May 30, 2006

Digging One's Grave?

Kumar Ketkar in an article in Indian Express explains how the present pro-OBC stance of Congress will ultimately harm the party than do any good for them. The article is very informative on caste politics of independent India.

Not many people remember Charan Singh, the man who appointed B.P. Mandal to head a commission in the late ’70s to collect data on the Other Backward Classes (castes), belonged to the Congress Party till the mid-1960s. He left the Congress to form Bharatiya Kranti Dal because he felt the agriculturists did not get justice and a fair deal in the Nehruvian system.

The Jat leader of Uttar Pradesh’s farmers was actually reflecting the aspirations of the “middle peasantry”. Translated in caste terms, it meant that the so-called OBCs (sometimes known as middle castes, and also “forward castes”) were left out and impoverished by the Congress Capitalism. Almost all Lohiaite socialists and some communists at once empathised with Charan Singh. While the capitalists used to criticise Nehru for being socialist, the socialists and comrades would often condemn him for being capitalist.

Charan Singh was not advocating the cause of the agricultural labour, surviving far below the poverty line, nor was he championing the demands of the landlords. He was articulating the political and economic ambitions of the OBCs, who were not part of the Congress System. The Congress System was a rather vague manifestation of aspirations of all classes and castes. Till the mid-sixties that vagueness helped the party to appeal to all sections of the electorate. But two decades after Independence, there were murmurs of resentment in the rural north. The so-called Hindi belt had not gone through social movements and the production relations remained steel-framed by the tight caste structure.

The Congress culture had been able to co-opt the Scheduled Castes and Tribes by offering them affirmative action in the form of reservations. Indian society took these reservations in its stride. There was a feeling of guilt among the upper castes, which actually were at the helm of all the parties of the Left and Right. The conservative opposition to those reservations did not cause protest, like the one we are witnessing today.

The OBCs may have been poor but were not untouchables. Also, a large number of them owned land and cattle. Many OBCs were skilled craftsmen. The OBCs occupied a vast socio-economic space in rural India. They were hostile to the former untouchables. Indeed, caste relations between the OBCs and the BCs were far more vicious and violent than between the upper castes and the dalits. Most dalits were landless labourers and lived at the mercy of the OBC landowner. There were a few upper caste landlords, but by and large the agricultural means of production were controlled and owned by the OBCs.

The upper castes had learnt quite early, almost by intuition, that the future belonged to the knowledge industry. They had begun to invest in education. Therefore the primary contradiction in the rural society was not Brahmins versus the BCs, but the BCs versus the OBCs. Indeed, hardline casteism prevailed more among the OBCs and even the BCs, as they observed the hierarchy very strictly. Whether it was drawing water from the village well, going to temple or marrying a lower of higher caste partner within BC or OBC ranks, it generated hatred, murder or mass violence.

Landlordism was formally abolished in 1951, but it had taken other forms. The restructured landlord and his henchman, the moneylender and their allies in the police and bureaucracy represented the actual ruling class. The well-off OBCs represented that ruling class. This class began to become more and more assertive and aggressive after acquiring larger economic clout in the ’60s. Charan Singh became its spokesperson.

This OBC aggressiveness was predominantly a northern phenomenon. Maharashtra and the southern states had their versions of middle-caste political movements but the violence and viciousness was not so intense there.

The Congress political culture received its first jolt in the ’67 elections, as it lost power in the entire north. The newly formed Samyukta Vidhayak Dals were nothing more than the casteist OBC fronts. Indira Gandhi had come to power just about a year ago. It was a blow to her and the rivals within the party decided to challenge her leadership. The party was split in 1969 and she had to once again take a kind of ‘hold all’ approach to appeal to all sections of people. The slogan “garibi hatao” reflected the old Congress style. The OBC fronts and their Left allies could not hold on to power, as they could not mobilise allies. Also, the OBC base was not large enough.

Their opportunity came in 1977, when the Janata Party came to power. The so-called JP movement had actually mobilised this class and given it political legitimacy. To consolidate the political gains after coming to power, the Charan Singh faction confronted Prime Minister Morarji Desai and the compromise was the Mandal Commission.

But the collapse of the Janata Dal government and Indira Gandhi’s return stalled the OBC advance. She knew the OBC rebellion was aimed at destroying the Congress culture. She shelved the Mandal report, submitted to her government in 1980. But the OBC mobilisation continued and was challenging the Congress in every village in the north. But for Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and remobilisation of Indians transcending caste and religion, the Congress would not have come to power with such stunning majority under Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv was politically naive and did not initially understand the craftiness of his deputy, V.P. Singh. It was not merely Bofors and Ayodhya that defeated the Rajiv Congress. It was defeated by the OBC armies. How many people recall today that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav gained clout after 1989? Both are products of the JP movement.

V.P. Singh was going to complete the cycle started by Charan Singh. When he announced unilaterally the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, he was consciously destroying the mass base of the Congress. He knew that the Congress could be kept out of power by appealing to this new OBC power and destroying the delicate balance that the party had been able to maintain. He may have lost power, but he ruined the rainbow coalition that the Congress had represented from the days of the freedom movement. Ironically, Arjun Singh used to hate V.P. Singh then, not for political but for personal reasons. But today the same Arjun has picked up the same bows that VP had collected to attack the Congress.

If the Congress System succumbs and surrenders to the Mandal conspiracy today, it will have committed political suicide. It seems that the party leadership is paralysed and does not know how to deal with this Mandal bolt. Arjun Singh knows what he is doing just as his predecessors, V.P. Singh and Charan Singh, knew what they were doing. All these Singhs have only one aim: to wipe out forever the Congress Coalition, which represented the whole of India. If the Congress Coalition is weakened or wiped out, the day would not be too far when the Indian state too would wither away, like the Soviet state did.

I just don’t agree with Mr.Ketkar when he says that without the Congress the Indian state would wither away. He is underestimating us Indians and the power of political parties like BSP. Already BSP is very confident of coming to power in the center in 10-15 years time. The Brahmins must have realized this already and perhaps that explain why in UP they are joining BSP in large numbers. I am still to figure out what Arjun Singh will get by wiping out the Congress party from India.

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