It may be a great festival of democracy, but it is depressing as well. Forget the bad manners, abusive speeches, intimidation, and violence; not to say the sheer hypocrisy of every kettle calling the pot black (or not black enough). The tendency to rush to the Supreme Court for these trivial issues makes one wonder if the court should punish people rushing to it for just publicity. As it is, the judicial backlog is bad and likely to exceed the numbers voting any day soon. Despite that, politicians of all parties treat the court as a publicity vehicle. They should be fined for time-wasting. Enough is enough.
When did it become required to declare your caste on the nomination form? In my teenage years, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru harangued us week after week in the weekly newsreel shown in cinemas. He told us to reject casteism and communalism since independent India had to strive for equality, and while casteism prevailed, equality would be impossible to achieve.
And so it has proved. Who would have thought that the most significant political change in the history of modern democratic India would be initiated by Morarji Desai? He commissioned the Mandal Report. Another who fell foul of the dynasty, V P Singh, implemented it. I recall that when he announced he was going to implement Mandal, both the Congress and the BJP, solid upper caste parties, were against it. It was the Lohiaite parties, given a new life by the Janata Party’s anti-Emergency movement, who welcomed and profited from the Mandalisation of Indian democracy.
The Congress had been coasting successfully on a coalition of upper caste landholders, Dalit sharecroppers and Muslim artisans in the BIMARU belt until Mandal came along. The BJP was stuck with the three upper castes and was not getting far. But then Muslims abandoned the Congress after the Babri Masjid demolition, and the BJP discovered the OBCs. Jaati calculus in choice of candidates, as well as canvassing and electoral promises, has become the norm. Any hope that India will overcome the incubus of unequal caste relations is gone.
It was one thing to put SC/ST reservations in the Constitution, though the 15-year limit seemed reasonable to fight centuries of injustice. We thought then that rapid growth and modernisation will remove the need for reservations. That urbanisation will erase the identifying marks of being a Dalit. Alas, no. Not enough growth occurred. Reservations for SC/STs had to be extended. Then the 40 years of economic stagnation made it clear to the OBCs that government jobs were the only ones which were safe and well-paying. So Mandal made every Indian carry his/her jaati status like a pin code at an ATM, except that this was the government doling out jobs if you flashed your jaati pin code.
Hence the paradox of equality of one-person-one-vote to elect a government (of any party whatsoever) will cement the inbuilt inequality of the forward and the backward castes. Indeed, as BSP chief Mayawati’s criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed, backwardness is a precious possession. Do not let anyone move you ahead. Stay behind.
Class inequality is also debilitating, but in theory, it is possible to escape the class in which you were born and be upwardly mobile. No such luck in jaati. You die the same as you are born.
This article first appeared in the May 5, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Caste race: A dismal prospect’.