Why politicization is not the bad thing it is made out to be, and the case for politicizing public grievances

farmers protest

These days it has become a common invective to denounce particular popular actions as ‘political’ or ‘politicized’ in order to delegitimize them. This is a tactic that has traditionally been employed by all ruling parties in India’s political history, but has become an especially handy tool for the Bharatiya Janta Party and its supporters within the media and public. The allegation of ‘politically motivated’ currently being hurled at the farmers’ protests fomenting around Delhi as well as other parts of the country is the most recent example of the same. This is just the latest use of the bogey in the past twelve months; it has previously been used to, among others, attack the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors, the raising of concerns about stranded migrant labourers being charged for being ferried by the railways to their homes during the lockdown, the opposition to the conduct of NEET and JEE exams amidst the pandemic, the questioning of the Union Government’s response to border incursions by China, and the protests against the shocking ill-treatment of the gang rape victim’s family in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras.

The question that begs to be asked is: what is this ‘politicization’, and is it indeed a bad thing?

Politics is serious matter

Politics is not just the domain of political parties contesting and competing with each other in elections. Understood holistically, the term refers to all the activities associated with the governance of a country, especially (but not limited to) the contestation of power among political parties, as well as deciding how that power to govern is wielded. It is reductive to treat politics simply as a horse race, a pro-wrestling match, a ‘Who will be the next PM/CM’ reality show, or BJP v. INC/AAP/TMC. Politics affects all of our lives, especially those of our fellow citizens who rely on the State for their material needs. This is why if something significantly affects the lives of citizens and is either ignored or not sufficiently dealt with by the State, it must be politicized.

This need for politicization through participation in the political process is sanctioned by the Constitution of India, not only through the right to participate in elections through voting in and contesting them, but also through the fundamental right to assemble peaceably and without arms, to form associations and unions, and to move freely throughout the territory of India. This is why anyone can form a political party; indeed, we have thousands of political parties across the country. It wouldn’t be incorrect to hold that our Constitutional and legal framework provides every citizen with the freedom to hold political thoughts, and to participate in political activities.

It is, therefore, quite puzzling, then, that political parties are derided for ‘doing politics’ or politicizing public concerns and issues. Is that not their raison d’etre? Every single party is guilty of it, especially during election campaigns, so why does it become a pejorative only when someone opposes the government’s narrative and raises uncomfortable questions?

Good politics v. bad politics

A distinction must be drawn, then, between ‘good politics’ and ‘bad politics’. As outlined by Prof. Sadanand Shahi in an excellent editorial in Hindustan, bad politics is of the kind that attempts to disengage the citizenry from politics by making them apolitical. This is precisely because an apolitical citizenry can easily be convinced that politics is sleazy territory to be stayed away from. Such citizens get conditioned not to expect or demand better governance from their political representatives or the State that improve their lives, and can consequently be swayed by narrow identitarian or parochial concerns that invoke passion but ultimately have no impact on their material living conditions.

Such bad politics is evident, for instance, in the politicization of the gotra or religion of a prominent politician, the unfortunate suicide of a Bollywood actor, and the rabble rousing over marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women.

Conversely, good politics is the kind that articulates legitimate public grievances, and policy issues that have a bearing on the public good.

This is why every government decision that impacts lives detrimentally must be contested, and opposition parties must challenge those decisions in the political domain. After all, that is how government policy improves in the first place, through the exertion of popular pressure. Even seen from the prism of cold electoral logic, it makes sense for opposition political parties to politicize citizens’ unrest and differences with the government: Different political parties are supposed to represent distinct and diverse ideologies and political stances, and opposition parties must organize and canvas support for positions on which they diverge with the government in order to set themselves apart and hope to win votes at the next election. After all, if every opposition party goes along with the government’s narrative and doesn’t stand with citizens when they voice differences with the government’s policies, then why would citizens vote for them?

In fact, if the opposition can be faulted for something, it is that they don’t politicize enough matters of government failures crushing citizens’ lives, be it, for instance, the unchecked police brutality against citizens in different parts of the country, the non-payment of salaries for several months to teachers and doctors, the resistance towards ASHA workers’, who are paid plenty of lip service for their services as frontline health workers, demand to be paid at least a minimum wage, the unemployment crisis that has enveloped the country for the last few years but has especially exacerbated due to the twin blow of the pandemic and the national lockdown, the central government’s failed response to the pandemic which has caused untold avoidable deaths and heaped misery on so many more people, and the education deficit being faced by students who cannot go to schools and are outside the limited privileged circle of those who can afford schooling via smart tech devices. These are issues that affect voters’ lives, and will find more resonance with public as opposed to petty bickering over a politician being asked to leave government accommodation that she doesn’t even need, or shameful resort politics of the sort we have seen in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan since the pandemic took root in India, which only goes to highlight how our elected representatives’ interests are so narrow, self-seeking and completely unrelated to our own.

After all, in a democracy, politicians work for us, and have an obligation to explain themselves and answer our questions. What’s wrong with an opposition party member or, indeed, a citizen, posing those questions and asking for information? Pointing out flaws in the policies of the government of the day and providing an alternative narrative is exactly the opposition’s job!

The public good must be politicized

Calls to not politicize issues are meant to divert attention from people’s legitimate demands, and reduce the government’s accountability. If the opposition is attempted to be shut out or dismissed under the canard of ‘politicization’, be it in the Parliament, in TV news channel studios or on the streets, then we are only left with the government’s narrative. In a parliamentary democracy like ours, however, every party, and, by extension, every person’s voice counts, not just the ruling party’s. The weakening of the opposition, therefore, by equating genuine dissent and questioning with narrow political attacks, weakens democracy.

Politicization of trivial matters must be called out and criticized. Politicization of people’s grievances, on the other hand, must not only be encouraged, but also expected from opposition parties, in a healthy democracy.

Vineet Bhalla is a Delhi-based lawyer.



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