Is Mandal politics electorally salient again?
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April 21, 2023 12:15 am | Updated April 22, 2023 10:26 am IST

The second phase of the caste-based census in Bihar.

The second phase of the caste-based census in Bihar. | Photo Credit: PTI

With the second phase of the caste survey beginning in Bihar, other political parties such as the Congress are also raising a pitch on the issue. Last month, there was a heated political war over sections of the Ramcharitmanas in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with some leaders arguing that the text “abuses” Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes. In a conversation moderated by Sobhana K. Nair, Amit Ahuja and Mona G. Mehta discuss how these developments compare to the high noon of Mandal mobilisation in the late 1980s and 1990s. Edited excerpts:

Where do the political forces representing ‘Mandal issues’ stand today? What is the chief cause of their weakening?

Mona G. Mehta: Mandal politics is an inadequate expression; it does not capture the profound changes in Indian society and politics. It was a politics initiated by historically marginalised OBCs (Other Backward Classes) or Bahujan caste groups in the 1980s and 1990s in order to secure a greater share of political and economic power through reservation in the public sector. By every measure, that politics has succeeded in capturing political power in large parts of India. It has transformed the caste profile of State legislatures and Parliament towards greater inclusivity of previously subordinated groups. It has shifted the political discourse towards a universal acceptance of OBC reservations even among those who initially opposed it, such as the upper-caste Hindu Right represented by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Today, even the BJP Prime Minister is openly projected as an OBC leader.

Comment | Bihar and the evolution of Mandal politics

Rather than identifying a singular cause for the weakening of Mandal politics, it’s worth looking at upper-caste Hindu, right-wing reactions against it over the few decades. There are broadly five phases. The first phase was the intense upper-caste hostility to reservation at the societal level. We saw upper-caste youth in urban India even immolating themselves in demand of a rollback of reservation policies. The second was a more concerted political reaction in the form of ‘Kamandal’ politics, spearheaded by Hindutva upper-caste forces, to oppose Mandal mobilisation in the form of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The third was a sort of upper-caste collaboration with neoliberal forces and big capital that led to the shrinking of employment opportunities in the State. It is in this context that the bogey of merit got its most strident expression as an instrument to oppose Mandal politics. The fourth involved upper-caste mobilisation of non-dominant OBC groups, to give them some semblance of self-respect and identity, but without genuine rights and political power. The last is the opposition to the latest demand for a caste census.

Opinion | Re-establishing ownership of the Mandal space

Amit Ahuja: The question we need to ask is why things are different today compared to when these forces rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Social realities are different. Economic liberalisation has created more opportunities for people from all sections. Politically also it is a different world — a lot of issues such as oppression and the history of discrimination are part of mainstream politics. Second, where does Mandal stand today? The movement did not die. But think about leaders like Karpoori Thakur, Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav… there was a lot of mobilisation, energy and charisma there. Those kinds of leaders are not present today. Third, the late 1980s and early 1990s was a moment of serious weakening of the Congress, which gave the Mandal forces a great electoral opportunity. Finally, we’ve got to also ask ourselves about the movement’s relevance today. What is it bringing to the table in terms of ideas and promises? For example, women were never the focus of Mandal politics. In the last Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, had the SP (Samajwadi Party) received the same share of women votes as the BJP did, it would have trounced them. What does Mandal politics have to say to Dalits? How inclusive is it of the other groups?

One of the ways the Mandal parties have tried to regain their hold in the public discourse is the demand for a caste-based census. Is this a reaction to the politics of Hindutva? Will it have the same effect as it did at the peak of the Mandir movement?

Mona G. Mehta: It’s not just a reaction, but a smart strategy to counter upper-caste hegemony. It should be seen as part of a larger ongoing historical process of seeking social justice. Its ingenuity goes beyond electoral performance. We should not try to measure its success merely in terms of whether it will bear immediate electoral fruits. The debate on the caste census invites us to really think about the tremendous dynamism, fluidity, but also the persistence of caste in modern Indian society. We can expect it to unleash a newer and dynamic process of social churning and social justice with regards to caste. Whether we will find the voices and leaders to articulate this new context of a larger project of social emancipation remains to be seen.

News Analysis | Debate on OBC bill a new avatar of Mandal politics

Amit Ahuja: Whether the the call for caste census will have an impact on the BJP needs to be seen. The demand for a caste census has been around for a long while. But at the end of the day, what is its purpose? I think that’s something the opposition parties need to clarify. Is it for reservation in jobs? Because if you look at state jobs, they have been shrinking for a long while. Is it for reservation in the State Assemblies and Parliament? OBCs are well represented here. As an idea, it still holds power because of the employment crisis in India, but what it means has to be clarified. Without a clarification, we won’t have a sense of how far the appeal of this idea will go when it comes to the electorate, or be able to answer the question on whether it will be able to dislodge the politics of the BJP. I am not sure for the simple reason that they are really good at mobilising OBCs and understanding the caste grammar. The BJP of L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee wasn’t good at it, but the BJP under Narendra Modi has included more OBCs in the party hierarchy and is deploying OBC symbols in electoral campaigns.

Also read | Why the caste survey in Bihar worries the BJP

The other side of the story is the fact that the BJP has nationalism on its side. If you are thinking of the 2024 electoral campaign, remember that voters make a distinction between national and State elections. So maybe in the Assembly elections, the Mandal idea will be able to counter BJP mobilisation; but in a general election, national issues will dominate. We also have to closely examine the slogan, Jitni Aabaadi, Utna Haq (rights in proportion to population). This is shifting the discourse from historical injustices to distribution. It has serious implications, because then it comes down to which category you are placed in, and gives rise to contradictions and conflicts. Can it really be a unifying strategy despite these conflicts?

Does the caste census affect Dalits/ Adivasis differently from the OBCs?

Mona G. Mehta: I don’t see it necessarily alienating Dalits and Adivasis, because these groups are already being enumerated. However, the caste census opens up to enumerating Dalits who are not Hindus, such as Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Flashback | Mandal memories

Amit Ahuja: It’s not obvious as to why there would be a conflict between other Adivasis and Dalits on one hand, and OBCs on the other. In fact, what it may do is possibly unite the two. For example, take the issue of reservation in the private sector. On their own, Dalits and Adivasis don’t have the political clout and the numbers to push for it. If the OBCs were also to back it, it will become difficult politically to resist this call.

Mona G. Mehta: It is very clear it’s the upper castes who are feeling threatened.

Is the caste census merely an empty political exercise, or is there a genuine need for it?

Amit Ahuja: There are two sides to this. One, it is important for us to understand where historic disadvantages are still surviving and how they manifest themselves. We also need to understand what is happening within these categories. There are real public policy questions here that the census will be able to answer. It may allow us to direct policies more effectively, towards those who most need state assistance and affirmative action policies. At the same time, yes, the moment you start counting where numbers are going to be linked to distribution, that is going to be a source of conflict. It’s a double-edged sword.

Editorial | The caste imperative: On the subject of an updated caste census

Mona G. Mehta: In this age of data, we need the data in order to make effective policies. It is an essential exercise, but the exercise, as Amit rightly pointed out, is a double-edged sword.

Listen to the podcast here

Mona G. Mehta is Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University; Amit Ahuja is fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara

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