Mandal 2.0, and why Opposition may not be able to ride it like last time
“Jitni abaadi, utna haq” — these were striking words, coming as they did from Rahul Gandhi. Campaigning in poll-bound Karnataka, the Congress leader was making a case for reservations in proportion to population. More specifically, he raised the cry for a caste census in India — a call which is gathering momentum — and also called for raising the Court-fixed ceiling for reservations from 50% to 75%.
The wheel has come full circle. Rahul’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru opposed a caste census in 1951; his grandmother Indira Gandhi put the report of the Mandal Commission — ordered by the Janata Party government that came to power in 1977, but submitted in 1980, when she was back as Prime Minister — on the backburner.
When V P Singh became PM and pulled it out of a forgotten almirah in 1990 to save his beleaguered government, Rajiv Gandhi tore into the decision on the floor of Parliament. The Mandal Commission recommended 27% reservation in jobs for other backward classes (OBCs, as they are known) as the way to achieve social justice.
The Mandal decision inflamed the country, brought down the V P Singh government — and changed forever the political landscape of North India, throwing up OBC leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Ashok Gehlot, Uma Bharati and Shivraj Chouhan, who were to rule their states for more than a quarter century afterwards.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the challenge to the then dominant Congress had come from the OBCs, whose support to the Opposition groups sent nine Congress governments packing in North Indian states in 1967 and brought the Janata Party to power in 1977, dethroning Indira.
Today, the Opposition parties are zeroing in again on caste consolidation — popularly called the politics of “social justice” — to counter the challenge of Hindu consolidation by the BJP.
A significant meeting which did not attract the attention it deserved was held earlier this month by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin in Chennai. It brought together more than a dozen Opposition groups in an attempt to forge a new platform around the theme of “social justice” and a caste census.
Not surprisingly, these groups included the Mandalite parties like DMK, RJD, JD(U), Samajwadi Party.
But the surprising part of the story is the Indian National Congress deciding to put its weight behind a caste census, and OBC empowerment, to counter the politics of Hindutva and nationalism. That the Congress is a new convert to caste census is obvious, with Rahul having begun references to it during his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
More recently, when it was in power at the head of a UPA government, the Congress had undertaken a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011, but when the report arrived towards the end of its term, it did not make it public. Narendra Modi-led BJP swept to power in 2014, and the findings of the SECC remain undisclosed.
In Karnataka also, the Congress government, which undertook a caste survey in 2015, never released its findings.
In the 1970s, during Indira’s tenure, the Congress under the leadership of two-time Devraj Urs had effectively fashioned an OBC-Dalit-Muslim axis in Karnataka. However, in the North, Indira relied more on the support of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims.
But while caste census has become a rallying cry for the Opposition, the BJP is opposed to it, for it could open a Pandora’s box. Various caste groups will start demanding reservation according to their population. A division on caste lines would weaken the very idea of an overarching Hindu unity for the BJP. It could shift the debate from newspaper headlines and drawing room conversations to action on the streets.
And the idea is already finding resonance at the ground. Days after holding that meeting with Opposition parties, Stalin announced the installation of a life-sized statue of V P Singh in Chennai as Tamil society’s mark of gratitude to the “messiah of social justice”. The importance of Tamil Nadu honouring Singh as an icon, 33 years after he implemented OBC reservation, goes beyond the current politics of the southern state, which was the original laboratory of the powerful, Periyar-led anti-Brahmin movement.
In travels around India, I find that many younger Indians have not even heard of Singh, even though some of them are OBCs and have benefited from reservation! To resurrect him now shows that Opposition parties are looking for a new idiom and old icons to get their message of social justice across.
In Bihar, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Mahagathbandhan is back in power; the alliance had got the better of the BJP in 2015 also. With the Centre stonewalling the demand for a caste census, Nitish Kumar’s government is already going ahead with it in Bihar.
Poll-bound Karnataka is also emerging as an akhara of Mandal politics. Congress leader Siddharamaiah has made a pitch for increasing the OBC quota. The BJP has combined both Mandal and Kamandal — taking away reservation from Muslims to give 2% reservation additionally to both the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the two powerful communities whose support the saffron party is eyeing. The matter is in the Supreme Court and will come up for hearing a day before the Karnataka elections on May 10.
The central question, however, is different. Does the new Mandal have the potential to challenge Hindutva as an idea, as it did in the Nineties? Caste census has an appeal for a section of the OBCs, and resonates with them. Many OBC groups suspect their number is larger than is made out (52% in the last such census, in 1932), which could make them demand bigger benefits.
A mere endorsement of the idea is not likely to make it an emotive electoral issue. And general elections are less than a year away.
There is another hurdle the Opposition confronts. Unlike other PMs in the past who could be painted anti-OBC, this is difficult to do with Narendra Modi. The story might have been different had Modi been a Brahmin from Kashi, or a Rajput like Yogi Adityanath. But he is not. Modi is an OBC from Gujarat belonging to the “Modh-Ghanchi” caste of oil presser, with an effective outreach to the numerically large EBCs (Extremely Backward classes), to the Kurmis, through parties like the Apna Dal in UP and other smaller groups.
The party has made it a point to honour forgotten heroes of these groups. Modi has also made overtures to the backward among Muslims (the Pasmandas), and ensured that first a Dalit (Ram Nath Kovind) and then a tribal, Droupadi Murmu, became President of the country.
Modi has successfully — and aggressively — used both Mandal and Mandir to refashion the new BJP. How effective Mandal 2.0 will be for the Opposition is still open to question. For today, the BJP is also putting that card to use.
But, those who hoped that caste consolidation as a political tool would have diminishing returns in the India of 2023, may have to do a rethink. Mandal has nine — and more — lives. There was an inevitability about the devolution of power to communities which are large in number but were kept on the periphery. They are now becoming increasingly aware of their growing political clout.
A political observer summed it pithily, “The trouble is that Narendra Modi has been able to Mandalise the BJP more successfully than the Mandalite parties have been able to nationalise themselves.”