It's curtains for Mandal politics now
The UP results signify a deep crisis of Mandal politics and its claims of being able to challenge the BJP. Here's why
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has achieved a decisive victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. At 5:30 pm, the BJP led alliance had won/was leading in 268 out of the 403 assembly constituencies (ACs) with a vote share of 44%. This is, no doubt, a historic achievement for the BJP and Yogi Adityanath. No chief minister in Uttar Pradesh has completed a five-year term and managed to get re-elected before this.
While the BJP is justified in celebrating its Uttar Pradesh victory, the predicament of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and its leader Akhilesh Yadav could not have been greater. With a vote share of 36.4%, the SP led alliance has fought its best-ever election in terms of popular support in Uttar Pradesh by quite a distance. Yet, it has managed a seat share of just 32.2%. In 2012, when the SP managed a majority of its own for the first time and Akhilesh Yadav became the chief minister, the SP had managed a seat share of 55.6% with a vote share of just 29.2% vote share.
The Uttar Pradesh results, coming after the defeat of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 2020 elections in Bihar, the other major ‘Mandal’ party in India signifies a deep crisis of Mandal politics and its claims of being able to challenge the BJP as it could in the 1990s and the 2000s.
What explains this crisis?
At the empirical level, the answer the simple. Mandal parties have failed to expand beyond their core base, while the BJP has achieved a phenomenal expansion of its support base. The reason the SP could not win Uttar Pradesh this time is not because it did not fight a good election. Its vote share is the highest ever. It has lost because the BJP is too big a party to defeat with just the core social base of the SP. Community-wise vote share numbers from the Axis My India exit poll survey – their overall vote shares are not too off the mark – show this clearly. The SP managed a huge consolidation of its traditional MY (Muslim-Yadav) constituency, but the BJP managed to consolidate pretty much everything else.
To be fair to it, the SP did try to form alliances with smaller parties representing various caste groups and tried to fight the elections with an upper caste versus others narrative, best captured in the election being an 85% versus 15% contest statement by Swami Prasad Maurya, an Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader who defected from the BJP to SP just before the polls. Maurya himself lost the elections in Fazilnagar constituency. Creating such a political polarization has always been the dream project of Mandal politics. The RJD faced a similar problem in the 2020 Bihar elections, where non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits voted for the NDA in greater numbers than for the RJD led alliance.
The theoretical question to ask is: Why have parties like the SP and the RJD failed to bring together other communities within the OBCs with them?
It is useful to apply the concepts of civil society and political society; first developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and then improvised in the Indian context by political scientist Partha Chatterjee, to answer this question.
Gramsci saw the capitalist state as a mix of political society and civil society. The former represented the organs of power of the state (police, army, courts etc) while the latter mediated between the interests of the numerically dominant economic have-nots and the minority ruling class through institutions such as trade unions and so on. In order to perpetuate its rule, the ruling class would always concede some benefits to the proletariat, Gramsci argued, describing it as an act of ‘passive revolution’ by the bourgeoisie.
It is not very difficult to understand why the original concept of civil society was a non-starter in Indian politics, which is characterised by deep fault-lines of caste. Economic identities are always negotiated through layers of caste in India.
The caste-class tension became even more acute when India shifted to a universal franchise system post-Independence after a quasi-democratic model during the British Raj where rights of contesting elections and voting were largely with the privileged classes. The civil society elite which existed pre-independence was not willing to concede space to the new entrants which came predominantly from the ranks of the OBCs. The really downtrodden, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) were granted reservation in both jobs and legislatures under the constitution, which basically fructified the arrangement under the Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar. By their sheer numerical majority, the OBCs prevailed in increasing their share in legislatures, something political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has described as ‘the silent revolution’.
While the OBC resurgence began as a genuine attempt to make civil society more representative – the original Mandal Commission report talked about a lot of issues such as land redistribution etc, along with reservation in jobs and educational institutions – in practice, it soon mutated into some sort of ‘political society’, not in the Gramscian term, but how political scientist Partha Chatterjee has described it for democracies such as India. Chatterjee has explained this concept at many places and a reproduction of a passage from a 2008 paper of his titled Democracy and Economic Transformation in India is useful.
“I have called political society which includes large sections of the rural population and the urban poor. These people do, of course, have the formal status of citizens and can exercise their franchise as an instrument of political bargaining. But they do not relate to the organs of the state in the same way that the middle classes do, nor do governmental agencies treat them as proper citizens belonging to civil society. Those in political society make their claims on government, and in turn are governed, not within the framework of stable constitutionally defined rights and laws, but rather through temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements arrived at through direct political negotiations. The latter domain, which represents the vast bulk of democratic politics in India, is not under the moral-political leadership of the capitalist class”.
