Reigniting Mandal fire will be political suicide

Old hat Nitish and Lalu will find it tough to fight the Bihar Assembly election on the basis of the secular-communal debate
Old hat Nitish and Lalu will find it tough to fight the Bihar Assembly election on the basis of the secular-communal debate. Photo: Sonu Kishan

The recent bonhomie between the RID and the JD(U) in Bihar has led to political commentators predicting the resurrection of Mandal politics. In the wake of the humiliating electoral reverses suffered at the hands of a resurgent BJP, rivals-turned-friends Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have decided to sink their differences and fight the upcoming Assembly bypolls together.

The proponents of the social justice bandwagon argue that only a revisit to Mandalisation can stop the juggernaut of Kamandalisation (read Hindutva) from taking over the entire cow belt. The air is pregnant with possibilities of a grand alliance between the RID, JD(U) and the Congress to take on the BJP’s might in the bypolls as well as the 2015 Assembly polls. But before this alliance becomes a reality, there are several issues worth pondering over.

Is Mandal relevant today? Can it once again fire the imagination of the masses as it did in the early 1990s and lead to sweeping changes in the polity of the Hindi heartland?

In the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) era, the social justice plank has weakened. The welfare orientation of the State has changed; with its role shifting from that of a doer to a facilitator. Sectors that were earlier reserved for the State have now passed into the hands of the private sector. Downsizing of the State has led to a reduction in government jobs, and it is no longer the source of major employment avenues. The charm and prestige associated with government jobs have vanished and they are not as sought after as they were in the early 1990s. Private-sector companies, including multinationals, offer immense opportunities and unfortunately for the advocates of the social justice plank, they are guided more by considerations of efficiency, merit and competition than by social equity or justice.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission report provided 27 percent reservation for the backward castes in government jobs and later, this reservation was extended to educational institutions. Despite the concept of creamy layer introduced by the Supreme Court’s directives to weed out the relatively well-off sections of the other backward castes (OBCs) from the ambit of reservation, the benefits of reservation have remained confined to the upper layers of the backward caste population. Many backward caste groups have been left out, with the benefits of reservation not trickling down to them.

Land-owning and electorally dominant OBC castes such as the Yadavs and Kurmis have bettered their socio-economic conditions, much to the chagrin of other backward castes. From time to time, there are calls for sub-reservation for the left-out OBC groups within the overall ceiling of OBC reservation. OBC reservation has already been split into reservation for backwards and extreme backwards in certain states, including Bihar.

The monolithic identity and solidarity that bound the entire OBC population in the early 1990s at the inception of the Mandal agitation is now a thing of the past and gradually, it has been replaced by mutual rivalry and hostility. As a matter of fact, the social justice plank was nothing but a euphemism for the perpetration of caste politics and the mobilisation of caste groups as a vote bank to secure political ends. It was never allowed to reach its logical conclusion and only those OBC groups that had the numbers benefited from it. Political leaders such as Lalu, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav, who benefited from Mandal politics, tended to behave like tribal chieftains rather than leaders with a political vision and passion for the downtrodden. Not surprisingly, the law of diminishing returns has set in in the social justice plank. Moreover, internal contradictions have emerged within OBC politics, further complicating the scenario.

From the early years after Independence to the mid-1980s, leadership positions in all the major national or even regional parties were in the hands of the upper castes, but that changed after the onset of Mandal politics. Take, for example, the BJP, which was regarded predominantly as the party of Brahmins and Banias. Who would have imagined that Narendra Modi, a member of an extremely backward caste, would become the prime minister of the country and that too, with the backing of the RSS! Who would have thought that OBC leaders such as Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh and Vinay Katiyar would become the mascots of Hindutva? The BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh is an OBC. Even the RSS has tried to shed its upper-caste tag and include more and more backwards and Dalits into its fold to make Hindutva more inclusive.

Hence, the desire of Lalu and Nitish to play the OBC card to the disadvantage of the BJP may not cut much ice with the electorate. Many regional parties realised this when the results of the recent Lok Sabha election were declared. The Samajwadi Party, a predominantly OBC outfit under the stewardship of a political heavyweight such as Mulayam, could get only five seats out of 80 in Uttar Pradesh. So, to think that an OBC mobilisation would work against the BJP in Bihar is a bit exaggerated. Mandalisation may not work for the RID-JD(U) combine as it did in the early 1990s.

