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For long, Congress wavered on social justice. Now it’s waking up to BJP’s OBC politics

Many wanted Congress to focus on secularism, diversity and pluralism. But party has realised that the Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasi aren't interested in these abstract ideas.

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The Congress’ revival strategy has gained a potent factor. At the recently held three-day Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir, or New Resolution Brainstorming Conclave, in Rajasthan’s Udaipur, the Congress constituted a social justice committee headed by senior leaders Salman Khurshid and K. Raju. The committee has recommended several social justice measures to restructure the party.

The panel, according to media reports, has recommended “50 per cent representation to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and minorities at all levels in the party organisation”. It has also recommended fighting for OBC reservation in Parliament and state assemblies, and “quota within quota in the women’s reservation bill” with “proportionate reservation for SC, ST and OBC women”.

More crucially, the social justice panel has recommended caste-based reservation in the private sector. This is a difficult area for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although the BJP twice came to power in large part because of the OBC vote, it has not taken any step to improve the presence of OBC/SC/STs in the private sector. In fact, the Narendra Modi government’s massive privatisation drive severely undercuts their presence in the employment sector.

While the Congress’ top decision making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), didn’t ultimately approve the panel’s recommendations, the fact that such a reformative social justice programme has found a footing in the party’s thinking could well decide its future politics.

As Hindustan Times reported, Congress leader K. Raju said the quota policy has “not been rejected”. “Not everything can be decided in one meeting. The quota for SC, ST, OBCs and minorities will be taken up in the next phase of internal reforms,” he said, as per the newspaper.


Also read: At Chintan Shivir, Congress has chosen to win—not with PK, but with SC, ST, OBCs, women


A major shift

A social justice package like this is the maximum that a national party like the Congress could come up with. Significantly, the Khurshid-led panel also recommended that the Congress should fight for enumeration of caste census, which the BJP has been ignoring. It now openly, and categorically, challenges the BJP, which is in power largely because of the OBC vote.

If the Congress does make a resolution on these recommendations, its composition and ideological position will undergo a metamorphosis unlike anything we have seen since Independence.

Unsurprisingly, the social justice agenda of the Congress has shocked not only the BJP but also those who don’t want social justice issues — particularly the reservation question — to take centre stage in the national polity. The Congress’ brainstorming teams were sympathetic to the view that the party should seek power by focussing on issues like secularism, diversity, pluralism, and anti-communalism. But the Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasi masses are not interested in these abstract ideas anymore. Clearly, the Congress has realised this.

And the credit for this goes to Rahul Gandhi, who is the Congress’ only mass leader.


Also read: Rahul Gandhi must clear his position on Congress leadership. Chintan Shivirs won’t help


Ignoring social justice

The Congress has long wavered on taking a strong position on the social justice agenda because of its internal structural dilemma. Though the Congress ruled India for 15 years after the Mandal Commission’s report was implemented by the V.P Singh Government — five years of P.V. Narasimha Rao rule and 10 years of Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure — the party was mainly under the hegemonic grip of anti-social justice elite.

Most of its elite leaders were boardroom managers but not vote mobilisers. Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh, Mani Shankar Aiyar, and the late Ahmed Patel were managing the government and the party, with a negative view about the Mandal forces at the ground level. Rajya Sabha route became the power politics of the elite. Now that route has been cut short for two terms.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s victory in the 1984 Lok Sabha election, when the party won 414 seats in the backdrop of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress effectively became a Doon School team. The victory made the Doon School team overconfident, causing internal crisis and the rise of V.P. Singh as a new national leader. Though the Congress was able to form a minority government under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, Rao was no mass leader to take the Congress forward.

The Mandal movement was opposed by the anti-reservationists, who raked up a merit theory. And Rajiv Gandhi’s arch enemy V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission Report, much to the annoyance of Rajiv and his elite team. They opposed the OBC reservation with all their strength. Not a single person in the Congress’ elite team was from the Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adiavsi background. Both the Congress and the BJP misjudged the aspirations and strength of the Shudra/OBC youth and the masses.

During the ten years of UPA rule — 2004 to 2014 — some positive steps were taken to satisfy the Mandal forces that were getting more and more organised. But the Congress did not give any visible position to any Mandalite either in the government or in the party. It mainly depended on the Dwija, minority (Muslim and Christian), Dalit and Adivasi electoral base and Dwija leaders to run the government.

By 2014, there was no leader in the Congress who could effectively communicate to the masses in rural India as to what they did in their ten-year rule. It solely depended on young Rahul Gandhi to fight the well-organised RSS/BJP across India. Manmohan Singh did not address any major public rally as he was never a mass leader. Such a Rajya Sabha PM was no match to the BJP, which had positioned its understanding of Mandal forces and brought Narendra Modi with an OBC card.


Also read: Major ice-breaker but ‘main issues’ unaddressed — Congress leaders’ takeaway from Chintan Shivir


A late realisation

The rise of Narendra Modi and consecutive electoral losses has perhaps made the Congress realise that the OBC won’t align with the party unless it restructures itself.

Given the numbers of the Shudra/OBC — 52 per cent as per the Mandal estimation — winning a general election without addressing their concerns is unthinkable in today’s politics. The Congress seems to have realised that the old ideological agenda of secularism, pluralism and minoritism is not going to bring OBC votes.

It remains to be seen if Rahul Gandhi’s image among the social justice forces will change. He will have a tough time bringing on board the group opposed to his and the Khurshid-led panel’s social justice measures. Though for the sake of Indian institutions, which are under threat from communal forces bent on eroding them, the Congress will have to mount a struggle for social justice and re-democratisation of the country’s constitutional polity. Not only will it pull the country back from the dark path it is on, but it will also put the Congress back on the national stage. For what it’s worth, the party’s Udaipur Conclave has made a start.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His most known books are Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, and Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan Socio-Spiritual and Scientific RevolutionViews are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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