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Modi era begins in politics as caste factor fades. Here’s why he won’t be easy to beat

BJP's Mandir politics has subsumed Mandal under Modi-Shah and created a pan-Hindu vote. Modi's challenger has to invent a new politics.

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An epoch has ended in Indian politics exactly after three decades. A new one has begun. We are certainly not talking about the decline of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the rise of Narendra Modi as the solitary new pole of Indian politics. That would be too narrow-focus to understand the profound political transformation in India. We are marking the end of the Mandal-Mandir politics and the unfolding of the Modi epoch.

It was exactly around this time of the year in 1989 that the BJP, reduced to two in Lok Sabha by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, had begun to see a chance for a comeback in the last year of his prime ministership. Rajiv confidant and defence minister V.P. Singh had rebelled, and looked the natural leader for an alliance to replace Rajiv. But he could not have done it without the BJP’s numbers. And L.K. Advani, the BJP’s sharpest mind, wasn’t willing to accept having to share power forever.

He wanted the BJP to win power on its own. For this, the BJP needed an agenda going beyond the day’s flavour: Defeating “corrupt” Rajiv. He picked up Ayodhya, combining aggressive nationalism with Hindu revival. This was his Mandir doctrine.

Advani helped the opposition stop Rajiv well short later that year. V.P. Singh, whose Janata Dal won 143 seats, most of them in the heartland, was sworn-in prime minister of a newly-formed National Front coalition. It was still way short of 272. The numbers were made up by two unlikely outside supporters — the Left and the BJP. It wasn’t actually the first or the last time the two sworn ideological enemies cynically made common cause.

The bulk of the Janata Dal and its smaller allies’ numbers came from old Socialists and Congress rebels. Generally, they detested the BJP. Mutual unease worsened with differences over the handling of a new insurgency in Kashmir, especially after Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the Kashmiri politician serving as home minister in V.P. Singh’s cabinet, was kidnapped for ransom by Kashmiri separatists and the government capitulated.

V.P. Singh and his mostly Socialist/Lohiaite think tank knew the arrangement was unsustainable and worked to build a new politics opposed to both BJP and the Congress. An almost decade-old report of the Mandal Commission, recommending reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), was pulled out, and implemented in a jiffy.

The upper castes, already resentful of the 22.5 per cent reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, declared war on V.P. Singh, leading to violent disturbances. In these, 159 upper caste students tried to commit suicide and, unfortunately, 63 succeeded. A caste war had begun within the Hindu mass. In the process, V.P. Singh and his socialists built a new OBC vote-bank. It threatened the BJP by dividing the Hindu vote it coveted, the last thing Advani wanted when he was trying to polarise that entire population on a Hindu-Muslim basis.

V.P. Singh’s ‘Mandal’ strategy ran headlong into Advani’s ‘Mandir’. The Mandal versus Mandir politics resulted in a tussle that’s defined Indian politics since then: Can you re-unite by faith what caste divided?

When it worked, which was less often, the BJP came to power. But mostly, bonds of caste prevailed, particularly as many old heartland leaders built and reinforced vote-banks of their own castes. Kanshi Ram and Mayawati joined the mix too, taking away the Dalits. Muslims were these caste groups’ force multipliers, and vice-versa. Together, they often beat the BJP in the heartland. And nationally, these joined hands with the Congress to build unlikely coalitions to keep the BJP out of power.

The 2019 verdict has ended that. To say that Mandir has triumphed Mandal will miss the point. It is more like Mandir, under Modi and Amit Shah, has subsumed Mandal. Helped along by Modi’s rise as India’s first full-term, full-majority OBC prime minister winning a second term, the Mandalite vote-banks are broken. Modi has taken the mantle from both Mandal and Mandir.

In terms of political geology, this isn’t just a tectonic shift, it is a continental collision. How has it come about? What are its consequences? What will it take going ahead to contest it, and invent a new pole in Indian politics?

