Caste census and the vicious cycle of Mandal-Mandir politics in India

Updated on Aug 23, 2021 12:56 PM IST

What can be said with a reasonable level of certainty (and cynicism) is that the Mandir-Mandal politics seems to have mutated into some sort of a vicious cycle of zero-sum game in the country

Representational Image. (HT archive) PREMIUM
Representational Image. (HT archive)

Indian politics, since the 1990s can be summarised as follows. Hindutva 1.0 of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-LK Advani vintage came into being to fight Mandal 1.0. While the former made significant gains in this struggle, ultimately it was the latter which prevailed, and in the process also provided life support to the grand old party of Indian freedom struggle, the Congress.

Then came Hindutva 2.0 under Narendra Modi, who belonged to an Other Backward Classes (OBC) sub group himself, and therefore part of Mandal’s core but also betrayed constituency (more on this later). Not only did Hindutva 2.0 vanquish the Congress, but it also destroyed the forces of Mandal; the best-case study for which is Uttar Pradesh.

Now it is Mandal, which is trying for a reboot, via a demand for caste census in the country, which it believes will pave way for diluting the 50% cap on reservations in India. Whether this strategy will work for not, only time will tell. What can be said with a reasonable level of certainty (and cynicism) is that the Mandir-Mandal politics seems to have mutated into some sort of a vicious cycle of zero-sum game in the country. One side must necessarily lose, even if the victory for the other camp is at best notional or worse, just an exercise in schadenfreude.

The proponents of both these camps like to describe their politics as a quest for social emancipation (Mandal) or some sort of cultural rejuvenation (Mandir). But these are just smokescreens to achieve their Machiavellian ends of gaming the first past the post system to capture political power. What is even worse is the fact that the blinkers of Mandir and Mandal on the proverbial horse of Indian politics have completely blindsided it to the political economy realities and challenges of the day, and more importantly, future, which urgently need a resonance in Indian politics.

Reservations: first as necessity, now as farce

That India’s feudal background gave an unfair headstart to the privileged classes (of privileged castes) in education and job is an undisputable truth. Post-independent India did not do much to abolish land inequality, which was the original source of exploitation of those at the bottom of the pyramid, which made sure that the entrenched inequalities of past centuries did not change much when the republic came into being, even as it established political equality under law.

While the Constitution provided for reservation for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups, the idea of OBC reservation would struggle to gain traction for decades, first succeeding at the level of states such as Tamil Nadu and Bihar and then finally at the national level with the National Front government of VP Singh implementing the recommendations of Mandal commission.

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Reservations in government jobs was only one among the many recommendations of the Mandal commission. Land reforms were another of the important recommendations. But in today’s age, dominant OBCs stand to lose as much, perhaps even more, from land-reforms than upper castes — and they perhaps did even when Mandal was implemented. The reason no Mandal leader talks about the land-reform element of the Mandal report as aggressively as reservations is the same why the Congress did not implement land reforms after independence. In politics, you do not bite the hand which feeds.

There cannot be any doubt that reservations have created a seat for the hitherto underprivileged and discriminated within the State apparatus. The fact that mandated reservations are not fulfilled even today, citing some excuse or the other, and reports indicate that caste-based discrimination, or worse, outright atrocities, continue to occur, is proof enough that the feudal backlash to state-mandated social equality still thrives.

The biggest critique of reservations in India today is not its desirability or so-called cost. It is the fact that almost the entire country has some sort of reservations. This is thanks to the Narendra Modi government offering 10% reservations to the economically weaker sections (EWS) of hitherto unreserved groups. The size of the cake which reservations seeks to secure has been shrinking both in quantity and quality, as the government cuts downs jobs, especially those that are of the old variety — permanent in nature.

What we are also witnessing now are demands for moving from one reserved category to another — some community wants to move from EWS to OBC, another wants to move from OBC to ST and so on. Even as these cynical games are being played, we now have demands for relaxing the 50% cap on reservations. The question which no one wants to answer is how effective and ethical reservations are when government jobs are shrinking, and the benefits of reservations are available to members of all social groups, which is completely antithetical to the original argument for reservations.

While its benefits are uncertain, if not insignificant, any attempts to dilute the 50% cap will reignite the social fissures in our polity once again. One must remember that once the recommendations of Justice Rohini Commission for re-stratification of OBC reservations – it will most likely act against the interests of dominant OBCs – are announced, the conflict around reservations will not remain confined to the traditional upper-caste versus others binary. This is not to sympathise with the reactionary opposition to reservations, but we seriously need to ask whether the disruption reservations unleash in the society is worth it this time?

