No Mandal magic for Congress in Uttar Pradesh

April 16th, 2008 - 11:54 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Mahesh Rangarajan
The timing of the verdict on reservations for the Mandal classes in institutions of higher education could not have been better for the ruling alliance. In particular, the Congress gets great store by the decision, which puts an end to an impasse that has lasted nearly two years. Close on the heels of the verdict came the statement of Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh, probably the most vocal proponent of reservations in the Congress. Rahul Gandhi, he felt, had what it takes to be prime minister. Linked to both issues, the future of reservations and the ambitions for Rahul Gandhi, is the battle for one state: Uttar Pradesh. To be sure, it was the rise of rural parties with the owner cultivator groups at their core that undercut the Congress in the days of Indira Gandhi. The slogan ’sau main sath’, or reserve six of 10 jobs for the lower castes, reverberated in the meetings of Ram Manohar Lohia and then of Charan Singh.

The contrast with the very same Congress in the south could not have been sharper. Under Devraj Urs in Karnataka in the 1970s and even earlier under K. Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu (then Madras) in the 1950s, the Congress took such hopes aboard. But the demographics of Uttar Pradesh are so very different. The ’savarnas’ who made up one in five voters were the central pillar of Congress politics.

The Congress was dominated for the most part by the Brahmins, who unlike in the south did not venture much into entrepreneurship. There was indeed a shift under Sanjay Gandhi who pushed the Thakurs to the fore. The managers of cultivation who gained from land reform but lagged in education did not however find representation in its top ranks. Nor for that matter did the Dalits.

This will explain why the cart in the state is still going in another direction.

The new entrant into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers the same week as the verdict was Jitin Prasada, son of the late Jitendra Prasada. The Lok Sabha MP for Shajahanpur (Uttar Pradesh) shares one trait with the newly anointed president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, Rita Bahuguna Joshi. Both are Brahmins.

At a time when the community has a marginal role to play in politics and has for some five years now been assiduously wooed by the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Congress still sets store by it. Add the upper castes to the minorities, and the Congress hopes it will re-create the old magic. This will explain the attention being lavished by Rahul Gandhi and his team on a third critical component of the social coalition: the Dalits.

Such social rainbows begin on a premise that is the opposite of Arjun Singh’s. For the latter, the Backward Classes are the key to the party’s future. It was the report of the Mahajan Commission in his home state of Madhya Pradesh that helped cement the relations of such castes with the Congress.

But in Uttar Pradesh, not only the physical terrain but also the social and political picture are very different. No wonder that the Congress has taken on platform inimical to the Backward Classes on more than one occasion. This was especially so when under Rajiv Gandhi, it played a soft saffron card to undercut the emergence of local level alliances of the minorities and the rural sections.

The Congress dilemmas in the land of the river Gomti do not begin or for that matter end with Mandal-II. In fact, the state last gave the party a hefty majority as long ago as 1984-85 when Rajiv Gandhi led it to a sweep first in the Lok Sabha and then in the state assembly polls.

Since then, the threads that kept the base together have come undone. When the party won 10 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, it was considered a great victory. There was no major breakthrough in the assembly polls in 2007 despite extensive campaigning by Rahul Gandhi.

Mandal-II does little to revive its fortunes for obvious reasons. The Ganga valley does have leading OBC politicians. But like Lalu Yadav or Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav too has spent his political life outside of the country’s oldest party.

Further, the key leaders in the Congress are mostly men with little grassroots experience and exposure. Even the proximity of his seat to Amethi and Rae Bareli could not get Satish Sharma to the Lok Sabha in 2004. For over a decade, the provincial party was led by Salman Kursheed, a highly erudite lawyer but one who has not won a popular election for over a decade and a half.

This may well explain the contradictory signals sent by the party on the ground on the highly sensitive issue of reservation. In May 2006, when urban India was deeply divided on the pros and cons of the matter, Rahul in chat with members of the press made his most extensive comments yet on the matter.

He argued that a balance ought to be struck as both sides had valid points. This may well be the case but hardly sets out an agenda for a political party. It certainly does not reach out to a new potential base. It does even less to reassure an older constituency that abandoned the Congress as a weak-kneed party.

In contrast, Mayawati has over the last year or so consistently argued in favour of expanding the ambit of quotas to bring aboard the upper caste poor. She has also widened reservations to government-private sector partnerships.

The other major player, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is certain to argue against exclusion of the creamy layer. In this he will find support within the ruling United Progressive Alliance. Even if this demand goes nowhere, given the unequivocal tone of the Supreme Court verdict, it will reinforce his standing as a stout defender of the Backwards.

In effect, it is the Congress and to an extent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that have no real place to go in the country’s most populous state. The era of Mandir saw caste solidarities take second place to a nationalism laced with and driven by religious symbols. That has long faded.

The two parties that straddle the stage are led by votaries of reservations, Mulayam and Mayawati. What is striking is that each is reasonably assured of its core base and is busy reaching out. Mulayam has long been courting the trading communities and Mayawati the former priestly classes.

The Congress has no clear leg to stand on. Mandal-II has yet to spark a revival. The leadership and the rank and file are still waiting for Rahul Gandhi. The next battle will be his litmus test, and he had better produce some magic that works.

(Mahesh Rangarajan is a political commentator. He can be reached at

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