Today, August 7, marks 30 years of the implementation of the B. P. Mandal Commission’s recommendations by the V P Singh-led National Front government.
On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed bhoomi pujan – a customary laying of the first brick -- for the Ram temple at Ayodhya. This marks the culmination of a 135-year-long dispute, whose outcome was crucially shaped by the demolition of the Babri mosque on 6 December 1992.
Today, August 7, marks 30 years of the implementation of the B. P. Mandal Commission’s recommendations by the V P Singh-led National Front government. The decision gave 27% reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government jobs. This was extended to educational institutions under the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2006.
Both kamandal (an oblong water pot used by sadhus), a term often used to describe the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindutva politics, exemplified by the demand for the temple, or mandir, and Mandal politics had to eventually seek judicial sanction for their goals, but political agitation played a crucial role in fulfilment of their demands. To be sure, the larger political motivation for both Mandal and mandir went beyond the immediate cause being championed. It was to capture political power. The protagonists of Mandal wanted to unite the socially backward against upper castes. This necessarily involved causing fissures in the Hindu vote. The BJP, in keeping with its ideological worldview of Hindu nationalism, has always wanted to consolidate the majority Hindu vote.
Given India’s social arithmetic, successfully achieving either of these consolidations is a sure shot way to political power. According to the 2011 census, Hindus have a share of 79.8% in India’s population. The 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) shows that among these 45.7% belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), 22.2% to Scheduled Castes (SC) and 9.6% to Scheduled Tribes (ST).
This is exactly why the conflict between Mandal and mandir has been the central fault line in Indian politics for a large part of the last three decades. The BJP, which enjoyed high levels of support among the upper caste voters even earlier, could not achieve its current political dominance until it was able to make a dent in the votes of Hindu OBCs and SCs. Interestingly, many experts believe that VP Singh’s decision on Mandal was partly motivated by a desire to stop the ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which scripted a turnaround between 1984 and 1989 largely on the basis of its demand for a Ram temple.
See Chart 1: BJP all India vote share and estimates of support among upper castes, OBCs, SCs and STs
How did the BJP gain support among the votaries of Mandal? Mandal worked by creating fissures in a monolithic Hindu vote bank. The BJP has undermined Mandal by creating further fissures in this vote bank. One place where this strategy has been the most successful is Uttar Pradesh. A look at sub-caste wise vote shares for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from the National Election Study conducted by the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies, Lokniti makes this clear. The only sub-castes where the grand alliance of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had an edge vis-a-vis the BJP were Yadavs and Jatavs. These two sub-castes are the primary support base of the SP and the BSP, but put together they only have around 20% share in the state’s population. The BJP had a huge advantage among all other Hindus, including OBCs and SCs. The coming together of the SP and BSP was described as a grand coalition of Mandal. In the end, it was just a coalition of two sub-castes and Muslims.
See Chart 2: Vote share in Uttar Pradesh
What explains this shift in favour of the BJP? Growing traction for the BJP’s overall politics and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has definitely played a role. These generic factors have been complemented by a careful strategy.
The BJP has been crafting a social justice agenda of its own to counter the narrative of forces which championed Mandal in the 1990s. This has been achieved by portraying dominant OBC, and even Dalit sub-castes, as the usurpers of the distributive gains of Mandal, both in the realm of jobs as well as political representation. This is something that appeals to those who, the BJP claims have been deliberately left behind.
The biggest policy move in this direction has been the formation of the Commission to Examine Sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes for OBCs. This commission, HT reported on 31 December, 2019, might recommend breaking the existing 27% OBC reservations into three bands — with 10% each going to those that have got no benefits so far or only some benefits, and another 7% to those who have thus far received the most benefits (see https://bit.ly/31mvg24).
This move, if and when implemented, will create a huge rupture in OBC unity and consolidate the beneficiaries – there are 2633 OBC sub-castes in India – in favour of the BJP. The policy clearly has political undertones, but intra-caste inequality is an objective reality in India. While there is no systemic data at the national level, there exists region-specific research to show this. For example, a 2018 World Bank research paper, which is based on a field survey of 9000 poor households in Bihar shows that intra-caste divisions can play a bigger role in creation of inequality than inter-caste factors.Yadavs, an OBC sub-caste and the core supporters of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the main Mandal based formation in Bihar, reported a higher average land ownership than not just other OBCs and SCs but also some upper castes. The image of a dominant OBC isn’t entirely fiction.
