Myriad reasons are being cited by political pundits for the loss of three seats of Parliament – two in UP and another in Bihar -- by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The recently held by-elections for Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Araria Lok Sabha seats have kicked off a trail of interpretations. And the most bizarre of them is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s camp has mainly been behind this kind of verdict to cut Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Praasad Maurya to size. This argument howsoever outlandish goes on to prove that Modi’s popularity has actually not been affected at all and he would not only be able to sail through the next general elections in 2019 easily but is also poised to triumph over odds and win with a huge mandate.
Yet, nevertheless, it does not take long to bring back the question to mind whether Modi continues to be as unassailable as before the three by-polls were held on last Sunday; and whether there is going to be no challenge of any worth any more before him despite an adverse verdict in the by-polls. The answer to these vexed issues, in fact, extends far beyond the three by-elections since in real terms this involves not one, two, or three but as many as 134 parliamentary constituencies spread across the vast Indo-Gangetic basin where no less than 119 Lok Sabha seats, cutting across States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand were won by the BJP and its allies. And out of this the individual tally of the BJP was 107 in the polls held in 2014 while in the rest of the country the party had got 167 seats to win an overall majority in the Lower House of Parliament.
It is against this backdrop that things appear to be going awry in the by-polls for the BJP. And to fully comprehend the turn of the tide building up in the Hindi belt as indicated by the by-polls one would have to go back to the initial days of the Mandal era when through the enforcement of recommendations of Mandal Commission report then Prime Minister VP Singh tried to ensure job reservations for the members of the backward castes. But with time this move evolved into the historically backward and underprivileged sections’ empowerment through their participation in government and politics. So much so that this saw successive victory of Lalu Yadav in Bihar polls for 15 years without his providing any sops like job guarantee to the electorate. Similarly, the alliance of Mulayam Singh and Kanshi Ram in UP could successfully take on the strong Hindutva wave brought by the BJP’s Mandir movement to polarise UP. Not only this but also the BJP could not come to power before 2017, except once under Rajnath Singh, despite parting of ways by Mulayam Singh and Kanshi Ram.
So the political equations at the time of the implementation of Mandal Commission report indicate to a period of great assertion by Dalits and backwards for their political empowerment. For the first time in the history of the country the level of awareness among Dalits and backwards was rising and this was due to their political struggle. All the leading lights of Mandal movement were part of a single party, Janata Dal, under whose banner they did not mind fighting communal upsurge posed by the BJP with all their might. But with the passage of time differences among leaders like Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Ram Vilas Paswan deepened so much that they could not remain together and soon fell out with each other. First Mulayam left the Janata Dal fold, followed by Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav. Lalu was last to leave. The entire edifice called Janata Dal went asunder and driven by self-interest all its leaders became distant from the people. The leaders could not look beyond their own selfish interests and those of their kin and families. The result was that the agenda of social justice took a severe beating but given the push of the past it lingered and dragged bit by bit amid the loss of its luster and sheen.
The young generation of Dalit and backward castes knew the broad contours of the struggle for social justice. They also knew how hard the members of their previous generations had fought for the sake of their empowerment. Yet, with the passage of time the leaders and their slogans for social justice looked hollow and lost their appeal and punch. The gap between the rhetoric and reality was too palpable to be missed. And, thus, the BJP moved in brandishing its social engineering to ostensibly bridge the contradictions caused by caste and divide it had inflicted upon society. The party built resentment against Yadavs among rest of the backwards and against Jatavs among rest of Dalits both in UP and Bihar by alleging that the jobs under reservation were cornered by Yadavs and Jatavs alone though they were meant to be given to non-Yadavs among the backwards and non-Jatavs among the Dalits as well.
