In April 1991, The New York Times ran a story about the mid-term elections in India with the headline – “For India, Will It Be Change, Secularism or a Right Wing?” The main players at the time were the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress party, the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal and the Atal-Advani-led Bharatiya Janata Party. The article went on to remark that for the first time in India’s electoral history, the election was as much about ideas as about personalities and parties. It was the Congress’s old order pitted against the Janata Dal’s subaltern social revolution unleashed by the Mandal Commission, which, in turn, was pitted against the BJP/RSS’s idea of Hindutva. This battle of ideas led to the crumbling of the Congress’s old order leaving various forms of Mandal forces pitted against Hindutva.
The emergence of Narendra Modi is termed by many as the assimilation of “Mandal” within the larger Hindutva umbrella. However, the outpouring of demand from the grassroots for a caste census to enumerate inequalities in our polity and economy, and the clear ambivalence of the ruling BJP outlines the fact that Mandal (or social justice for those inclined to the Queen’s English) is indeed re-emerging as the pre-eminent ideological fault line that will determine the future of India’s polity.
This Mandal ‘revolution’ is different
However, this time things are also a bit different. As someone who witnessed the first Mandal “revolution” in the 1990s, I would like to point out that the pitch report is indeed different for two reasons.
First, the deepening of the idea of social justice geographically and socially has accelerated significantly due to the advent of social media. Compared with the 1990s, almost all sections of OBCs, Tribals and Dalits are now asserting their presence and demanding socio-political representation commensurate with their proportion in population much more vigorously. Even more importantly, states such as West Bengal, Odisha, and Punjab that were previously untouched by the dynamics of Mandal politics are now going through deep social churning. It’s not a surprise that someone like Naveen Patnaik, whose father Late Biju Patnaik had stridently opposed the Mandal Commission (that led to my severe disagreement with him within the erstwhile Janata Dal), has now been forced to embrace the idea of a caste census.
Second, the general acceptability of a market-based economy to drive economic prosperity has grown but it is also paired with revulsion against corporate monopolies which undermine fair competition. In the 1990s, we had just embarked on market reforms, and the dependence on the public sector and large corporates for jobs was still very strong. Today, the possibilities of the market economy have excited the minds of the young and old. However, for every new unicorn announced in the news, one can also hear murmurs of widespread discontent among our unemployed youth who feel frustrated at the lack of access to capital, knowledge and networks to turn them into job creators than job seekers. Questions must be raised at the inclusiveness of our private sector’s key decision-making bodies such as corporate boards, banks, and industry associations, which would be best addressed once a caste census is completed. An even more important debate about the role of the government in our economy is emerging – whether the government should be more market friendly, which enables fair competition and addresses market failures (such as providing MSP for farmers or investing in science and technology, which the private sector otherwise wouldn’t), or more business friendly, which favors a few businesses over others and leads to monopolies.
Picture the following: An idea-based election in 2024 that pits two competing visions of India – ‘a centre-Left coalition advocating a social revolution to break the barriers of caste paired with a more market-friendly government that truly empowers new entrepreneurs from all sections of society and enables fair competition pitted against a Right-wing party with a vision of a more openly Hindu, less secular India and a more business-friendly government that favors a few business houses and encourages monopolies.’ Personalities and parties can come second just as they did in the summer of 1991.
As Victor Hugo said, “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”. A combo-pack of Mandal plus Market is certainly one that is about to make landfall soon.
Srikant Jena is a former MP and Union minister who served in the governments of VP Singh, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and Dr Manmohan Singh. He tweets @srikantjena3. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)