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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | No political arena should look like a football stadium

The last few weeks have seen a massive social and political up-churn, with protests rising against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA). A lot of discussion has taken place over the “discriminatory" nature of the Act, its constitutionality, and linkage with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, which India’s home minister mentioned on earlier occasions. Still, let’s take a step back to see how a given law that has sparked massive protests, spread feelings of fear and negative solidarity and is causing a communal divide can be seen as justified in its “implementation".

In Republic Of Beliefs, Kaushik Basu provided an extensive framework to discuss how and why certain nations are not able to execute laws once a sovereign’s implementation process underestimates some of the social and economic costs that these laws impose on citizens and functionaries. This happens when a sovereign (or a government in power) legislates assuming the absolute loyalty of government functionaries (those responsible for implementing the law) and of those perceived as “subjects" (to whom it applies).

In the context of countries like India, founded on principles of a constitutional democracy, two elements are critical in the legislative process for upholding and safeguarding constitutional values: An efficient administration and a dignified process of governance. An inability to ensure one would naturally affect the other. In theory, all this can make sense in a country where governance is aligned with principles of constitutional and civic-institutional morality.

But, what if that is not the case? What if a state decides to create laws for implementation that involve the creation of targets and polarize society? Game theory can help us better understand the logic of creating targets and its effect on the social (and political) psyche. In a game like football, one creates two rectanguloids at opposite ends of a field, and two teams wearing different colours (often with flags) are given a ball and asked to score goals, with a team of either colour trying to get the ball into the other team’s net at the far end. This goes on for a fixed period of time, with players fighting to score goals, some even getting injured in pursuit of that aim. But the game doesn’t just include those who are on the field and identified as players.

While the game is being played, one sees supporters of both coloured teams falling over one another to support the particular team they favour. These supporters, leaving their work or sacrificing leisure, are passionately willing (sometimes violently) to express support and defend their favoured team’s position, decisions, strategy, etc., till it succeeds in winning. A similar effect can be seen on the other side of supporters. The motivation to achieve success is more than enough for footballers to fight for the victory of their team and, by extension, of their fans.

“Creating targets", thus, can produce strong emotive effects and have serious follow-on effects, not only in the world of sports, but also on how economies and societies function. If a sovereign passes laws that specifically create targets, or group-based markers, it could make space for a subsequent division in public opinion with one group’s views set against another’s. Witness how people argue and fight to support either the Republicans or Democrats in the US, or Tories or Labour Party leaders in the UK in the same way we see people fighting for Manchester United or Arsenal in an English football league game.

Once the rationale for a political scheme of a specific group gets implanted in the group’s collective imagination, then the pursuit of a “created target" becomes an end in itself. Similarly, if setting or revising patriotic preferences is the aim of a given party in power, politicians or legislators from that party could use the human faculty of responding to that framework of sentiments as an opportunity to consolidate the appeal of those revised choices. This could help them steer societies into divisive terrain for the purpose of gaining long-term political legitimacy.

The CAA-NRC-NPR combination somewhere allows for creating targets in a similar manner, and it seems to go along with a state narrative to allow the “social legitimatization" of a legalized political project of pitting one group in opposition to another. If government functionaries, including the bureaucracy, have coercive tools at their disposal, such a narrative could potentially get even more deeply entrenched in the social psyche of a section (say, of a coloured football team), and attract even more “supporters" to one side.

The question is: How do we address this form of politics, or any whose legislative approach polarizes a country’s citizenry? This issue, as Basu addresses in his book, surfaced in the US of the 1950s, when McCarthyism gained ground after a 1950 “fear-mongering speech" delivered by Senator Joe McCarthy to the Women’s Republican Team in West Virginia. Luckily, as Basu notes, opposition to McCarthyism also built up eventually, with the “Joe Must Go" movement, and was led by prominent senators—both Democrats and Republicans—and US judges like Justice William Douglas.

India, at this juncture, may benefit significantly from a similar unifying social and political movement that peacefully resists a “discriminatory" law which appears to invoke the politics of exclusion. Exclusionary politics, as many examples have shown, is bad for social cohesion and worse for the sustenance of diverse, fraternal economies.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of economics at O.P. Jindal Global University

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