Amid paucity of jobs and under the rule of leaders like Lalu, Rabri, Mayawati and Mulayam the BJP tried to prove that this was virtually the case so as to erode these leaderships. Around the time of 2014 Lok Sabha polls the social groups like Dalits and backwards were not only considerably weakened but virtually left rudderless. Though they retained their caste identity but lost its other distinctive and natural accompaniments like being socially and economically poor, needy and deserving. During or until Anna Hazare’s movement the BJP somewhat looked too feeble to make any difference and affect the future course of politics. But this soon changed with Narendra Modi’s victory in Assembly polls in Gujarat in 2012. Modi was aggressively marketed as the only leader with a vision in the country and his Gujarat model as the only model for development of other parts of the country. Besides this, Modi tried to convince people while making umpteen promises before them in his election tours of UP and Bihar that he was from a lowly backward caste from Gujarat and, thus, he could well be the leader of backwards, underprivileged and poor. This is how the vast majority of voters disenchanted by their own caste leaders were wooed by Modi. These Dalit and backward electorate also eventually cast their votes in large numbers alongside others to make him the Prime Minister of the country.
These poor, low caste and hapless voters expected a lot from Modi once he took over the reins of the country. They thought that his cherished Gujarat model would unfold to bring brisk development which will take care of them and take away some of their miseries and hardships. But nothing of this sort happened and poor cutting across caste and all other social denominations were hugely disappointed.
Yet, a few years before this a significant development had taken place vis-à-vis Mandal. It was in 2006 that then Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh took Mandal a step ahead by making 27 per cent reservation for backward caste students in educational institutions. This move can be called as Mandal-II as despite all odds it soon came into force and in the next three years the ranks of job-seeking backward hoards of collegiate swelled. But sadly there were not enough jobs to meet the needs and aspirations of a new breed of first time university graduates from thus far not so literate families. The hopes of this class of students started crumbling when they found that a promising Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University Rohit Vemula was forced to commit suicide. In Modi’s tenure there have been job cuts and few job creations. These cuts took place across sectors run by the Government and also the ones in private hands. The budgetary allocations for education and health have been declining and curtailment of grants have been effected against these essential public services through almost every year of Modi’s rule. Thus, those Dalits and backwards and particularly the educated among them who had voted Modi in 2014 have rudely been shocked by their disastrous choice. Now they know that the Government led by Modi is neither meant, nor has the will and inclination to serve their interests.
Both before and after Narendra Modi’s becoming Prime Minister, the BJP has been fiercely targeting leaders like Lalu Yadav and Mayawati besides a few others in Opposition in cases related to corruption. Yet, when any of the non-BJP leader leaves his party to cross over to BJP, even his or her worst misdeeds are forgotten and at best met with absolute silence. Such double standards have created doubts in the minds of people about the BJP’s much touted battle against corruption. This is more so among Dalit and backwards who find their leaders Lalu and Mayawati being hounded under Modi’s rule. What has added insult to injury is the fact that the representation of Dalits and backwards in Parliament and State Assemblies has of late been continuously declining. This has very succinctly been pointed out by Christophe Jafferlot and Gilles Verniers in their article ‘The representation gap’ in the Indian Express. The article rightly highlights the fact that in the Lok Sabha the backwards in 2004 formed 26 per cent of the House which came down to 20 per cent in 2014. The two scholars contrast this with the rise in well off upper caste members of the House to 45 per cent. Similar trends have been noticed in the Assemblies of UP and Bihar as per the two authors.
Among other things what the results of Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Araria by-elections point to is that now the phenomenon called Mandal has entered its Third Phase. The only difference that the present phase has in contrast to the past two is that instead of leaders the Mandal-III is being led by the student community. There are many leaders in the BJP with surnames that connote the fact that they descended from ancestors who were from backward castes. Yet, these leaders are not able to make backward voters from their caste to vote for the BJP. This is so because the new breed of educated backward community students voice has started to matter more among the electorate than backward caste satraps of the BJP.
In the last Assembly polls of Bihar Lalu Yadav together with Nitish Kumar had flaunted what he had called as Mandal-II to sweep the polls. Now when Nitish has joined hands with the BJP after dumping the alliance with Lalu, the electorate have slapped debacle on Nitish in Araria and Jahanabad Assembly seat. This is because of the silent and thus far unstated Mandal-III which is at work not only in Araria but also Gorakhpur and Phulpur where Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav never appeared together to appeal to the voters directly or through media to vote for the Samajawadi Party’s candidates who won with remarkable ease against the heavy might of the BJP.