The Politics of Victimhood

As much as we dislike them, cast, religious, and linguistic sentiments are central in politics. We cannot comprehend how ingrained these identities are, especially in a culturally diverse nation such as India. And… as much as we would hate to admit, the divide in society along caste and religious lines aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

The instinct to think like a herd has been prevalent in human beings since prehistoric times. Even a smalltime politician knows that if they can tap into this sentiment, they would become massively popular within the group. We refer to identity politics — pitting one group against another — as dirty politics, and if you ask me, this has been highly successful historically, and not without good reason.

In the recent West Bengal Legislative Assembly election, the most obvious flaw that anyone could identify with the BJP campaign was the lack of local leadership. The faces of the campaign were Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who, even though popular figures, cannot speak a word of Bengali. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee, the TMC leader (and Chief Minister of the incumbent govt.) is a local, which TMC’s campaign successfully asserted while also establishing that BJP is a party of outsiders. However, this regionalist sentiment in West Bengal is negligible compared to other states of India.

For example, there’s presence of a strong anti-Hindi sentiment in south India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, which has its roots in pre-independent India. In 1937, when C. Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency (under the British rule), he introduced Hindi as a compulsory language of study in schools, thereby igniting a series of anti-Hindi protests by social activist Periyar E. V. Ramasamy.

The movement soon escalated into the creation of regional parties that embodied Tamil pride. Periyar later founded the Dravidar Kazhagam, whose goal was to establish a Dravida Nadu (Dravidian nation) — further solidifying regionalist sentiments.

Later attempts to impose Hindi as the national language in 1965 by the Indian Govt. only strengthened the anti-Hindi movement. It consolidated voters across south India against the political domination of Congress (the then ruling party), which they viewed as a north Indian party. This regionalist sentiment has dominated Tamil Nadu’s politics ever since.

Today, as Shivam Shankar Singh writes in How to Win an Indian Election, most parties are identified with a particular community, caste, or religion in India. The major problem with such parties is that they often have to rely upon a sense of victimhood to keep their voters unified.

Unity isn’t the default state of a community. Some external factor, usually a common enemy, is needed to make people aware of their common identity and unite as a group (or a vote bank).

The fastest way to create a vote bank is to instil a sense of victimhood. Periyar’s anti-Hindi, Tamil pride agitations were a success because people felt aggrieved. It presented the community as a victim of some form of oppression. A feeling of having been denied justice is the fastest way to unite a community against a common foe, implant as sense of “us vs. them” mentality, and consolidate it into a political force.

This was the primary weapon of Donald Trump during the 2016 US elections. The Trump campaign worked to unify its supporters against immigrants, who could easily be blamed for Americans losing jobs. The campaign also tapped into the fear that Islam already produced in the minds of Trump’s core supporters. It only magnified the threat. The campaign was also able to successfully consolidate votes from people who suffered the most due to the worsening economy, who felt that mainstream politicians had let them down, who felt they needed to shake things up. Donald Trump simply gave these people a common foe, someone to blame for all their problems, i.e., the incumbent govt., and they united in a jiffy.

In India, the Dalit community represents one of the strongest voting banks in the country. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was founded in 1984 to support causes of the community, but it soon turned into a political force, especially in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1995, the whole community rallied behind Mayawati, propelling her to the post of Chief Minister.

A major cause of this consolidation is the strong discontent in the community due to historic injustice and a strong persistent feeling of victimhood — which isn’t unfounded, unlike Trump’s propaganda against Islam.

But as Trump has shown, you don’t need the truth, as long as you have a good story to instil a sense of victimhood within a community. To beat BSP (that had a stronghold over caste-based vote banks throughout the country), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started establishing an entirely new ‘Hindu’ vote bank. They had their watershed moment by participating in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Ram Janmabhoomi (Rama’s birthplace), as some Hindus claim, is where the Babri Masjid stood in present-day Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The message that the mosque was built over a Ram temple that was destroyed was used to rake up a historic wrong against the Hindu community. This led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, triggering riots all over India, resulting in the death of around 2,000 people, and a never-ending Hindu-Muslim strife.

But this helped the BJP shape itself into a party that fights for ‘Hindu causes’ while branding its opposition as parties that indulge in ‘Muslim appeasement’. The 2014 general election; the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly election (where the BJP won without fielding a single Muslim candidate); followed by the general election in 2019 has renewed the party’s faith in the political merit of appealing to majoritarian sentiments, and they aren’t backing down anytime soon.

Trump doubled down on his anti-Islam campaign rhetoric despite receiving widespread criticism from liberal Americans. It’s because he knew his message resonated with the people who were going to vote for him, and that liberal Americans wouldn’t vote for him either way, so why bother. This is true for the BJP as well.

Even though politics is a good (and easy) example to illustrate the power of victimhood, it’s prevalent in businesses as well. For example, Basecamp rallies support from small businesses all over the world in a similar fashion. They brand themselves as a company that fight for the causes of the little guys, and their anti-VC, anti-Silicon Valley, anti-Fortune 500 companies is a well-planned and extremely well-executed scheme.

The ability to unite against a common foe have helped human beings to overcome the impossible — achieve independence, overthrow dictatorships, and win wars. But it’s a double-edged sword that can rally us towards the wrong cause as well, unless we are careful.

If I have to be completely honest, victimhood is a weapon that’s being used against us on a daily basis, in some form or the other. It’s such an easy tactic that only an irrational idealist would think of not using it, and as we all know, idealists neither make good politicians nor businessmen.

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