Eighteen years can be an eternity in politics: on September, 6, 1990, a stirring speech was made in parliament criticising the Mandal commission report.
"If you believe in a casteless society, every major step you take must be such that you move towards a casteless society. And you must avoid taking any steps which takes you to a caste-ridden society. Unfortunately, the step we are taking today in accepting the Mandal report, is a caste formula. While accepting this reality, we must dilute that formula and break it by adding something to it. Even at this late hour, there is time to pull the country back from caste division… ministers are provoking caste wars. Are we going back to the Round Table Conference for having separate electorates? That was designed to break our country. An issue like reservation cannot be treated in a piecemeal manner. We must look at the whole picture." The author of the speech? None other than the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.<b1>
Given Arjun Singh’s love for history and the Nehru-Gandhi family (every room in his house is dotted with portraits of the Congress’s first family), it is possible that he has read Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention in parliament on the Mandal debate. Yet, as the scriptwriter for Mandal Part II, Singh may well be having a quiet chuckle as he describes the Supreme Court order upholding 27 per cent quotas for Other Backward Classes (OBC) as ‘historic’ and a ‘vindication’ of the stand he has taken. After all, in a rare display of unanimity, not a single politician worth his vote has chosen to voice even the slightest disagreement with Singh’s formula. The ghost of the Congress’s posterboy PM seems to have been well and truly buried.
What explains this tectonic shift? The answer must be found in the rise of competitive politics in the last two decades and the end of the era of Congress dominance. So long as the Congress enjoyed a monopolistic position in Indian politics, it could afford to ignore the yearnings for greater empowerment at the bottom and middle of the caste pyramid. The backward castes in south of the Vindhyas had already been accommodated within the ruling arrangement through a pre-independence social revolution. It was only when the winds of political change began to sweep across north India that the real transformation occurred. Once the Mulayams and the Lalus shook the foundation of the Congress in the 1990s and captured power across the Hindi heartland, the party had little choice but to fall in line with the new order.
Nehru, especially, was contemptuous of caste. In a circular sent to the presidents of all the Pradesh Congress committees in 1954, Nehru said: "In particular, we must fight whole-heartedly against those narrow divisions which have grown up in our country in the name of caste, which weaken the unity, solidarity and progress of the country".
Indira Gandhi, although much less ideologically inclined, was also discomfited by caste assertion, choosing to combat the rising power of the OBCs in the 1967 elections with her universal ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan. Rajiv Gandhi reflected an English-speaking public school educated mindset in dealing with caste politics: the speech in parliament in 1990 was only one example of his singular distaste for grappling with the complexity of caste equations.
When Gujarat chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki’s politically successful experiment in the mid-1980s with backward-caste alliances led to an upper-caste backlash, Rajiv was quick to dismiss him, an error of judgment for which the Congress is still paying a price in the state. Right through the Rajiv-Indira years, no attempt was made to push forward with the Mandal report commissioned by Morarji Desai’s government in 1977.
Why VP Singh resurrected the Mandal genie in the 1990 remains the subject of much debate: his supporters have suggested that the Raja of Manda was a genuine revolutionary, committed to notions of social justice, and someone with the foresight to recognise the changing political landscape in the country. It is more likely that the Janata Dal PM saw the implementation of the report as a weapon to silence his critics within and outside his rickety coalition. VP’s Mandal operation was done by stealth, not conviction, designed to safeguard his own precarious position in the government.
Ironically, 18 years later, another upper-caste Thakur from north India, has chosen to make caste-based reservations his calling card. If VP Singh used the Mandal report to consolidate himself politically, Arjun Singh too has bolstered his stature by pushing ahead with OBC reservations. Both VP and Arjun cut their teeth in the Indira Gandhi school of politics: a politics of convenience, not always of conviction.
Both became CMs in the latter period of the Indira era, neither showing any inclination in their home states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to engage in radical social engineering. Both were faced with shrinking political bases, Arjun Singh even facing the humiliation of coming third to the BSP in his pocket borough of Satna in 1996. In fact, both were recognised as good administrators rather than charismatic vote-gatherers or harbingers of a new political order. Both have masked their vaulting ambition under the guise of morality: if VP was the crusader against corruption, Arjun Singh has projected himself as the protector of Nehruvian secularism.
VP Singh at least managed to attain the ultimate prize. Arjun Singh, by contrast, has always been the also-ran, never the bridegroom. In 1991, he was a front-runner for the prime ministership, only to find himself being edged out by Narasimha Rao. As HRD minister in the Rao government, Singh showed no desire to push for reservations.
It was left to then social welfare minister, Sitaram Kesri, whose memory has now been virtually deleted from the Congress archives, to champion the Mandal report. Singh, by contrast, was identified as the saviour of the minorities: demanding white papers on the Babri Masjid demolition, giving grants to minority institutes and organising seminars on secularism. With his nemesis Rao being seen as soft on Hindu communalism, it suited Arjun Singh’s political ambitions to emerge as a defender of minority interests.
Now, in his second coming as HRD minister, Singh has offered another alternative: If Manmohan Singh’s core constituency is the urban middle-class, Singh has appealed to the disadvantaged groups. If the PM is the symbol of the new economy based on merit and efficiency, Singh represents the older order based on handouts and patronage. If the PM wants to encourage private enterprise, Singh would prefer to strengthen the role of government through sops and entitlements.
If the left attacks the PM for elitism, Singh is embraced for chanting the mantra of equity. Reservations, be it for minorities or backwards, have been the Madhya Pradesh leader’s ultimate political weapon in his battle to retain relevance: having already worn the hat of secularism and socialism, he has now added the cap of social justice. It’s a triple whammy, the kind which should make it impossible to ignore or isolate him.
With such high political stakes, who then cares if the government’s flagship primary education schemes are in a mess? Who cares if the drop-out rate among Dalits, Muslims and backward caste students remains unconscionably high? Who bothers if the infrastructure is not in place to manage the reservation fallout in IITs and IIMs? Who worries if quality education continues to suffer?
Unfortunately, for Mr Singh, it may be too late now to achieve his ambitions: he is unlikely to be seen as a future prime ministerial candidate in a party waiting to see the emergence of a Rahul Raj. But there is compensation: Arjun Singh is the only member of the cabinet to have a road named after him. What Jamia Millia Islamia University has done today, pro-reservationists may wish to do tomorrow.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN)