MANDAL politics has not yet come to fruition but it has entered a decisive stage in its evolution after political parties across the board demanded a caste census to obtain an accurate estimation of the socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), also classified as the Other Backward Classes or OBCs, instead of the ballpark projections used by BP Mandal, the second Backward Classes Commission chairperson.
Mandal, who sought a caste count of the SEBCs, was reportedly vetoed by a lobby of entrenched upper caste interests which anticipated a major demographic upset if an honest and diligent enumeration was carried out; the upper castes feared that they would be vastly outnumbered by the OBCs and that reality might jeopardise the sway they held for centuries over institutional domains and the control over the power levers.
Therefore, the Mandal Commission used the figures of the 1931 census — the last census to enumerate the castes — backed by other data and extrapolations and concluded that the OBCs constituted about 52 per cent of the population. It proposed a 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in educational institutions and jobs — disproportionate to their population, noted the commission — to circumvent the legal decree that the quantum of reservations must not exceed 50 per cent.
In the monsoon session of Parliament, as the caste census clamour reached a crescendo, the Centre ruled out a caste-wise count other than that of the Scheduled Castes/Tribes. This, despite pressure from allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition. Ostensibly to blunt the edge of the campaign, the ruling party introduced the Constitutional (127th) Amendment Bill 2021 which was intended to restore the power of the states to draw up their own OBC lists after the Supreme Court in May set aside a Maharashtra law granting quota to the Marathas, an intermediate caste which like the Haryana Jats, wanted reservations for a long time.
The paralysed session was brought to life when the Bill was discussed and unanimously passed. But the ghost of a caste census shadows the government. Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party chief and a veteran Maratha leader, later denounced the Bill as a “cheat” and alleged it will not benefit the OBCs unless the Union government sanctioned a caste-based census and cancelled the 50 per cent cap on quotas. The Centre’s reluctance to enumerate all the castes stems from precisely the apprehension that it will lead to an insistence on another Bill in order to bypass the legal ceiling and grant quotas proportional to the OBC population that might forever marginalise the influence of the savarnas, the core support base of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP. Of course, the BJP, that successfully re-thought its political outlook and re-engineered its strategies in the post-Mandal phase to co-opt the OBCs, will have less of a problem handling the demographic time-bomb than its ideological parent which cannot conceive of a socio-political order that will depreciate the power of the upper castes.
That the Mandal reality is inescapable was demonstrated with the alacrity with which Naveen Patnaik, the Odisha Chief Minister, recently announced a 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in state elections, kicking off with the panchayat polls in 2022. Patnaik, who belongs to the forward caste of Karana (Kayastha), is a rare leader who supposedly never made practical use of the caste calculus in electioneering. But here he was acknowledging that Mandal was implanted in his state’s political consciousness.
Academic Satish Deshpande believed that the full political potential of the OBCs was still to be tapped. He wrote in an article, “The ‘OBC’ Primer on Indian Politics” (Forward Press magazine, January 2016), “...while the OBCs are widely recognised as a formidable force in Indian politics, their presence is seen only as a brute fact. This is a mistake because ‘OBC’ is not just a political label or a constitutional entity, it is also a uniquely fertile category to think about.” Why? Deshpande explained that as long as only the SCs and STs were counted, “the upper castes were able to travel incognito with the OBCs as part of a ‘general category’ accounting for three quarters of the population.” However, the Mandal “revolution”, he said, laid bare the best kept secret of Indian politics, “namely, that the Hindu upper castes, numbering no more than 15-20 per cent of the population, were undoubtedly our most powerful and pampered minority”. Deshpande restated what was a public admission by the BJP leaders: Hindutva was crafted as a political countervail against Mandal. It worked, but in a limited way as the verdict of the 1989 and 1991 elections proved.
The BJP, which is quick at accurately grasping the political pulse, realised that it would have to fashion its own formula of combining Hindutva and Mandal to reach the pole position in politics. Hence, the decision to wholeheartedly endorse reservations and identify and project OBC leaders in its strongholds, culminating in the emergence and rise of Narendra Modi as a leader who fused Hindutva with his core identity as an OBC.
Recently, when KN Govindacharya, a former BJP general secretary who was the architect of its social engineering programme, was asked for his views on caste census, he replied, “I don’t think Hinduism is so weak that it would crumble with the release of caste details.” In the same breath, Govindacharya added that an “ideal balance” should be struck between “social justice (for the OBCs) and social harmony (to keep the upper castes happy).”
It’s an irreconcilable proposition that the Mandal votaries refuse to accept. However, the parties advocating a caste census are aware of the pitfalls. The “creamy layer” made up by the elite OBC groupings that have skimmed off the statutory benefits so far, will have to contend with a sea of the have-nots who were mostly looped out of the quota regime. A second revolution, then?
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