To be sure, not all of the BJP’s political success in usurping the erstwhile supporters of Mandal can be attributed to an exercise in social reengineering aimed at breaking OBC-SC unity while placating upper castes. The announcement of 10% reservations for economically weaker sections among those who were not entitled to reservations earlier is a move in the latter direction.
In contrast to the usual rhetoric branding the BJP has pro-upper caste, the party has taken the side of the unprivileged on some key issues. The Modi government’s decisions to nullify two Supreme Court orders on dilution of provisions of Prevention of Atrocities against SCs/STs Act and implementation of reservations in higher education teaching jobs at the level of institutions rather than departments (which would have led to reduction in number of reserved positions) are examples of this. Such decisions have helped the BJP pre-empt political damage from the forces of Mandal even at the risk alienating upper caste interests.
A reorientation of welfare policies has also played a role. A recently published paper by Yamini Aiyar and Neelanjan Sircar argues that the centralised and technology driven distribution of targeted welfare benefits, most of which go to SCs, STs and OBCs, has allowed the BJP to establish a direct connect with voters, while bypassing state governments and therefore regional parties. Given the fact that most state governments face greater fiscal constraints, this has created an additional problem for regional parties (most Mandal formations are regional), in countering the BJP’s efforts to consolidate their vote bank.
With its subaltern social base being fragmented on the question of reservations and state governments’ ability to give an economic boost to the social justice project coming under squeeze, Mandal politics is facing the biggest challenge it has ever faced in its struggle against mandir politics. Conscious efforts to create a subaltern Hindutva narrative and promote local heroes, as was seen in Modi’s reference to Maharaja Suheldev – a lower caste king who fought against a nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni – during his speech at Ayodhya on 5 August, only increase Mandal’s political challenge by creating tensions between Muslims and the Hindu OBCs and SCs. Mandal’s initial success in countering the BJP was based on an electoral unity between Muslims, OBCs and SCs.
Does this mean that the kamandal has triumphed over Mandal for good? Politics, especially in a country such as India, is always in a state of churn, and it is hazardous to make predictions. Fresh contradictions could undermine the BJP’s support among the subalterns. In an article published in The Indian Express, Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A have argued that the Narendra Modi government has been taking decisions which are leading to a reduction in number of reserved jobs and a cut in funds earmarked for Dalits (see https://bit.ly/3a1fldb).
Will the BJP be able to manage these contradictions? Or will it suffer a blowback for failing to fulfil the promises to those it claims have been betrayed by Mandal politics? Whatever the answer it is clear that 30 years after Mandal, Indian politics is entering a new phase
Reservation is being undermined by privatisation push and decline in political clout of backward castes
The judiciary has contributed to the erosion of the reservation system in different ways during the last two years.
Reservations have been one of the most effective techniques of positive discrimination in India, where this policy was never been conceived as a mass employment scheme but as the best way to redress of whole history of oppression. Gradually, it has created a group of Dalits that validated some criteria of the middle class in terms of education and occupation. While quotas were not fulfilled among the “upper classes” of the public sector till the 1980s, in the Central Administrative Services, SCs (about 16 per cent of India’s population) reached 14 per cent of the Class C in 1984, 14.3 per cent of the Class B in 2003 and 13.3 per cent of the Class A in 2015. In the Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs), their proportion rose from 14.6 per cent in 2004 to 18.1 per cent in 2014. In parallel, the SCs’ literacy rate jumped from 21.38 per cent in 1981 to 66.1 per cent in 2011.
Similar progress was achieved by the OBCs, a category that started to benefit from reservations many years later, after the Mandal Commission report was implemented by V P Singh. In 2013, OBCs – 52 per cent of India’s population according to the Mandal report – represented 8.37 per cent of the Class A in the Central Government Services, 10.01 per cent of Class B and 17.98 per cent of Class C. Their percentage in the CPSEs jumped from 16.6 per cent in 2004 to 28.5 per cent in 2014.
Today, these achievements may be affected by the new programme of privatisation that has been announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the framework of structural reforms accompanying the anti-Covid-19 relief package. According to the new Public Sector Enterprises Policy (PSEP), a list of strategic sectors will be notified where there will be no more than four public sector enterprises — the rest would be merged or privatised. But reservations are already undermined by other developments and policies.