It is useful to think of Mandal based parties as a political society of sorts comprising of just the sub-caste which formed the core support base of the party. The fact that the BJP and other opponents of the Mandal-based parties accuse the latter of running a lawless regime basically means that when in power, the relation between the favoured caste group of Mandal based parties and the state was not based on law of the land, but a negotiated settlement in the favour of the caste group. As is obvious, it was often the other caste groups which suffered during such negotiated settlements. At some point in time, Mandal based parties also included Muslims within this political society clique. In return for this preferential treatment, these communities lent their political support to the Mandal based formations.
As is obvious, this kind of political arrangement was bound to be unstable. Once other OBC groups realised that Mandal politics under its original vanguards (such as the SP and the RJD) was not about building an inclusive civil society but just empowering a particular caste group through bargains in the political society framework, they made their own competing political societies, best seen in the proliferation of small caste-based parties. Such formations found a willing ally in the BJP which along with its core support-base among upper caste groups, whom Mandal had originally dislodged from power and rendered vulnerable, was more than happy to make a tactical alliance of extremes to usurp political power back from the forces of Mandal. While this process started more than two decades ago when the BJP originally formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with regional parties including the likes of Janata Dal (United), or the JD(U), and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, it gained even more momentum in the post-2014 phase.
The 2015 Bihar results were proof that the BJP was politically vulnerable without this coalition of extremes. The JD(U) and RJD alliance achieved a huge victory in Bihar. But the alliance did not survive because of contradictions between the two parties, which in our framework can be described as a contradiction between two competing political societies.
The BJP’s political project would be desirable, if this new alliance actually carried forward the project of building an inclusive civil society and pushing forward the passive revolution process.
However, two concrete traits of the present-day BJP make this impossible. One, the BJP seeks to undo the very constitutional foundation of not differentiating on the basis of religion in terms of civic rights to other Muslims. Its political rhetoric on things such as the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act are concrete examples of this. Second, the BJP’s proximity to big capital, best seen in its political finance model and the big-business tilt in its policies such as reduction of corporation tax rates, the passage of (now repealed) farms laws and the push for the formalisation of the economy is actually reversing the gains of passive revolution Indian democracy has achieved. While the BJP claims to be a harbinger of unprecedented welfare benefits, in practice, under the present regime, the balance of power has actually shifted firmly in favour of the capitalist class in the Indian economy.
These economic reverses, to be sure, have not gone unnoticed, and even Mandal-based parties have tried to raise these issues during electoral battles against the BJP. Both the RJD and the SP tried to make a big deal out of unemployment in the 2020 and 2022 Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections. The reason why their political polemics have failed to strike a chord is that the larger population which is suffering because of the pro-big-business economic policy realignment is equally wary of the Mandal way of governance. Their experience has taught them that returning the Mandal forces to power will only restore power for the political society, which existed during the Mandal era rather than usher in a genuine inclusive civil society, which will advance a class agenda. This sceptical constituency includes both members of upper castes; large sections among whom are also in dire straits economically speaking, as well as the OBCs and SCs who were not a part of the core constituency of Mandal based parties. What has not helped matters for Mandal based parties is the fact that a small but visible section of the Mandal aligned political society has actually exploited political power to achieve significant upward economic mobility for itself. There is very little recognition of this material reality by Mandal based parties and they still try to sell the factually incorrect narrative of the 1960s and 1970s when economic well-being was a sole preserve of upper castes in northern India by virtue of their disproportionate land ownership.
It is this distrust, which makes the Mandal challenge to the BJP and its coalition of extremes, a doomed project to begin with. Their sectarian model of political mobilisation based on a caste-based political society model has very little traction for those outside it. The BJP, on the other hand, is more than willing to share token political power with smaller competing political societies to keep the forces of Mandal out of power, even as actual policymaking is heavily centralized and civil society in the Gramscian term significantly weakened, which means an unprecedented tilting of scales in favour of big capital.
What can really hurt the BJP is a more inclusive political challenge rooted in the Gramscian civil society model which pre-empts the formation of a coalition of extremes tactics used by the BJP against Mandal based formations which are based in Partha Chatterjee’s political society model. The fact that the BJP has still not managed to vanquish regional parties in states with strong linguistic identities such as West Bengal and Odisha (chief ministers in both these states are upper castes) or suffered intermittent reverses in Hindi belt states such as Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where the Congress and not Mandal based formations were its main challenger, supports this argument.
This is not to say that Mandal based formations will become irrelevant in the immediate aftermath of Uttar Pradesh results. A new political Opposition — it could be the Aam Admi Party after receiving a boost from its Punjab victory for all we know — will have to claim the Opposition space from the Mandal-based parties in order to emerge as the main challenger to the BJP. This will entail fragmentation in opposition votes.
Another process that could receive a simultaneous momentum could be the shifting of Muslims towards an identity-based formation such as the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen. We must remember that the main reason for the affinity of Muslims to Mandal-based parties was the latter’s claim of being the most effective challenger to the BJP. If that purpose is not being fulfilled, Muslims might as well reconcile themselves to asserting their identity without political representation.
The BJP, of course, would be happy with both of these possibilities.
The views expressed are personal
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