the rescue of an individual at the receiving end of the draconian provisions of the atrocities law (this is not to suggest that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are not subject to discrimination, as they have been through history, but the solution does not lie in a draconian law prone to misuse).

In Karnataka, it is worth noting that the Lingayat community’s demand for minority status is unambiguous, that is, they are not just demanding secession from Hinduism or Veerashaivism. A community can self-identify itself as a separate religion and live without the minority status, like the Jains did before 2014. But what is at stake is the number of benefits enjoyed on wearing the minority badge. A number of Central and state government schemes are meant exclusively for the minorities. The educational institutes run by minorities enjoy much greater autonomy. These perverse incentives in the name of secularism—which, in reality, actually distort Indian secularism—have given rise to numerous such demands by communities to gain minority status.

Ethnic fragmentation of the kind India has allows full play to identity politics. This fragmentation also makes it difficult for communities across fault lines to come together to mobilize on economic issues. The middle class, which is often expected to agitate for better economic policies in place of community-based handouts, has responded by exiting government-delivered services in favour of private service providers.

But there is still some hope for the Indian republic, which, unlike Indian democracy, puts the rights of the individual over those of communities. The Supreme Court—an important institution to uphold republican values and protect them from democratic excesses—has stepped in to put a cap on the quotas granted to communities.

And then there are regular political backstops to excess appeasement of communities by a political party. If one community is being given undue favours by a ruling party, other communities can unite to overthrow it in the next election. With an upper cap on quotas, introducing new communities into these privileges angers the original backward communities as their share of the pie reduces. If more and more communities get minority status, it will mean less funds for each minority group.

However, these backstops are provisional in nature and can only minimize the damage. As more communities demand special privileges, the government may end up committing greater funds for the welfare of select communities at the expense of development projects and public goods meant for all. This has, in fact, been happening in India. The political scientist Devesh Kapur has blamed this phenomenon of different groups demanding a greater share of public resources for India’s traditionally high fiscal deficits, low public investment and stunted economic growth rates.

Low economic growth rates mean that even the favoured communities don’t end up faring much better. The bottom line is that Indian democracy will be much more prosperous if the Indian republic—or each individual—is empowered.

How can the damage wrought by identity politics in India be minimized? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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