With the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya appeals on Saturday, the politics of Mandal and Kamandal as practised so far may have come full circle — and an opening may have been created for their evolution to a new stage.
The forces of Mandal — flagbearers of the politics of social justice and identity — struggled to stay afloat against the rampaging BJP in the Lok Sabha elections of this summer. And the Supreme Court verdict has now put to rest the legal dispute that spawned the politics of Kamandal — or Hindutva — three decades ago.
Both these political forces had in the late 80s and early 90s disrupted the old style politics of the Congress — blows from which the grand old party could not recover. In nine Lok Sabha elections held since then, the Congress has failed to win a majority even once. In contrast, the forces unleashed by Mandal and Kamandal headed the governments formed after six of those nine elections.
While the Mandal demand of caste-based reservations is older, the BJP was the first to politically weaponise Kamandal — seizing the opportunity presented by the setting up of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas in 1986.
While the socialist fragments of the post-Emergency Janata government joined forces with V P Singh in his anti-corruption battle against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP endorsed the demand for the Ram Temple at its Palampur (Himachal Pradesh) convention months ahead of the 1989 elections.
Once Rajiv was dislodged from power, these forces jostled for the political space the Congress had vacated. While socialist elements in the V P Singh government pushed caste-based reservations, the BJP, which was supporting the government from the outside raised the pitch for the Ram Temple. After V P Singh announced reservation for OBC communities in August 1990, L K Advani’s Rath Yatra clashed head-on with Mandal leaders Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
As a new era of politics came to be expressed in a new lexicon, and the contradiction between the two narratives sharpened, the issue of Bofors, which had driven Rajiv from power, faded into the background. In the states of the Hindi heartland, Mandal and Kamandal consolidated their gains at the expense of the Congress.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid on its watch came as a crushing blow for the Congress in UP and Bihar. The leaders of social justice/identity politics — Mulayam, Lalu, Kanshi Ram — benefitted as the Congress’s stock fell among the minority community. And the BJP rode the Ram Temple movement to gain robust footholds in (undivided) Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and (undivided) UP. In 139 Lok Sabha seats across UP (including Uttarakhand) and Bihar (including Jharkhand), the Congress was virtually eliminated from the field.
The Congress sought to recover some ground by bringing fragments of its support base in the Mandal parties into its tent by framing the political battle in terms of secular versus communal. By this strategy, the Congress was able to ensure that the first BJP government in May 1996 lasted only 13 days.
In response, the BJP changed tactics — it toned down its rhetoric on the Ram Temple in order to win allies in power in 1998 and 1999. However, the Congress again managed to used the secular-communal binary to stall the BJP in 2004.
The limits of the electoral utility of Kamandal were exposed in 2009, when its original champion L K Advani led the BJP to one of its worst performances since 1991.
Watching from his vantage in Gujarat, Narendra Modi possibly took the cue to redefine the BJP’s Hindutva politics with a heavy dose of muscular nationalism. He had already experimented with powerful attacks on Gen Pervez Musharraf in the 2007 Assembly elections in Gujarat; the defeat of the Advani-led BJP in the Lok Sabha elections created the space for Kamandal plus nationalism — in effect, Hindutva 2.0.
For the BJP, Saturday’s verdict marked the culmination of the resolution made 30 years ago in Palampur in June 1989. Incidentally, Saturday’s judgment came on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the laying of the foundation of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya by Kameshwar Chopal, a Dalit from Bihar (November 10, 1989).
In a way, the Supreme Court’s verdict may be seen as vindication of the BJP’s Kamandal politics.
It also raises the question whether the BJP will now aggressively pursue its commitment to bringing a Uniform Civil Code. Its focus on the abrogation of Article 370, the National Register of Citizens, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill indicates it is ready to take its blend of Kamandal and nationalism to a new pitch. On the other hand, the limitations of the Mandal forces against the new pole of Indian politics, the BJP, have been exposed repeatedly since 2014. Their poor performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections could well indicate they have run their course.
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