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Upsurge of the Underprivileged

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Whoever rules Uttar Pradesh gets the passport to Delhi. This has long been the rule during the days of the Congress hegemony. Actually, Uttar Pradesh can claim to have reared as many as seven Prime Ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. The only exceptions so far have been Morarji Desai and now Narasimha Rao.

What is more significant is that the political set-up in Uttar Pradesh, more than of any other State, sets the fashion for New Delhi. That was why in 1991 when the BJP formed the government in Lucknow, it used to be said that the party was on the road to power at the Centre. Now that the BJP has been dislodged, what is the significance of Mulayam Singh with his Samajwadi Party ruling Uttar Pradesh?

This is a development which has made a qualitative difference in Indian politics. It is not the Mulayam Singh Ministry of 1989-90 as an appendage of the Janata Dal Government at the Centre. This time he has fought and won the elections in alliance with Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party, as an assertion of the so-called Backwards and Dalits in Indian politics.

In one month of the accession of the Mulayam Raj in Uttar Pradesh, the political landscape in India has changed. The Mandal has ceased to be an engima creating revulsion, nor is it taken as a frightening spectre but a fact of life which cannot be wished away. The hate-campaign that was unleashed when V.P. Singh first introduced the measure for the statutory reservation of Central Government jobs for the Backward classes contributed to a large measure in bringing his government down. At that point of time, those who were implacably opposed to the reservation policy held sway. Their holy outrage was silently regarded by the vast masses of the underprivileged —the OBCs and the Dalits—as one more example of the assertion of the status quo by the upper castes in our polity. And to that measure, it stirred their determination to assert on their part.

The hounding out of V.P. Singh from power and the campaign unleashed against him, both personally and politically, turned out to be counter-productive. He himself was no doubt sent to Coventry but his message caught on in an unprecedented sweep. That was precisely the message of the mini-general election of December 1993 when four States of the Hindi belt turned out to be the battlefield between the entrenched upper castes and the aspiring Backward communities together with the Dalits. The crusade against the BJP was not just a manifestation of the combat against anti-Muslim communalism with which that party was branded, but also of upper-caste hegemony with which it was identified in the public mind. Not that the BJP was bereft of OBC support. In fact it scored much better than the Congress in getting OBC votes, but the image of Hindutva as the preserver of the domination of the upper castes proved a liability for the BJP.

As for the Congress, it could not retain its traditional base in UP—neither among the OBCs and the Dalits nor in the Muslim minority—because of its chicken-hearted passivity in the failure to protect the Babri Masjid, while Mulayam Singh earned rich dividends because of his defence of the beleaguered Masjid in 1990. Today if any party is finding itself precariously rootless in UP, it is the Congress. The old signboard alone could not take it far in garnering the votes of the minority community or of the OBCs and the Dalits. Hence its pathetic debacle in UP.

It would be incorrect to dismiss the entire upsurge of the Backwards and the Dalits as only a cantankerous claim for reservation of seats in government jobs. Reservation of jobs is certainly one of the demands of the parties representing the OBCs and the Dalits. But that is only one facet of their struggle. The Bahujan Samaj leader, Kanshi Ram, during his whirlwind all-India tour has stressed the importance of these deprived classes winning power, getting their legitimate right to be part of the governing elite. After all, these communities constitute the overwhelming majority in our democracy. It is but natural that wherever these parties have established themselves they have been able to get the support of the Muslim minority.

A phenomenon of considerable significance is the impact that the advance of the parties of the dispossessed, as represented by the rise of Mulayam Singh and Kanshi Ram, has been able to register on the rest of the political spectrum. It is important to note that the communist movement has been influenced by it. The recent statement of the CPI General Secretary, Indrajit Gupta, acknowledging the urgency of focussing on the urges of the OBCs and the Dalits and the need to promote members of these communities in the leadership of the party has been reportedly challenged by other leaders of the CPI. This by itself indicates the magnitude of the struggle ahead. Even the parties committed to the uplift of the underdog are not unanimous in promoting the members of these communities to their party’s leadership. There is no doubt that this problem will come up in other parties of the Left, including the CPM.

In the Janata Dal, the problem could not be sorted out because of the heterogenous nature of its composition. To a large measure this is the reason for the dismemberment of the party. It is not without significance that in Bihar, which is the stable stronghold of the Janata Dal today, the Ministry is run by a leadership which is totally committed to the Mandal programme. Between Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh, the OBCs and the Dalits run the entire length of the Ganga from Meerut to Mokamah and beyond.

The stir over the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar gives an important insight into the dimension of the new upsurge. The fact that all parties including the BJP supported that move shows that the leaders of all these parties have correctly read the signs of the times. The Shiv Sena’s protest against it ended in a fiasco. In fact it would never have come up had Bal Thackeray not been the beneficiary of a kidglove treatment from the Maharashtra Government.

An aspect of this upsurge now being commented upon by its friendly critics is that the OBCs and the Dalits can hardly be expected to maintain a cosy coexistence for long. The Yadavs and the other powerful OBCs do not have much in common with the Dalits and their class interests are bound to clash. No doubt there is truth in that observation, but that is no reason why one should underplay the significance of the present upsurge. Nobody has any illusion that the dispossessed millions will have only one battle to wage for their salvation. Many more battles ahead need not deter from the significance of the one now being fought out.

Looking back, one understands why V.P. Singh in his inaugural speech after taking over as the Prime Minister of India remembered the name of Dr Lohia alongwith that of Mahatma Gandhi.

(Mainstream, January 29, 1994)

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