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Mandal messiahs

One did it to save his seat, the other to get a higher one, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 02:14 IST

When former PM Vishwanath Pratap Singh implemented Mandal to rein in Devi Lal, the Jat king-maker he had sacked as his deputy PM, he opened a new chapter in Indian politics. Now, Arjun Singh is seeking to write its sequel to identify himself with the cause of the OBCs and embarrass Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Like the former PM, Arjun Singh is an astute player of realpolitik. So, when he declared in Parliament that he had no personal agenda in pursuing the quota issue, few believed him. Politics is all about perception, and rightly or wrongly, the dominant feeling is that Arjun Singh wants to use quota politics to further his own ambitions. His detractors say that while VP Singh used the card to save his prime ministership (which he couldn’t, eventually), the HRD minister wants to use it to become the PM. Given that Manmohan Singh continues to enjoy Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s support, the likelihood of him achieving the objective is remote.

Several comparisons can be drawn between the two Singhs. Both belong to upper castes and both were chief ministers around the same time. They were both chosen to head their states by Sanjay Gandhi, who persuaded his mother Indira to give them the positions. And the two Singhs have never shown reluctance for pursuing divisive politics to achieve their objectives.

In theory, reservation may have the pious motive of social justice. But in realpolitik, it is all about the pursuit of power — and any veneer can hardly conceal the real agenda.

Then and Now

Politics in India changed drastically after Mandal I in 1990. Caste divisions became more pronounced and resulted in increased assertions by deprived communities. This ushered in the era of coalition politics. PV Narasimha Rao, the first Congress PM after Mandal I, somehow balanced the caste politics of the Janata Dal and its allies on one hand and BJP’s Mandir card on the other. But it was the caste card that ended the Congress’s domination in at least two politically important states — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Arjun Singh, who had been marginalised by Rao, tried every trick in the game to upstage the former PM. But Rao outwitted him. By the time Rao’s reign ended, Arjun Singh too had run out of steam, after having lost his Lok Sabha seat.

An important factor that VP Singh realised early, and which has perhaps dawned on Arjun Singh now, is that the only way a Congress politician can reach the top without the support of the top party leader is to join hands with other outfits.

One the greatest strengths of the Congress has been that it can address issues across communities. In 1980, Indira Gandhi’s slogan to counter the multi-caste combination of the Janata Party and Lok Dal was ‘Na jaat pe na paat pe, Indiraji ki baat pe, mohar lage gi haath pe’ (Neither on caste nor on creed, at Indiraji’s word the stamp will be on the hand). But now, the quota system is going to benefit OBC leaders who have grown in stature outside the Congress fold. It is, therefore, significant that while constituting the four-member group of ministers, the PM has not opted for anyone from among the UPA allies.

If Arjun Singh’s intentions were as noble as he claims them to be, then he should have deliberated the matter first within his party, among the allies, and then in the government before airing it. The result now is the same as it was with VP Singh’s move — a deeply divided India awaits the views of the Supreme Court to sort the matter.