'Mandalisation' of BJP or election engineering for UP?

Topics BJP | UP elections | Mayawati

Measures to woo the OBCs in the run up to the Uttar Pradesh elections are being mistakenly described by some as ‘Mandalisation’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mayawati’s wooing of Brahmins did not make the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) a ‘Manuvadi’ party. Nor will the BJP’s present moves transform it into a platform for social justice. The ‘Mandalisation’ of the BJP is an electoral contingency.

The BJP’s outreach to the intermediate castes was evident in the recent additions to the PM’s Cabinet and his announcement of an all-India quota for OBCs (and EWS - economically weaker sections) in medical and dental colleges. The Modi government is apparently also considering a Constitutional amendment in the wake of the SC rejecting its review petition on Maratha reservation. The amendment will allow states to once again notify socially and educationally backward classes. An overwhelmed general secretary of the BJPs’ OBC Morcha general secretary described the prime minister as the “Messiah of social justice” in a media column.

Prime Minister Modi’s mentor, L K Advani, had at one time mobilised around the Ram temple issue to counteract the rise of caste-based politics immediately after V P Singh decided to implement OBC reservations in 1990. His dramatic ‘rath yatra’ was aimed at uniting Hindus across castes. For a time, the “Mandal vs Kamandal” dichotomy dominated BJP politics. However, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 -- Kalyan Singh, an OBC, was then the Chief Minister of UP -- the party recognised the importance of adding OBCs to its electoral base.

To bridge the gap between the two seemingly irreconcilable agendas, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue K N Govindacharya (on loan to the BJP as General Secretary in the 1990s), expounded a theory of ‘social engineering’ and a political strategy of “Mandir plus Mandal”. He wanted leaders from intermediate and lower castes in the Hindu hierarchy to campaign for an ideological-political agenda firmly rooted in a Brahminical upper caste ethos.

The party promoted leaders like Kalyan Singh (Lodhi caste) and Vinay Katiyar (Kurmi) in UP, Uma Bharti (Lodhi) in Madhya Pradesh, Sushil Modi (Modh) in Bihar, Bangaru Laxman (Madiga Scheduled Caste) in Andhra Pradesh, Gopinath Munde (Vanjari caste) in Maharashtra and Narendra Modi (Modh-Ghanchi-Teli) in Gujarat. Of these, only Narendra Modi bypassed caste identities in Gujarat and chose a militant Hindutva route to electoral success. However, for Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati, caste equations produced stunning election victories in UP and MP, respectively. Gopinath Munde became Deputy Chief Minister in Maharashtra in 1995. Only Sushil Modi failed to match OBC leaders like Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Laxman destroyed his career after he was caught accepting a bribe.

However, after initial success the strategy wavered. Kalyan Singh was forced to leave the party in 1999 and Uma Bharati who had to resign as chief minister was also expelled in 2004 (both re-joined the BJP later).The proponent of social engineering, Govindacharya, was himself marginalised and thrown out of the party.

However, electoral compulsions forced the BJP to maintain an outreach to OBCs and other lower castes. The OBC population of MP is 53% and of SCs15.5% and STs 21.1%. Given this reality, the party realised it had no option but to appoint an OBC as Chief Minister. After Uma Bharti’s ouster the BJP chose another OBC, Babulal Gaur, a Yadav, as the chief minister of MP and he in turn was replaced by another OBC, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, of Kirar caste.

This helped the BJP to lower its margin of defeat in 2018 despite an anti-incumbency of 15 years. The reinstallation of a BJP government through defections in March 2020 saw Chouhan reappointed as CM despite the Prime Minister apparently favouring a change of leadership. In UP also, the wooing of the intermediate and lower castes now, is just a bid to consolidate the expanded social base of the BJP. Its main challenger in the state is the OBC-based Samajwadi Party.

The party’s OBC reservation politics is thus entirely contingent on electoral needs rather than an ideological commitment to social justice. The BJP’s mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) speaks out against caste-based reservations from time to time, unable to cut itself off from a savarna rooted world-view.

The RSS has thus described reservations as promoting “separatism”, creating “friction” in society and argued that “equal opportunities” for everyone necessitate that “caste based reservations in jobs and educational institutions must end soon” (Mohan Vaidya). At other times its spokesmen have conceded that “reservations needs to stay as long as backward communities feel the need for it” (Dattatreya Hosable) or claimed that “caste based reservation should continue till caste based discrimination is there” (Mohan Bhagwat).  The contradiction in the RSS over reservation is reflected in its pursuit of a “harmonious dialogue” between those for and against caste-based reservations (Bhagwat).

With the decisive puncturing of Modi’s much hyped electoral magic in West Bengal, the importance of securing caste-based support in UP and four other state assembly elections due next February is more important than before. Economic decline and disastrous management of the pandemic have alienated voters and energised the Opposition. The nervousness of the BJP is apparent from the way it has changed the Chief Minister of a small state like Uttarakhand three times and arm-twisted an obdurate Yogi Adityanath to improve his government’s image.

However, the BJP has to balance its outreach to the Mandal castes with reassurances to its upper caste base. Hence, the addition of a EWS quota to reservations becomes necessary, even without Constitutional provision for it.

While ‘social engineering’ and ‘Mandalisation’ are buzz words for BJP cadres and leadership, the top echelons of the RSS, remain untouched by such concerns. Except for a lone Rajput from UP, all RSS chiefs have been Brahmins from Maharashtra and Karnataka. The RSS chief does not have to contest popular elections to remain in power. With the fount of Hindutva shielded from ‘social engineering’, ‘Mandalisation’ is just a bit of necessary electoral engineering for the BJP.

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