Hindutva 2.0: Undoing the Republic, with insurance from those betrayed by Mandal

The ideological roots of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are antithetical to the idea of India as envisaged by the founding fathers. This, however, does not take away from the fact that BJP is a democratic political force, and its political rise and subsequent dominance in the country has the sanction of the large section of our population.

Supports and opponents of the BJP like to accept only one of these two political truths — supporters cite the latter and opponents focus on the former. One can also argue that the BJP likes to exploit the Hindu vote bank to capture power, but this does not affect its governance agenda once it is in power.

The experience so far, especially under the current government, does not support this view which sees the regime as only tactically exploiting Hindutva. The best example of this is the issue of National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA. The CAA has explicitly communalised – it excludes Muslims from the prospects of retrospective award of citizenship – the NRC, which, in the original context of Assam, was religion-agnostic. By doing this, the BJP has struck at the very idea of citizenship enshrined in our constitution, which did not discriminate on the basis of religion.

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In the realm of ideas – neither the CAA nor a nation-wide NRC have been implemented yet – this is bound to create deep polarisation and sense of insecurity in the society. If implemented, we will have a humanitarian crisis, where millions of undocumented poor citizens will face the prospect of living in detention camps. There are similar examples of everyday communalism being entrenched via other forms — love-jihad is another such example, so are cow-vigilantes, who often assault cattle traders (even those who do not deal in cow or even buffalo meat) in various parts of the country. These issues offer potential political gains to the BJP, but at a huge cost, as minorities are increasingly feeling persecuted, which, in turn, is bound to crate fertile ground for their radicalisation by forces of minority communalism.

The only reason that the BJP is confident of pursuing this agenda, which creates a counter-polarisation of minorities behind the major opposition force, is that it is confident of maintaining its rainbow Hindu coalition. It is here that the BJP’s tactics has changed significantly from the Vajpayee-Advani era.

Today’s BJP is more than willing to do business with the constituency of Mandal, especially the non-dominant OBCs, who rightly feel betrayed by the dominant OBCs who control most Mandal based parties today. Any possible dissatisfaction within its historical support base of upper castes is sought to be contained by vilifying the Muslims as well as underlining the threat of a return of Mandal 1.0 type politics which thrived on an alliance of dominant OBCs and Muslims. This politics might be invincible in the medium term, but it will extract a significant cost on our society.

Sidetracked: The fight against inequality and unsustainability

There are three things on which most political parties, when in power, agree in India — prioritising economic growth over environment, big capital over small businesses and an extreme reluctance to take on entrenched social biases. The difference, if any, is only in degree and the reason for doing this are inextricably linked to requirement of politics (first and the third) or political finance (second). All of these are corroding the sustainability of India’s democracy and economy from within.

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Even as the climate crisis is making landslides and flash floods a norm rather than aberrations, governments in ecologically fragile regions are extremely hesitant to regulate environmental destruction both by private players and the state. We continue to exploit precious and irreplaceable (in the medium term at least) ground water to grow water intensive crops, a practice often aided by subsidised electricity. Replacing the informal sector with formal sector and throwing cash-transfers at every problem seems to be the modus operandi of most governments, both at the Centre and states. Nobody likes to talk about how many people we can remuneratively move out of agriculture to industry or what is happening to state finances in a mindless rush to compete in the realm of cash transfers.

Even the so-called secular Congress party deployed the most reactionary rhetoric when it came to opposing the Left government in Kerala on allowing women of all age to enter the Sabarimala shrine. The women’s reservation bill has not seen the light of the day despite a bipartisan agreement between the BJP and the Congress on this issue, even though most of the legislation continues to be brazenly pushed through Parliament.

Each of these questions will come back to bite us later. And the effects of these will be felt across caste, religious and gender divide. But no political party is willing to risk its fortunes by championing these issues. One of the biggest reasons this has not happened is the fact that our polity continues to be overwhelmed by issues around caste and religion, which pit one group against the other and undermine all other contradictions which deserve an engagement.

Unless India can break free from this vicious cycle of one zero-sum game trying to replace another in politics, the nation’s prospects going forward will be bleak. This change will not come unless a leader of significant stature invests his/her political capital for this task.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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