The deafening silence of the Congress, SP and BSP after their humiliating defeat in the UP elections finally lifted when Akhilesh Yadav appeared on prime time news, only to ask his successor, Yogi Adityanath, to look after his peacocks at Kalidas Marg. He also urged the new chief minister to ensure that his lions, in the Etawah safari, got their share of meat.
That this request came at a time when the anti-slaughterhouse politics threatened the livelihood and lives of hundreds of Muslims, Dalits and other castes involved in the meat trade exemplifies his priorities. It best illustrates that the corruption of the politics of secularism and Mandal is responsible for his political debacle. Muslims and the larger Mandal constituency feel let down not just by the SP but also the BSP. They feel that, like the Congress, these parties too have made hollow the idea of secularism. Additionally, they have corrupted the vision of the Mandal reforms.
By the late 1980s, successive Congress regimes in the state had successfully reduced secularism to lip-service to the minorities. Indeed, it is to the credit of the Congress that its persistent empty promises to Muslims in the name of upholding secularism made this concept appear to be “Muslim appeasement”. The beleaguered Muslim community, shattered by the long history of Congress-overseen riots in Meerut and Moradabad, among others, looked towards new political configurations that offered hope.
Mandal — the very welcome reform by Prime Minister V.P. Singh that saw the empowerment of the Dalit and Backward castes — looked promising to Muslims. It saw the thundering rise of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party as UP’s new political players. These parties attracted the Muslims as well. The SP and BSP offered fresh possibilities as they forged unity across minorities and the large neglected sections of the Dalits and other backward castes. They combined Mandal politics with secularism, albeit in its Congress-style hollow form. But so formidable was this new combo, it survived the vicious communal polarisation following the Babri Masjid’s destruction. It created an illusion of security in the minorities.
But this was not to last. Just as the Congress corrupted secularism, the SP and BSP reduced Mandal to the welfare of the Yadav parivar and the Jatav caste respectively. The SP government’s unabashed favours to the Yadav caste raised the eyebrows of even their most ardent supporters: Not only were the lower ranks of the police and constabulary filled with Yadavs, but every important district-level officer was invariably of this caste. Akhilesh Yadav was popularly perceived amongst non-Brahmins as having used state machinery to corner all the benefits of Mandal for Yadavs alone.
The same murmurs did the rounds over Mayawati’s overt preference for her Jatav constituency. The wider Mandal constituency made its resentment clear in 2014 by voting for the BJP and ensuring its almost clean sweep in the Parliamentary elections. But both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati learnt no lessons. In 2017, the BJP tapped this disillusioned Mandal constituency and won almost all the 100-plus seats it distributed to them.
Again, both the SP and BSP continued with aplomb with the concept of secularism long corrupted by the Congress. In true Congress style, “secularism” for them too remained that unique word that was relevant to Muslims alone. If all these years the Congress had used it to keep the Muslims on its leash, now the Yadav and Jatav power-brokers invoked it at will to instill the fear of the BJP in them. Its most classic use was by Mayawati when she distributed more than 100 assembly tickets to Muslims, setting the stage for an unprecedented polarisation and Hindu consolidation. Indeed, Muslims became the unsuspecting victims — their everyday lives at variance with the sops supposedly offered to them. As the SP and BSP competed to be champions of secularism, they polarised elections with complete apathy to the long-term social and political implications of this shortcut to political power. The shrill polarising election campaign of the BJP witnessed in Benares was only the cherry on the cake.
It was not the allegedly faulty EVMs but the corruption of Mandal and secularism that became the undoing of the Congress, the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
The writer is Professor, Department of History, Delhi University