It was a blunder on V.P. Singh’s part to announce his acceptance of the Mandal Commission’s report recommending 27 per cent reservations in government jobs for what are called Other Backward Classes but are, in fact, specified castes — economically well-off, politically powerful but socially and educationally backward — in such hot haste. He knew that the issue was highly controversial, deeply emotive and potentially explosive, which it proved to be instantly. But his top priority was to outsmart his former deputy and present adversary, Devi Lal. He even annoyed those whose support “from outside” was sustaining him in power. BJP leaders were peeved that they were informed of what was afoot practically at the last minute in a terse telephone call. What annoyed them even more was that the prime minister’s decision would divide Hindu society. The BJP’s ranks demanded that the plug be pulled on V.P. Singh but the top leadership advised restraint, because it was also important to keep the Congress out of power. The party leadership was aware of the electoral clout of the OBCs, who added up to 52 per cent of the population.
As for Rajiv Gandhi, he was totally and vehemently opposed to the Mandal Commission and its report. He eloquently condemned V.P. Singh’s decision when it was eventually discussed in Parliament. This can be better understood in the perspective of the Mandal Commission’s history. Having acquired wealth during the Green Revolution and political power through elections, the OBCs realised that they had little share in the country’s administrative apparatus, especially in the higher rungs of the bureaucracy. So they started clamouring for reservations in government jobs. Throughout the Congress rule until 1977, this demand fell on deaf ears. It was the Janata government, headed by Morarji Desai, that appointed the Mandal Commission in 1978. Ironically, by the time the commission submitted its report, the Janata was history and Indira Gandhi was back in power. She quietly consigned the document to the deep freeze. In Rajiv’s time, one of his cabinet ministers, Shiv Shanker, once asked about the Mandal report. Rajiv said nothing but gave him a glance that was silencing. Later, he confided to some of his aides: “The Mandal Commission’s report is a can of worms, and I am not going to open it.” When V.P.
Singh did take the plunge, Rajiv said to one of his former aides: “V.P. Singh is the most divisive man after Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”
While the Congress stand remained consistent, within the BJP and its mentor, the RSS, the debate on whether or not to oppose V.P. Singh and OBC reservations reached a high pitch. One section insisted that both must be opposed without delay. The other argued that it would be impolitic to reject something that was being seen as an extension of affirmative action to backward classes. In the end, it was decided not to take any position but to “shift the terms of political debate from Mandal and caste to religion by resurrecting the old crusade for the construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya at the site where still stood the Babri masjid, for this was Lord Ram’s birthplace”. The BJP’s plan this time around was that its president, L. K. Advani, should embark on a rath yatra, or a march from the ancient temple of Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in a Toyota van fitted to look like a chariot of yore. It was also made clear that when the march reached its destination in about five weeks, karsevaks (volunteers) would start building the Ram temple with the consecrated bricks that had already been carried there. The march began on September 25.
V.P. Singh was worried that L.K. Advani’s yatra, being very provocative, might lead to communal violence. But he also felt that to stop or arrest the BJP leader would be counterproductive. For his part, Advani, on reaching Delhi, stayed there for several days, daring the prime minister to arrest him. But the challenge was ducked. As the yatra reached the Hindi heartland, tension mounted and sporadic riots started taking place for two reasons: The aggressiveness of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s militants escorting the rath and the tone of Advani’s speeches at every halt, in which he accused the government of “appeasing” the Muslim minority and denying the legitimate interests of the Hindu majority. Meanwhile, V.P. Singh’s great expectation of a drone of Congress MPs deserting Rajiv and joining his National Front (which many were now calling a “notional front”) had wholly collapsed. His euphemism for what he considered unavoidable was “realignment of centrist political forces”. Not a single Congress MP had left the party but Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar, together with their followers, had walked out on him.
Advani’s march, however, never reached its destination. For what the prime minister could not do, Bihar’s OBC chief minister, Lalu Prasad, did. He arrested Advani. This did not prevent angry karsevaks from making forays into UP, where chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, also an OBC, had made sure the security forces kept all unwanted persons at bay. Often, clashes between the two sides resulted in casualties, while injuries were widespread. But the hit-and-run incidents and forays escalated by the day. On October 30, as historian Ramachandra Guha has recorded, a large crowd of karsevaks managed to dodge the BSF and reach the Babri masjid, where it planted a saffron flag on the structure. Some started attacking it with axes and hammers. To prevent a mass invasion of the mosque, volunteers were chased into narrow lanes in the area where the karsevaks, backed by angry residents, resisted the police with stones and sticks. The battle lasted three full days, during which 20 volunteers were killed by police bullets.
The biggest casualty of this bloodshed was V.P. Singh’s government. The BJP angrily withdrew support to him and he departed within 11 months flat.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator