Punjab CM’s remarks on people in UP and Bihar are a disheartening echo of identity politics on the campaign trail
The politics of identity – based on caste, religion, language and region – has been an unfortunate reality in India’s election campaign for decades now. Campaign slogans and rhetoric range from relatively innocuous assertions like “Ma, Maati, Manush” in West Bengal to the elaboration of more dangerous dichotomies in the campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s remarks on the election campaign, with Priyanka Gandhi standing next to him, that Punjabis should ‘unite’ and not let the ‘bhaiyas of UP, Bihar and of Delhi” to govern Punjab is unworthy of his office and only shows the limits of his recourse.
Naturally, the BJP and AAP jumped on Channi’s words, accusing Congress of engaging in divisive politics. There is a cynical justification for their outrage: it likely stems from the fact that the UP, arguably the most electorally important state in the country, is also going to the polls. After all, neither party is beyond reproach when it comes to how it defines policies on “outsiders”: in neighboring Haryana, the BJP government wants 75% of jobs to be reserved for locals; in Delhi, the AAP government wants college seats to be reserved for locals. The three parties – the AAP, BJP and Congress – have pledged to reserve jobs for the people of Uttarakhand, who voted on February 14. invoked to cover governance failures in terms of job creation and economic development.
There is a marked difference between regional pride and prejudice. Channi’s statement, if it had only been a celebration of “Punjabiyat”, would not have prompted comment. As it stands, it’s both disturbing and myopic: the Punjabi is an immigrant in Bengaluru, the Haryanvi a “foreigner” in Maharashtra. Invoking identity politics in a negative sense will, in the long run, only put obstacles in the way of the free movement of labor, which is integral to economic growth. The problems facing Punjab are serious – the model of agriculture ushered in during the Green Revolution needs an overhaul, a jobs crisis, an epidemic of drug addiction among young people. The CM of Punjab knows only too well the importance of the migrant in his State, whether it is the student or the worker in the factory or the farm. He should withdraw his remarks before the curtain falls on his campaign.
This editorial first appeared in the February 18, 2022 print edition under the title Pride and Prejudice.