Cut to Modi’s spirited speech to his party men on the evening of the results. Two points he made stand out. One, he said that there were only two castes in India now: The poor, and those able to generate the resources to help the poor. Second, that those who wore the “secular mask” have been defeated. The political message is that the time when leaders could divide Hindus on the basis of caste, combine with Muslim voters and stay in power, is now over.

Also read28 years after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, a look back at the LTTE-Lanka nexus that killed him

Modi is the solitary factor that made this possible. There is no point blaming the opposition. Pre-poll coalitions work when you are fighting an ideology or a party. They will be easily rolled over when fighting a personality, particularly one as popular as Modi today, or Indira Gandhi in 1971.

Modi and Shah have dared to take the BJP where Advani and his generation had not dreamed. Their Mandir polarisation was read by the heartland voters with their evident sympathy with the upper caste anti-Mandal suicide-burners. Modi and Shah have actively reached out to the OBCs and Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, they’ve been breaching both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s vote-banks, diminishing them essentially to single-caste leaders — Jatavs and Yadavs respectively.

The rest are gravitating towards the BJP. Since it already has a Hindu nationalist upper caste vote-bank, these additional numbers give it devastating power. Bihar has been handed over to a non-BJP OBC leader (Nitish Kumar); the leader of a large and powerful Dalit group, Ram Vilas Paswan, has been accommodated. The challenge of Mandal, which kept BJP out of power for almost two of the past three decades, was put to flames in 2019.

Modi now has the opportunity to design his own playbook. Here is one likelihood. Because he can take the upper-caste loyalty for granted for now, he could empower many more OBC and Dalit leaders at the Centre and in the states. In Bihar, he is already building a strong set of Yadav leaders, notably Sanjay Paswan, and some will be mentored in UP too. And Hindus feel sufficiently empowered under him so he could reach out to Muslims too. The message: The time when all of you could combine your vote-shares to win power is over. The politics that gave you your electoral clout has ended. So come under my tent. After all, as I said, there are only two castes in my India, the poor and the wealth-creators. Most Muslims may still not walk in. But some might just.

Do not read this as the end of politics in India. It is just that with the Mandal-Mandir epoch over, Modi’s next challenger/s will need to invent a new politics. Of course, some would still hope that caste would once again divide what faith reunited. But I’d believe that half the life of that idea ended in 2014, and the rest now.

How would that new politics be built, and possibly by who? Look one level below the surface in this election result. Under the BJP’s 303 and 52 of the Congress, are two important numbers. The BJP’s votes have risen to 22.6 crore now from 17.1 crore in 2014. The Congress vote has also risen to 11.86 crore from 10.69 crore. The combined 2014 tally of 27.79 crore between them has now risen to 34.46 crore. In percentage terms, this is 57 per cent of the total vote compared to 50.3 in 2014. The vote Mandalite and other regional forces took away, is gravitating back to national parties. That’s why, you may take the Congress lightly, Modi and Shah won’t.

Also read: 12 reasons why Modi-Shah’s BJP got the better of Congress & everyone else


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  1. MY marriage will most like be an intercaste one. Here goes the caste politics (& netas) deep in the bin

  2. Shekar ji is at his best when writing historical analyses. Key sentence in article: “you may take the Congress lightly, Modi and Shah won’t.”

  3. All is not lost for Congress. The dynasty is needed to keep the party together. Priyanka should be made the party president and given the task of reviving the party on a war-footing, from booth level upwards. Rahul can tackle the government in parliament and on policy matters.
    The immediate task should be to strategise for the coming assembly elections and be ready with the candidates by July so that they can campaign door to door. Priyanka should be the main campaigner for these elections so that her effectiveness as a full-time leader can be checked and corrected. There has never been any doubt that Priyanka is a better communicator than Rahul.

  4. Why does the Print not yet have the story on the VVPATs abd EVMs matching cent per cent in the sample of over 20,000 EVM machines as confirmed by EC?? (Print has a story on Dunlopillo as “aspirational” — overused word these days — brand of yesteryears).

