As north Indian ‘Mandal states’ transform into Hindutva states with the new politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the country’s social justice baton has been picked up, once again, by Tamil Nadu. The 1990s’ social justice warriors are now ageing and struggling to redefine themselves in a new era. But Tamil Nadu, increasingly under M.K. Stalin, has been reshaping the NEET and reservation debate in politics and courts. The 21st-century twist is that he is attempting a new formula — Mandal plus market. The leaders of the earlier era professed Mandal plus socialism.
Elsewhere in India, it is a grim time for the politics and politicians of social justice. As rightly noted by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, the “silent revolution” is now over and it’s time for a great reversal because the “silent revolution brought on a counter-revolution, a revenge of the elite whose vanguard has been the BJP.” With the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the national scene, especially after 2014, traditional social justice politics has lost its sheen.
But all is not lost. There is still one fort left, which is trying to provide an ideological counter to the Hindutva narrative and also doing a different kind of Mandir politics. The challenge is being provided by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. Keeping his secular credentials intact, the DMK’s political narrative is about growth with social justice, welfarism and rationalism.
In an important development, on Republic Day, Stalin announced that he will soon launch an All India Federation/Forum for Social Justice and strive to achieve the principles of federalism and social justice at the national level. He said it will have ‘leaders from depressed classes from all States’. With this, Stalin has shown national ambition for the first time, which is not new for Tamil politicians, as M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa always had strong footprints on Delhi politics.
Stalin is perhaps sensing that there is an ideological vacuum in the opposition space in national politics. The BJP has successfully reduced the national political discourse into Hindu-Muslim and secular-communal binaries. The opposition has got trapped in this logjam. The Congress is still searching in the wilderness for its mojo and, at the same time, waiting for the burden of anti-incumbency to become too heavy for the BJP. The Congress still largely pitches itself as a secular party. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is also playing the same secular-communal card, with a high dose of regional Bangla pride.
A void in the north
A few years back, the politics of social justice, also known as identity politics or caste politics in journalistic jargon, used to be a strong force in north India, especially in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These states were once ruled by politicians such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kanshiram, Mayawati and Lalu Prasad. Kanshiram never held any government position, but as the leader of the third-largest party in India, the Bahujan Samaj Party, his role was crucial in UP and Delhi both. This was also the time when the Mandal Commission recommendation was implemented and the total number of OBC MPs started increasing in the Lok Sabha. These leaders played important roles in different coalition governments headed by V.P. Singh, Charan Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda, and I.K. Gujral.
Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav and Kanshiram all aspired to become the prime minister, and it wasn’t just a daydream. They were not very far from the coveted post. Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav’s roles were critical even during the UPA-1 government, led by Manmohan Singh.
That era has gone. Lalu Prasad has been outwitted by the social engineering of Nitish Kumar. Since 2005, Nitish Kumar has been the chief minister of Bihar (despite a brief gap in 2014) —18 years is indeed a long time in politics. Tejaswi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has the largest number of MLAs in the Bihar assembly, but he is still an opposition leader. Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party has fared badly in the 2014, 2017 and 2019 elections in UP. The performance of the BSP is even worse. After the resounding victory of 2007 in the UP assembly elections, it failed to win any of the big electoral battles.
When Stalin says that he wants to get all the forces of social justice together, he is sensing a void and thinking about filling the ideological gap in the north.
NEET to temples, change is coming
Stalin’s northern ambition has got a huge boost after victory in a long-drawn battle to implement OBC quota in medical seats pooled by the Centre from state governments. These seats are called All-India Quota seats. The DMK, in its election manifesto, had said that it will work for abolition of the NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) exam so that states can conduct their own exam. That hasn’t happened, but the DMK has raised the issue of OBC quota in a big way. Stalin wrote letters to the PM and all prominent leaders in the country. He also formed political consensus on this in the state. The DMK fought a long battle in the court and deputed its own lawyer, MP P. Wilson, to argue its case. The party won the legal battle and finally, the Union government agreed to implement the 27 per cent OBC quota, which was later endorsed by the Supreme Court.
The DMK fought a lone battle almost on this issue, so its claim of being the sole or leading warrior of social justice in the country has been enhanced.
At the same time, the DMK is going full throttle in its anti-caste moves. Last October, a Narikurava (nomadic tribe) woman at Mamallapuram was denied permission to eat ‘Annadhanam’ (prasad) served at the Perumal temple. The Chief Minister’s Office brought the issue to the notice of Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments minister PK Sekar Babu. Soon, a feast was organised in the temple and she had a full meal seated between the minister and commissioner. That was indeed a strong statement.
This picture shows us how effective a Govt intervention can be in case of discrimination based on caste in places of worship.
This is a powerful statement by Minister @PKSekarbabu sir.
— Yazhini PM (யாழினி ப மீ) (@yazhini_pm) October 29, 2021
When the BJP is doing temple movement in the north, the DMK is doing another type of temple movement in Tamil Nadu. The DMK’s ideological guru Periyar had a dream that Shudras and women should be appointed as archaks (priests) in Tamil Nadu’s temples. Karunanidhi tried his best to implement it, but due to court cases and other complications, he failed. Finally, Stalin has set the ball rolling and started appointing archaks from all castes and genders. The government, in fact, appealed to women to come forward and apply if they want to be priests in temples. This move has been largely welcomed by all political parties, including the BJP.
Meanwhile, the DMK is continuing to work its Tamil-centric politics. Its policy of reserving 7.5 per cent seats in all professional courses in Tamil medium government schools is aimed at poor Tamilians. Similarly, the Stalin government has launched ‘education at your doorstep‘ for public school students so that every child gets education during the Covid pandemic. It’s very difficult for poor students to attend online classes, so the government has hired volunteers who go to a designated place selected by communities and teach students for at least one hour every day. Tamil Nadu has even passed a Right to Sit bill to ensure that employees working in shops and establishments can claim their ‘Right to Sit.’ Kerala was the first state to pass such a bill.
Tamil Nadu already is a good performer in health, education and gender equality, and Stalin is continuing with many of the schemes of the previous government. He is in a position to claim that social justice politics has done well for the people of the state.
Stalin has made it clear that his idea of a social justice front will work on the basis of federalism. He wants to give a signal to the other parties that they can come together as equal partners. But as his credentials in this arena are better than anyone else’s, he may think that the leadership of any such forum will automatically come to him.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)