Mandal, Kamandal and UP: What triggered the big social churn?

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Uttar Pradesh cabinet ministers Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini created a flutter last month after they switched their allegiance from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to the challenger Samajwadi Party in the poll-bound state.

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It’s common for opportunistic state leaders to defect ahead of assembly polls, but such news rarely creates the kind of buzz as Maurya’s exit did. This was primarily because it once again brought to the fore UP’s deep-rooted caste politics that has been prevalent for the last three decades.

Maurya and all others who left the BJP are non-Yadav other backward class (OBC) leaders.

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In this light, it’s important to ponder over the big social churn that started in UP in the late 1980s and lasted till 2007.

Ram Manohar Lohiya’s ideology-driven socialist movement that sought adequate representation for backward castes galvanised caste leaders in the 1970s but it never really translated into a full-blown political force. Until 1985, the Congress dominated UP politics. In the 1985 assembly elections, the Congress had won a clear majority and Narayan Datt Tiwari was its chief minister. Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Lok Dal was the main opposition party. Mulayam Singh Yadav had led the Lok Dal’s UP campaign then. There were no SP or Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on the horizon.

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Fast forward to 1989 parliamentary polls. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was ousted from power at the Centre. VP Singh became the prime minister. Though the Congress later ruled India via coalition for three more terms, in UP it totally collapsed. The Congress’s seats were drastically reduced in the 1989 assembly elections. The party has not returned to power in UP since 1985.

What triggered the tectonic shift in UP? It’s the implementation of the Mandal Commission report by VP Singh in 1990.

The Constitution wanted India to be a casteless society. But in 1955, the leading sociologist M N Srinivas had written that a small powerful minority really desires the caste system to go but the vast majority would find it difficult to envisage a social system without caste. His words were to come true in the 1990s.

Until 1985, the Congress enjoyed the overwhelming support of Muslims and the Scheduled Castes (SC) which was enough for it to hold on to power for a long time. In the 1980s the Yadavs, a large backward peasant class, began asserting and lined up to vote for candidates of their own caste. Known as the OBC, the Yadavs wanted both political and administrative power. In that context, the Morarji Desai government set up the Backward Classes Commission headed by BP Mandal in 1979.

The Mandal Commission recommended 27 per cent of all central government jobs for the OBCs which was in addition to the existing 22.5 per cent job quota for the SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs).

By the time the Mandal Commission submitted its report in 1980, Morarji Desai’s government had fallen. His successors Indira and Rajiv Gandhi kept the report in cold storage. Seeking to consolidate his weak political base, VP Singh, who hailed from UP, dusted off the Mandal report and announced its implementation in 1990. His decision sparked widespread protests across north India and some upper caste students committed suicide by setting themselves on fire.

Already in decline in UP, the Congress too realised the importance of the OBCs. The Narasimha Rao government issued a fresh order in 1991 to implement a 27 per cent job quota for the OBCs. The Supreme Court upheld the government order in 1992. All parties, including the BJP which had opposed it initially, had fallen in line by then.

The implementation of the Mandal commission report did not save VP Singh’s minority government. But it gave a tremendous boost to the political career of its most vocal supporter since the 1980s, Mulayam Singh Yadav. He had by then become the chief minister in 1989.

However, Mulayam’s ascent to power did not settle the dust. It was only the beginning of the tumultuous phase in UP politics. Mulayam formed the Samajwadi Party in 1992. His crackdown on kar sevaks during the Ayodhya temple movement had endeared himself to the Muslims. Muslims and Yadavs comprise roughly 24 per cent of UP’s population and this grouping helped the SP rule for 10 years.

Also rising at the Congress’s expense was the Kanshi Ram-founded BSP, whose public face was Mayawati. Realising that the 20 per cent SC support base alone could not guarantee it a shot at power, the BSP too started mobilising OBCs.

The OBC quota issue posed a big dilemma for the BJP. It couldn’t decide whether to support it or not fearing the party would alienate its core upper caste voters. Instead, it decided to focus on the contentious issue of Ram Mandir. The rising religious sentiments paid political dividends and the BJP formed a government in UP in the 1991 midterm elections. Aware of the importance of backward castes, the BJP too named Lodh Rajput leader Kalyan Singh as chief minister ignoring traditional upper caste leaders.

The Ayodhya movement reached its peak leading to the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992. Like Mandal didn’t help VP Singh in saving his government, the temple issue did not get the numbers for the BJP in the 1993 assembly elections. It got 178 seats, which was not enough to form a government. The SP and BSP allied; Mulayam returned as chief minister the second time.

But the caste churn continued. While Yadavs sided with Mulayam, Kurmis and Lodhs backed the BJP. Most backward castes such as Sainis, Prajapatis and Pals were with the BSP. The 1993 elections saw a new social order in UP.

The caste-driven voting that started in 1989 fragmented UP politics. Hung assemblies became the norm as caste votes got transferred among the three parties SP, BSP and BJP in the name of social engineering in the five assembly polls that were held between 1989 and 2002. After almost two decades of uncertainty, Mayawati came to power in 2007 with a clear majority, thanks to her crafty social engineering.

Caste politics decided UP election outcomes until Narendra Modi swept the 2014 general elections. The incredible feat was repeated in the 2017 assembly elections when the BJP won 312 seats, shattering all records.

The big caste pot is being churned once again this election. Mandal Vs Kamandal is a thing of the past. Now, it’s Mandal plus Kamandal in UP.

Not surprisingly, six out of the seven new ministers from UP in the last Union Cabinet expansion were from the OBC and SC communities. The BJP has fielded a significant number of OBC candidates in the upcoming assembly elections. Akhilesh Yadav has stitched alliances with smaller non-Yadav OBC parties.

Maurya’s exit underscores the point why no party can afford to upset the caste equation that got cemented after the Mandalisation of UP politics in 1990.

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