It has always been a belief in some quarters that leaders belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) suffer from a limited social vision, inclined as they are to mistaking social justice for caste politics and incapable of taking a pan-India view of changes driving the country. This belief is undoubtedly troubling because it stereotypes, to a degree, a collection of social groups categorised as OBC.
Yet, on the 25th of June, OBC politicians seemed to have proved their critics right, perhaps to the consternation of the very few who are aware of the significance of this date to OBC politics. It was on this day India’s former prime minister, VP Singh, was born. The twenty-fifth of June this year was, in fact, Singh’s 85th birth anniversary.
It was just the occasion that OBC politicians could have celebrated to create a more contemporary symbol of social justice. This could have enabled them to convey that their politics may be rooted in caste, but also transcends it. That social justice isn’t just about acquiring political power, but also about policies.
None of the prominent OBC politicians thought to commemorate Singh’s 85th birth anniversary.
Not Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who wishes to project himself as a future prime ministerial contender on the planks of expanding OBC reservation and prohibition.
Not Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose rise to prominence was largely because of the tumult following Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission report that granted reservation to OBCs in Central government jobs.
Not Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is too busy inducting members of his extended family into politics to spare time for anything else.
There can be no doubt that Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal report gave a critical mass to OBC politics, broadened and deepened Indian polity, and laid down a new grammar for political mobilisation to which every political party now subscribes.
Of the last, the most telling example is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who combined Hindutva and development to help the BJP sweep much of North India in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. But what didn’t go unnoticed even then was that Modi did subtly refer to his OBC origin. He has talked more forthrightly about his caste identity during Assembly election campaigns over the past two years.
This isn’t to suggest that Modi is a child of Mandal, so to speak.
But the very fact that the Sangh Parivar, traditionally viewed to have a Brahmin-Bania orientation, has accepted the reality of OBC assertion is an eloquent testament to the changes Singh wrought during his brief stint as prime minister.
Unlike Modi however, Nitish, Lalu, Mulayam, Sharad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan et al are certainly the children of Mandal. Indeed, with Mandal shattering the hegemony of the Congress and denying the BJP a majority in the Lok Sabha for nearly 25 years, Singh could be said to also have provided a range of regional leaders with the heft that they didn’t earlier enjoy at the Centre.
From this perspective, Singh’s persona symbolises both the rise of OBC politics and the strong emergence of federalism. Both factors indeed continue to influence Indian politics. This is palpable from the fact that the BJP continues to look for allies in states, and did not, in its hubris, abandon its electoral partners whose support Modi didn’t need to form his government.
Nobody expects the BJP to perpetuate the memory of VP Singh — to do that would be subordinating Hindutva to the principle of social justice, which will be unacceptable to the RSS. But what is beguiling is that the politicians who gained inordinately from Mandal should have completely forgotten Singh. This is more so because we have seen over the last two years a mad scramble among political parties to appropriate iconic leaders from the past.
The BJP, for instance, has sought to add to its pantheon of icons Dr BR Ambedkar. In Bihar, before the Assembly election there last year, Emperor Ashoka was declared to have belonged to the Kushwaha caste, of which there is no historical evidence. And now, months before Uttar Pradesh goes to polls, BJP president Amit Shah has been lavishing praises on Suheldev — said to have been a king belonging to the Passi subcaste of Dalits in east UP — for purportedly vanquishing a Ghaznavi general centuries ago.
Then again, when the UPA government conferred the Bharat Ratna to the cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar and scientist CN Rao in 2013, Nitish demanded the national honour for former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur. No doubt, Thakur, an OBC, contributed immensely to the rise of OBC politics in Bihar, and was the mentor of many politicians, including Nitish. But it is debatable whether Thakur has resonance beyond Bihar.
Couldn’t Nitish have demanded the Bharat Ratna for Singh? Can’t he and other OBC leaders try to perpetuate the memory of Singh for having restructured Indian polity in fundamental ways? Given how the 85th birth anniversary of Singh passed unnoticed, the answer has to be 'very unlikely'.
This is because icons in India are now increasingly linked to their castes. To honour them is to also honour their castes — and therefore, hope to garner their votes. Singh, unlike, say, Thakur, is not one whom any caste considers its own. He did not belong to any of the subaltern social groups, and his own caste of Kshatriya or Rajput hasn’t forgiven him for implementing the Mandal report that undermined the upper caste hegemony.
It is borne out by Singh’s grandson in the tribute he paid to Singh on his 85th birth anniversary — the only one to have been written. Recounting a discussion he as a schoolboy was witness to in the extended family, the grandson wrote that his elders accused Singh of betraying the Rajputs. One of them lamented, “Your decisions have changed the fate of the upper caste forever.”
To them, Singh replied, “We, Thakurs, have taken a sacred oath to protect society, especially the exploited and the depressed… We together must now lay the foundations of socially empowered India. I have simply performed my duty.”
Singh’s remark underscores the immense symbolical value his persona could have for the politics of social justice — that social equity has to be India’s agenda, not just of a collection of groups taht stand to gain. That social justice encompasses a broad range of measures required to transform India.
Indeed, in his later years, Singh widened the meaning of social justice. He took to participating in agitations opposed to the appropriation of land by the corporate sector and played a stellar role in having the Right to Information Act and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act enacted.
No less than social activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey testified to his role in an obituary they penned for Indian Express in 2008. They said it would be grave injustice to him and posterity if Singh’s role “as a statesman politician in establishing the rights of the poor is not acknowledged”. At a function in Jaipur in 2008, Dey said, “The country does not know his real contribution to the RTI and the employment scheme. He had told us that we could approach him anytime for these two issues, even when he was on dialysis.”
It is possible OBC politicians believe the yarn the mainstream media spun — that Singh implemented the Mandal report solely to win the factional war in the Janata Dal. Yet a perusal of newspaper archives tells one that in several meeting before the 1989 Lok Sabha election, Singh had repeatedly promised to implement the Mandal report. Nobody took him seriously because it was perhaps presumed that he would renege on his promise once in power, as is often the case with most politicians.
But Singh was indeed cut from a different cloth. His grandson in his tribute wrote that that when the Gandhian activist Vinoba Bhave came to UP in 1955-1956, on his Bhoodan mission to redistribute land to the landless, Singh gave away “all his land — about 200 bighas.” Obviously, a grandson’s story might not be considered reliable.
But read what the very erudite former West Bengal Finance Minister Ashok Mitra wrote in The Telegraph about UP’s response to the Bhoodan movement: “On several occasions, the donated land…either happened to be disputed property, with pending court proceedings, or belonged to someone else. One talukdar stood out in this dubious crowd. He was the young Raja of Manda, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, not yet quite out of his twenties. He gifted away most of his land, land that genuinely belonged to him. His compeer would, behind his back, make fun of his naiveté.”
For all those politicians whom Mandal built, and who now nurture prime ministerial ambitions, it might do them good to retrieve the memory of Singh from the clouds of forgetfulness and anoint him, among others, as the shining symbol of social justice. To forget Singh is to bolster the belief that the social vision of OBC politicians is limited and that they think social justice is just another name for caste politics.
The author is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, is available in bookstores.