Few scholars and observers of the Indian political scene over the last three decades have been as prolific and wide in scope as Yogendra Yadav. His recent shift to party political work has seen a change of tone and timbre as he made the transition from being watcher to the player in the political and even electoral arena.
The core of his work is the relation of ideas to political practice, nowhere more so than in the study of electoral trends and the changing social and economic makeup of the parties that are so vital to the process. This collection is like refined gold, as it puts the core of his essays in one place.
The demise of the Congress system and the rise of regional and Mandal and Dalit-led parties in north India was studied in his well-known essays. The titles say it all, though they do not appear in quite that direct, pithy form here. The rise of the third electoral system, 1989-2014, saw governing with no really dominant party at the centre of the web. Further, it was higher participation in politics, not just in election season, that saw the rise of figures like Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and the Yadavs of UP. Finally, Congress itself showed signs of reverting to a group of diverse state-level parties held together by a leader in New Delhi.
There is a fascinating essay on the “State Nation”, not the nation-state, where Yadav detours into European history and shows how in India, the challenge of forging a sense of nationhood became more, not less, acute after Independence. The formation of linguistic states and efforts at positive discrimination are seen as progressive.
Yet, beyond these, this collection falls short. The reasons emerge in the introduction and more so in his essay written on the eve of the 2019 general election. He rightly sets aside simple anti-Modi sentiment and draws an uncanny parallel with the flop of ‘Indira Hatao’ as a slogan in 1971. But if her party raised its tally from 283 to 350-plus (very similar but not identical with Modi’s own gains), the reasons do need more thought and care. Yadav begins well but falters.
The deeper reason may be both apparent and substantial. For one, the assertion that supposedly secular parties forged a unified Muslim vote and rendered the BJP’s task easier is not new. But it is made more by the latter’s acolytes and has been contested by many of Yadav’s own colleagues. In more instances than can be counted, minority voters have split on class or caste lines, or of the party. And if this indeed was the case, the Jan Sangh should have romped home easily, much earlier.
The deeper issue is analytic. For someone so versed in political lore, there is scant engagement with serious sociopolitical history. This leads to a serious underestimation of why North and South (or West) are so very different as macro-regions. The social and cultural transformations unleashed in the latter have yet to resonate fully in the Ganga basin and much of Hindi-speaking India. These works over the last quarter-century would include Rajni Kothari’s volume Caste in Indian Politics (1969). The result is that the volume is at its best in shedding light on India between Rajiv’s fall and Modi’s rise. But in contrast to the late Professor Kothari, whose work on the Congress system Yadav analyses so well, the latter stops short of grappling with why the drama unfolded as it has.
Issues of gender and occupational mobility, of access to education and age of marriage, were taken up far earlier, and systematically. Few in Hindi-speaking India know that the first Nadar School for Boys was founded in 1890, for girls in 1910 and a bank in 1920. This wider penumbra of changes never figured in the agenda of the north Indian OBC leaders, most of whom cut their teeth on Lohiaite socialism. This is not simply a political failing but a larger socio-cultural vacuum, and it is this that enabled a remaking of the Hindutva party under its first-ever OBC mass national-level leader. To know why this was so, maybe history and political economy need to be looked at afresh.
A fleeting thought is to get Yadav to write a full-length account of political change over the last two or three decades. But the present anthology is an aid to thinking through post-1989 India — a book to read, mull over and argue with.
Mahesh Rangarajan teaches history and environmental studies at Ashoka University.
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