Short-sighted Mulayam has behaved like a tribal chieftain rather than a leader with a political vision
Short-sighted Mulayam has behaved like a tribal chieftain rather than a leader with a political vision. Photo: Pramod Singh Adhikari

The Mandalisation process in our polity saw the installation of Lalu and Mulayam at the helm in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. The Hindutva movement rode on the crest of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and was bolstered by the resentment among the Hindus due to the perceived appeasement of minorities by the so-called secular camp — as was evident in the Shah Bano case, for instance. It was, however, kept in check by the Mandalites, who caused division in the Hindu rank and file. Dalit political leaders extended support to the backward leadership in the hope of broadening the movement for social justice (read reservation). BSP founder Kanshi Ram opined that if Dalits and backwards come together on a common platform, the days of ascendancy of upper castes in politics will be numbered. This experiment was successful in Uttar Pradesh but soon differences cropped up between Mulayam and Mayawati and ultimately, the Mulayam government fell.

The experience of the past two decades has shown that Dalit aspirations have always been at loggerheads with the backwards. The backwards are never willing to share power with the Dalits and their treatment of Dalits is no better than that of the upper castes. The landed backward castes have continued to heap atrocities on the landless Dalit farmhands. Neither in Bihar nor in Uttar Pradesh have the Dalits and OBCs been on the same page.

It is highly unlikely that the RID-JD(U) combine will be in a position to garner substantial Dalit votes, given that LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan is with the saffron camp. Hence, the JD(U)’s symbolic gesture of installing a Mahadalit as the Bihar CM may not do the trick. The ideology of Ambedkar will hardly appeal to the Lohia-ites who look up to Karpoori Thakur and JP Narayan for inspiration.

The India of the 1990s is vastly different from the India of 2014. Out of every three Indians, one is urban. Around 200 Lok Sabha seats fall under urban constituencies. Today, the population of the middle class is around 160 million and if present trends continue, there will be 300 million middle-class Indians by 2025. The middle class has never been a votary of identity politics, be it on religious, caste or linguistic basis, but is rather more concerned about issues relating to development and governance. Connected with global developments through the Internet and mobile telephony, it is highly unlikely that it will be swayed by the caste rhetoric of the erstwhile Mandalite forces.

More than two decades of economic liberalisation and more than six decades of reservation have ensured the upward mobility of a considerable section of Dalits and OBCs, who identify themselves with middle-class aspirations. The politics of patronage, symbolism and handouts is hardly going to impress them. Moreover, the importance attached to castes in urban areas is much less than in a rural set-up. More than 50 percent of our population is less than the age of 25 years. They are not bogged down by any historical baggage, are forwardlooking and aspirational, looking for opportunities.

Modi’s victory in the Lok Sabha election was not due to the Hindutva factor alone, but also because of the promise of development and good governance. Modi was a whiff of fresh air for an electorate that was fed up with massive corruption and policy paralysis under the UPA regime. In the run-up to the election, the BJP may have played up the caste and communal cards in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but as a matter of fact, it was never glued to them alone. It talked of opportunities for the youth, it talked of the aspirations of ordinary masses, and the people believed it.

The RID-JD(U)-Congress grand alliance can’t fight the Bihar election on the basis of the secular-communal debate. The country has seen enough of such debates. The era of Mandal is over. Any attempt to reignite it will be akin to political hara-kiri. The backwards have already seen through the social justice of Lalu, which was little more than family justice and jungle raj. As far as Nitish is concerned, his political opportunism and personal disdain for Modi have become crystal clear. It is their last-ditch struggle for political survival.

As far as the BJP is concerned, relying on the LJP will prove to be counterproductive in the long run as Paswan has never been a reliable alliance partner. Hence, it must find its own Paswan. Nitish has already foisted a Dalit on the throne in Bihar.

To lend credence to its social inclusiveness plank, the time is ripe for the BJP to walk the talk, and nothing can be better than appointing a Dalit as its CM candidate. The social justice plank of the Mandalites needs to be fought by bringing the more disadvantaged sections to the forefront and ensuring they are not mere dummies.

Ojha Jai Prakash is the author of DNA of Dalit Movement

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