Ethnic “Identity-Cards” & Democratic Values!

Joe Biden

There is nothing astonishing about the alacrity with which President Joe Biden has reacted against US Supreme Court’s decision on abortion. Had he not been known as a devoted Catholic Christian, perhaps he may not have taken this step. Irrespective of the fact that he has expressed a similar stand earlier, that of not favouring a legal measure against abortion, it is indeed paradoxical, speculations are being voiced about possible linkage between his being a devout Roman Catholic and the apex court’s decision on this issue. Personally, he is reported to have been earlier against abortion but later changed his stand. Political opportunism, according to his critics- favouring abortion rights- prompted him to change his stand.

Had perhaps Biden not been a Catholic, his religious identity would not have suddenly been given so much importance by those favouring as well as opposing abortion. He is the second Catholic to hold the office of US President. John F. Kennedy was the first one (1961-63).

Despite United States known as a leading democratic, secular country with freedom rights for its citizens and so forth, it is surprising that religious identity of the country’s most powerful citizen can hit headlines with such force.

Undeniably, the country’s Catholic population has been protesting against abortion rights for quite some time. At the same time, the number supporting the same cannot be ignored. Of the 65% of Americans, around 43% are Protestants and 20% Catholics, according to several sources. These are not just numbers but a minor reflection of the role that religion can and probably does play in speculating on as well as criticizing/supporting opinions expressed by their President. Of course, Biden is answerable to them. But there is something amiss about his having to do this because of being a devoted Roman Catholic. His present opinion on abortion appears to be given little importance against that of his religious identity with emphasis on his being a devoted Catholic.

Had he chosen to remain quiet on the judgment, in all probability, Biden would have still faced criticism – simply because of his religious identity. Here, one is forced to deliberate on noise made about certain identity-tags and their being linked with crucial issues. Were Biden not a Catholic, protests against apex court’s verdict would still have taken place but at least President’s religious identity and practice would have probably been spared.

It is indeed surprising, even most progressive and apparently liberal countries give greater importance to such identity-tags than to what the office-holder stands for and promotes. From another angle, religious-affiliation is not the only identity issue that appears to influence opinions in most countries, including United States. Not much needs to be said about gender which is marked by United States having failed to have a lady as head of the country till date. Though the country has had an African-American – Barack Obama – as its President, the importance given then to his colour cannot be ignored. It is not simply the issue of the country being used to having white, male and Protestant Presidents but that of whether its democracy, liberalism, freedom and similar factors continue to be marked by such identity-cards.

There is nothing astonishing about such ethnic-tags dominating the Indian socio-political scenario. This is likely to prevail for several generations, perhaps centuries. The recent example is selection of Draupa Murmu by the present government –led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to contest elections for post of President. She is well educated and has been in actively involved in politics from 1997, the year she joined BJP. India has had a woman president before (Pratibha Patil from 2007 to 2012) and its political map is marked by this gender’s political dominance at several levels. Murmu’s background as a tribal woman is being given substantial importance. If elected, she’d be the first tribal to hold position as President of India. She’d also be the first President from India’s eastern state- Odisha.

The difference between political importance linked with Biden’s “identity-tag” and that of Murmu is however too significant to be ignored. Biden’s religious identity (as a Catholic), apparently, played little role in his election as the President. This may have not have been talked about now if it were not for apex court’s decision against abortion. Biden’s reaction to the ruling – describing it as a “tragic error,” vowing to fight it and so forth – suggests his attempt to dissuade its linkage with his being Catholic. Politically, he has no inclination to cash on his religious identity or at least does not want to create such an impression.

In contrast, BJP’s selection of Murmu as presidential candidate is primarily linked with her tribal identity and the party’s electoral agenda to politically cash on this move. Tribal communities form around 9% of Indian population and have so far voted largely in favour of Congress or regional parties. BJP is banking on Murmu’s identity to help it gain tribal votes in forthcoming regional elections.

Tragically, when ethnic issues prevail over goods delivered by leaders and/or parties at the helm, sections of population and also media tend to get blinded by the former. This also explains importance given by BJP and its right-winged associates to repeatedly bank on communal-cards as strategic electoral tools.

Clearly, such use of ethnic labels – projecting them virtually as leaders’ identity-cards- amounts to placing basic democratic values at risk in both countries, United States as well as India!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).


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