While the percentages mentioned above are on the increase, the trend is different if one looks at the number of jobs they represent, as the public sector is shrinking. First, the number of vacancies has surged, from 5.5 lakh in 2006 to 7.5 lakh in 2014 (no data are available since then) so far as central government employment is concerned. The trend has continued afterwards. For instance, the number of civil service candidates shortlisted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has dropped by almost 40 per cent between 2014 and 2018, from 1,236 to 759. Second, the total number of employees has dropped so dramatically between 2003 and 2012, from 32.69 lakh to 26.30 lakh in the Central Government Services, that the number of Dalits benefiting from reservations has been reduced by 16 per cent from 5.40 lakh to 4.55 lakh. In the CPSEs, in spite of rising percentages, the number of jobs has decreased from 18.1 lakh in 2011 to 14.86 lakh in 2014. In contrast, the number of OBCs continued to rise, from 1.38 lakh to 4.55 lakh between 2003 and 2012 in the Central Government Services. But in the CPSEs, the inverted U curve had started: While the number of OBCs benefiting from reservations had jumped from 14.89 lakh in 2008 to 23.55 lakh in 2012, it has dropped to 23.38 lakh the year after.
Reservations have also been undermined by lateral entry in to the bureaucracy. By the end of his first term, Narendra Modi implemented one of the promises of the 2014 BJP election manifesto — the creation of lateral entry in the Indian administration. This reform was intended to “to draw expertise from the industry, academia and society into the services”. In February 2019, 89 applicants were short listed (out of 6,000 candidates from the private sector) for filling 10 posts of Joint Secretary. This new procedure undermined the reservations system because the quotas did not apply.
The judiciary has contributed to the erosion of the reservation system in different ways during the last two years. In a judgment of the Allahabad High Court, which was later upheld by Supreme Court, the University Grants Commission (UGC) was allowed to issue a notification on March 5, 2018, which sought to shift the unit of provision of reservations from a university as a whole to the departmental level. Such a shift has reduced the quantum of reserved seats and restricted the entry of lower castes because small departments, where vacancies are few, would be indivisible — thereby no seats would be reserved. As a result, as per the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in the teaching posts advertised by 11 central universities, only 2.5 per cent posts were reserved for SCs, none for STs and 8 per cent for OBCs. However, the impact of the ordinance and the subsequent Bill passed by the Parliament in March and July 2019, reversing the Supreme Court’s judgment, is yet to be seen.
Recently, the Supreme Court made another important decision on February 7. It ruled that reservation in job promotions was not a fundamental right. This ruling undermined the effect of an amendment to the Constitution that had been introduced by the Narasimha Rao government in 1995 and that had resulted in article 16(4A), a provision that circumvented a facet of the 1992 decision of the Supreme Court to allow reservation for SCs and STs in promotions. Interestingly, this amendment had been further refined under the A B Vajpayee government in 2001 through the 85th amendment, which extended the benefit of reservations in favour of the SCs/STs in matters of promotion with consequential seniority. This time, in 2020, the Government of India has decided not to contest the decision of the Supreme Court affecting this amendment.
It remains to be seen whether the government will react to the even more recent questioning of reservations. Last month, the National Commission for Backward Classes has issued a notice to the health ministry complaining that the post-Mandal 27 per cent quota was not implemented systematically. Indeed, since 2017, under the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, OBCs were not provided the 27 per cent quota in the all-India seats which are pooled from state colleges. This loss represented about 10,000 seats in three years, which have been transferred to the general category.
SCs and OBCs are not only penalised by the decline of the reservation system. They are also affected by other policies. For instance, the funds earmarked for Dalit education in the Indian budget were reduced during Modi I. While this budget item, within the Special Component Plan (a subcategory of the annual budget), is supposed to be proportional to the demographic weight of the Dalits, 16.6 per cent, it fluctuated between 9 and 6.5 per cent during Modi’s first term. As a result, scholarship funds were cut drastically. According to S K Thorat, nearly five million Dalit students have been affected by this reduction and delays in payment.
The trajectory of positive discrimination in India suggests that the implementation of this policy is a function of the political clout of Dalits and OBCs. They gained when parties — including the BSP, SP and RJD — were in a position to put pressure on the governments, especially when they were part of ruling coalitions. Unsurprisingly, the electoral decline of these parties has resulted not only in the comeback of upper castes in the assemblies but in the questioning of policies in favour of the plebeians.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 8, 2020 under the title “Social injustice”. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Kalaiyarasan is a Fulbright Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the US