    Other media has buried this story….and for baseless EVM allegations they would put screaming headlines.

    Election Commission should immediately call a press conference to release this FANTASTIC ACHIEVEMENT and forever silence the doubters (one of the EC commissioners may object to the presser, let his objections be recorded).

    • Correct. Only India Today and Economic Times carried the story. NDTV – the ‘serious’ channel – that would have gone to town like a bard in the event of mismatch, didn’t carry it either. Then they talk about media credibility.

  5. 1. This is a good analysis of 2019 Lok Sabha (LS) election results. Congress, Communists and other opposition parties would be feeling uncomfortable as they are not able to contain growth of BJP and so-called pro-Hindutva forces. In a democracy this is understandable. If in future all these parties come together it may be possible to defeat BJP, but would such alliances benefit our country? 2. Obviously, all these parties would have to find a new leader who will bring all of them on a common platform with a realistic agenda that would reassure voters that their alliance would deliver good governance, even better than of BJP led NDA government. 3. It was being said that if BJP wins, India will become Hindu Pakistan. Obviously this argument was an immature response to popularity of PM Narendra Modi. This kind of argument would possibly attract newspaper headlines but would not be taken seriously. I feel that all political parties who claim that they are secular must be ready to do some critical self-examination to find out reasons of growth of BJP in many States where BJP had very little presence about a decade ago. 4. Incidental observations: Congress and regional parties like SP, BSP Trinamool Congress, RJD JD(S), NCP and the Communists, who all claim to be opposed to the fundamentalist BJP, have still not shown willingness and courage to oppose the fundamentalists in India Muslim community. These Muslim fundamentalists have ensured that the poor Muslims remain uneducated and are not exposed to modern education or democratic practices. That I suppose is one major reason why the educated middle class has moved closer to BJP. Are the opposition parties ready to learn any lesson from 2019 LS election results?

  6. Based on 2019 results, it appears that voters have voted for Modi cutting across caste, religion, region,gender etc. Modi comes up as honest,sincere and decisive leader who may make mistakes but tries hard to deliver. If this new phenomenon becomes the basis of our politics in next 5 years and Modi indeed delivers almost as promised, then India would have buried ghost of caste divisions in Hindu society and along with that, politics of secularism and Mandal. The millennial voter seems to have a new political preference based on promise and performance by the leader. This transactional nature of choice will do well for rapid development of the country in next 15 to 20 years. This puts a big onus for delivery of promises on Modi who must succeed at all costs in next 5 years. Else ghosts of left, liberal, pseudo secular and tukde tukde gang, will return to haunt us. Shekhar is missing them today and is hoping for them return soon!

  7. In the last few minutes I have been trying to locate that number by Habib Wali Mohammed, on Google and YouTube. If someone can please find a link, kindly do share it through this article itself. I could locate the lyrics but not the singing of HWM. The first line of that song is


  8. There’s a line of a song sung by Habib Wali Mohammed : “Apni zaat se ishq hai suchchaa, baqi sab afsaane hain”. Zaat here means SELF, or self interest. It does not mean “caste”. HWM was a Pakistani singer, and this is a very old song – – possibly… I don’t know, maybe 1950s, or even before that? Caste system was never an issue in those parts. It cannot be of any importance in a Muslim milieu anywhere. Islam doesn’t recognize caste system.

    I’m drifting. What I wanted to say is, that even in these elections, Modi has managed to APPEAL TO VOTERS’ SELF INTEREST. He is, by his gift of the gab, STILL able to spin dreams for gullible Hindus who, having been brought up on the oratory of Ramlila characters, or verbosity of neighborhood “sadhus”, are NOT YET ABLE to sift the grain from the chaff. Modi ji spins yarn, and a typical Indian voter gets all tangled up!

    The caste factor has not faded, Shekhar, the hope is struggling to remain “jawaan” against all odds.

