Verdict suggests need for a new Mandal compact - Hindustan Times
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Verdict suggests need for a new Mandal compact

ByDhrubo Jyoti
Jun 12, 2024 09:03 PM IST

The old quota politics has exhausted itself — but no party can now afford to ignore any community or elide their complaints about prosperity or security

When Bindhweshwari Prasad Mandal invited former Karnataka Rajya Sabha member LR Naik to join the Second Backward Classes Commission in place of Odisha stalwart Dina Bandhu Sahu in November 1979, many thoughts were pirouetting in his mind — finishing the onerous task of enumerating India’s backward castes, coming up with a comprehensive yardstick to judge their backwardness and firewalling the process from the kind of controversy that derailed a previous attempt in the 1950s. To achieve all this, he needed the six-member panel report to be unanimous in its recommendations.

07 August 1991 - VP Singh addressing a Pro-Mandal Rally at Patel Chowk Janata Dal President SR Bommai, Chandrajit Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are also seen in Picture Aug 7 was declared as Mandal Divas and the Leaders Demanded the Immediate implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. PREMIUM
07 August 1991 - VP Singh addressing a Pro-Mandal Rally at Patel Chowk Janata Dal President SR Bommai, Chandrajit Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are also seen in Picture Aug 7 was declared as Mandal Divas and the Leaders Demanded the Immediate implementation of the Mandal Commission Report.

That was not to be. In a sharp dissent, Naik, the only Dalit member of the panel, disagreed with the commission’s approach of pooling the quota into a single basket, instead recommending that it be split into intermediate backward classes and depressed backward classes — 12% for the former and 15% for the latter. Naik wrote, “In an unequal society like ours, it is necessary that the commission take all precautions so that the more helpless and needy segments are not deprived… by avoiding cut-throat competition among unequals.”

When Mandal submitted the final report in December 1980, he noted Naik’s dissent and dismissed his categorisation as arbitrary. A decade later when VP Singh hurriedly implemented the report, no one brought up Naik’s dissent.

In the four decades since, there have been four distinct strains of Mandal politics that have swept North India. In the first, parties that made up the erstwhile Janata Parivar picked large communities with little political footprint and built formidable coalitions by marrying the support of minorities and smaller groups. The runaway success of these coalitions translated into regional parties muscling both national parties out of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar. Outfits such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal became major national players on the back of the sense of pride they ignited in their constituents and their success in breaking the social grip of forward castes.

But just as Naik feared, some of these communities turned into hegemons, creating resentment in weaker and less numerous groups which found themselves boxed out of reservation benefits and political power. The trajectory of Ram Vilas Paswan, who was the first in the generation of Lohia acolytes to win an election in 1969 but who found his rise stymied by his peers Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, is an apt example.

Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Kanshi Ram in UP represented the second strand. Kumar took up the work left unfinished by Karpoori Thakur who first mooted internal divisions in the quotas and stitched together a coalition of smaller OBC and SC groups that coalesced around his Kurmi community. Ram took the Jatavs and recruited leaders from smaller SC and OBC groups such as Pasis, Lodhs and Rajbhars to build the Bahujan Samaj Party, powered by his numerical logic of 85% backwards against 15% forwards.

But these developments never transcended the plains of Bihar and UP; even as Mandal politics fractured the Congress model of marrying upper-castes, Dalits and Muslims, and ran neck-and-neck with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s attempts at making faith the central pillar, it barely gained a national footprint. South of the Vindhyas, movements predating Mandal carved up quotas according to numerical strengths and historical backwardness, spawning their own unique set of problems.

The third era took Mandal beyond the two heartland states. Against the backdrop of single-party domination, the BJP exploited bubbling resentment among smaller OBC and SC groups to bolster its base of upper castes. In some ways, this was a throwback to the efforts of Kumar and Kanshi Ram. But the BJP used different weapons — cultural nationalism (accommodating community icons within the wider Hindutva pantheon), welfare (with the Prime Minister’s personal branding), and the unique pull of Narendra Modi. At a time when regional outfits had a trust deficit following decades of nurturing only a handful of constituents and the Congress’s political capital was at an all-time low, the BJP’s model clicked not only in UP but also in other heartland states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In many ways, it was the fulfilment of the prophecy Naik had made in 1980.

The 2024 elections was an inflection point on this road. Buoyed by organic concerns around the future of reservations and the Constitution, the Opposition made caste an explicit social justice concern. The BJP’s response was to counter it by attempting to communalise quotas in a way that it had not done in its decade-long stint. It took cues from political experimentations done in states such as West Bengal — where Mamata Banerjee eschewed the Left’s caste denialism to use quotas for political mobilisation, and accommodated many backward Muslim groups — to paint minorities as the greatest threat to marginalised castes. It felt that by replacing upper castes, who traditionally opposed caste-based quotas but are also the BJP’s principal base, with Muslims, it could simultaneously counter the Opposition’s charge and paint them as minority appeasers at the same time.

That gambit failed. Analysis by this newspaper showed the sharpest fall in the BJP’s strike rate across demographics came in SC reserved seats. In contrast, Akhilesh Yadav pulled back many smaller SC and OBC groups into his fold by nominating their leaders, besting the BJP at its own game.

With the BJP and the Opposition now both at the drawing board, a new phase in Mandal politics awaits. 2024 showed that this phase will be about aspiration at a time of acute economic anxiety. The push for intergenerational mobility among marginalised castes will have to contend with disquiet among dominant groups about their fraying social might. As Mandal parties expand their social coalitions, they will have to manage rising tensions within their constituents. The BJP will have to ask whether new welfarism has hit its ceiling among these communities and if a new kind of Mandir politics — since both the Ram Temple push and the Muslim quota bogey have not clicked — can re-energise its Mandal pitch. The Opposition will need to think beyond redistribution because though a caste census is important, government jobs don’t have the capacity to be a salve for economic scars. And most importantly, no party can now afford to ignore any community or elide their complaints about prosperity or security.

In 1885, then Madras government instituted financial aid for depressed classes, heralding the beginning of affirmative action in India. It now awaits a new Mandal compact. Naik will be smiling.

The views expressed are personal

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