Updated: August 24, 2021 8:06:15 am
The political career of Kalyan Singh, the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, who died on Saturday aged 89, reflects the ebb and flow of the BJP’s electoral fortunes since its formation in 1980. His spectacular rise in the 1990s and marginalisation in the 2000s coincided with the BJP’s own transformation from a cadre-based party that talked of Gandhian socialism to a mass outfit that championed Hindu nationalism during a period of political upheaval in northern India.
Singh was well poised to ride the crest of the two ideas that had captured the zeitgeist of the decade — Mandal and Mandir — and occupy office in Lucknow as the BJP’s first CM of UP. Along with Uma Bharti, he was the prominent face of the BJP’s own Mandalisation process, through which the party had tried to shed its image of being a caste Hindu outfit and embrace a pan-Hindu identity with a support base that included large numbers of backward castes. Born in a Lodh-Rajput family, Singh’s rise to office was viewed as representative of the empowerment of OBCs within the rubric of Hindutva politics, which also neutralised the political edge that Lohiaite groups had gained on the ground, post Mandal. As CM, he presided over the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a moment that shamed constitutional democracy, but also irreversibly changed the contours of the country’s politics. It also cost Singh his office. When the tide that rose with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement fell and equations within the BJP changed, Singh found himself dispensable to the party though he had become CM a second time in 1997. Singh quit the BJP in 1999 (and in 2004) to float his own outfit only to realise that he could at best be a caste leader and dent the BJP’s electoral fortunes, but would need the support of his chief political adversary in the ’90s, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, to win even his own Lok Sabha seat.
Singh returned to the BJP after more than a decade at the political fringes, but like Bharti, was a much diminished leader with little or no influence within the party on his return. It only seemed to confirm that leaders like Singh and Bharti commanded influence as products of a moment and movement, which overtook them, left them behind. Their relegation also suggested that OBC empowerment in the BJP could only exist as a current within the main course of Hindutva politics. However, the churn that Singh was a part of, and contributed to, has not ceased. It continues to shape the electoral and ideological contours of India’s politics.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 24, 2021 under the title ‘Mandal in Kamandal’.