  9. The author as usual is silent about the wide spread corruption that is prevalent in the Congress and all the caste based parties that is one of the most important reason that our country’s progress was retarded, the prevalence and flourishing of interest lobbies who in promoting their own selfish interests harmed the common man the author himself is I believe accused to be part of such a cabal so I can understand his defeaning silence in this regard

  10. Mr Gupta Congress vote share has gone up because of DMK in Tamil Nadu. Everywhere else, other than Kerala and Punjab Congress vote share has gone down…

  11. What is needed is a strong central figure to take on Modi. The issues of economy and unemployment were very much there this election, just that nobody understood them or had the character to raise them in an effective way.

    • Just try to define the characteristics of the strong central figure to take on Modi. You’ll soon realize that it’s not that easy.

  12. At least this perceptive column puts an end to the fallacy that the Congress is “ dying “. With almost 120 million votes, the time to call the priests is not just now. If one compares the votes polled by the two national parties, as opposed to seats won, there would be a case to confer LoP status, make an effort to secure its consent to important legislation in Parliament. Not because it’s numbers are required but because it represents the views and wishes of so many Indians. What toppling three of its important state governments will do to bipartisanship is something to consider. 2. If an entire political era is to be defined by one great leader, that might lead to a future vacuum. No one who reads this column will consider Minister Nitin Gadkari as being in the same league.

  13. Article full of lies and half-truths. Will Shekhar Gupta be honest to his readers and tell them how the Ayodhya Mandir movement of LK Advani came about?

    Shekhar Gupta is totally silent on the diabolical role of Rahul Gandhi’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, in opening the locks of a totally forgotten, nondescript mandir in a place most people thought existed only in mythology.

    And the cynical ploy of opening mandir (and doing a ground breaking ceremony just days before the 1989 Lok Sabha elections) was Rajiv Gandhi’s way of making amends for the total capitulation to Muslim obscurantists in the Shah Bano case — where a Supreme Court judgment ordering an alimony to a divorced old lady was sought to be overturned).

    READERS: please read this background or do further online reading to try and understand where and how LK Advani got an opportunity to launch the Ayodhya mandir movement.

    • thats absolutely correct. Mandir issue wouldnt have popped up if Rajiv Gandhi would not have attempted the opening of temple locks to appease the Hindus for his role in Shah bano case.
      Shekar, we readers are fed up with you guys talking about Hindu Muslim dalits etc. when will you grow up to address as Indians ?

  14. The life line of those who wear secular mask gets their oxygen from caste and religious divide. They might have temporarily gone into coma but their worldwide spread is still breathing fine and active which can been from coverage in international media. It’s a matter of time when Lutyians gang or Khan market walas come out of the coma and resume their anti Modi strategy by resurrecting the secular mask again. I can’t say what will be the shape and color of the new secular mask but I think it will keep Modi on his toes for his second term also. It will take a generation’s time when the current Lutyans gang completely decimated. For Modi the fight with secularists is still not over.

  15. Awesome, brilliant article. It’s important, Shekhar Gupta, for extraordinary editors/ journalists like you to enlighten the Gen Next about the history of politics and to hand a lesson or two about columns to the new kids on the block (I refer to the Fourth Estate). Best wishes Sir, to you and our great Nation.

  16. Caste politics will prevail under all circumstances. Every single MP/MLA ticket is given on the basis of caste. Nothing is going to change.

  17. Mr Gupta has concluded that a new political environment has emerged.. However, for ordinary people, the only real and good change will arrive when Indian politicians will have the courage get rid off the invented tags they have bestowed on Hindus and which determines their rights.

    Currently, in India there are only two sets of people – one with preferential and highly subsidised access (irrespective of position & wealth) to all resources due to the tag and the rest who must accept that they their chances of education, progress, prosperity and participation are practically NIL, example Maharashtra, where NR class students with highest marks have got almost NIL seats in PG Medical, because invented categories have captured everything on offer.

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