Has the Mandal Commission outlasted its (political) utility?
Mandal and his colleagues produced one of the most groundbreaking reports with tremendous hard work, comprehensive methodology, and incisive social insights.
It has been 40 years since the announcement of the formation of the 2nd Backward Class Commission by the then Prime Minister Moraraji Desai. When the 2nd Backward Class Commission (which is popularly known as Mandal Commission) was formed, nobody thought about its impact on Indian politics and society. Perhaps everyone felt that it would meet the same fate as the 1st Backward Class Commission, known by its chairperson as Kaka Kalelkar Commission. Kalelkar was a Gandhian to the core, which resulted in the highly contradictory and confusing recommendations of the 1st Backward Class Commission. It recommended considering all women as a backward class without acknowledging the most vulnerable status of women from lower castes within their communities as well as in society. On the issue of caste, Kaka Kalelkar assumed a peculiar position in his report submission letter to the President of India. He acknowledged the reflection of caste hierarchy in the representation of all communities in government jobs. However, he strongly cautioned against caste-based reservation, arguing that one should rely on the good consciousness of the socially powerful in the society. But B.P. Mandal was not Kaka Kalelkar! Mandal and his colleagues produced one of the most groundbreaking reports with tremendous hard work, comprehensive methodology, and incisive social insights.
The Mandal Commission’s most important contribution was the identification of hundreds of castes and sub-castes as backward classes, other than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India. Those who opposed the Mandal recommendations in the 1980s and 1990s failed to notice that most of the socially dominant non-Brahmin castes were kept outside the gambit of reservation. On the contrary, in 1990, many supporters of Mandal argued for the tactical inclusion of Jats in the OBCs to curtail the backlash after V.P. Singh’s dramatic announcement of the implementation of 27% reservation. It was as dramatic and surprising as the announcement of demonetisation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, the immediate reception of these announcements in the public sphere were poles apart. While Modi’s demonetisation was mostly welcomed with cautious curiosity, V.P. Singh’s decision met the fire and fury of the upper castes in north India. In an overnight development, an influential section of society that propped up V.P. Singh as the Mr. Clean of Indian politics turned against him. It was widely seen as the politico-social coup staged by V.P. Singh and his commanders against the socially influential sections that controlled Indian governments since independence. Even a leader of the calibre of Indira Gandhi did not dare to embrace Mandal recommendations for fear of the political backlash and social instability.
Mandal’s recommendation of 27% reservation for OBCs was opposed on many counts. While the issue of ‘merit’ was at the centre of the opposition, arriving at as big a number as 27% reservation was under scrutiny. The Mandal report made it categorically clear that ‘only’ 27% reservation was recommended to maintain an overall ceiling of 50% reservation in government jobs. It estimated the OBCs population at around 52% of the total population of India, acknowledging a lack of the exact count due to non-mention of caste in the census exercise. One of the important recommendations of the Mandal commission was the inclusion of caste category in the Census of India. Those who questioned the logic of 27% never demanded a Caste census. The UPA-2 government had conducted a separate caste census, but neither it nor the Modi government declared the outcome. During the Modi government’s first tenure, it had declared its intention of including caste in the 2021 census, which raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. At a time when votaries of Mandal Commission are receiving diminishing political benefits, India might be poised for another caste churning in the coming decade if caste enters the census.
There are many probable scenarios in the event of OBCs being counted as more than 50% of the Indian population. There will be demands to raise the 27% cap on OBCs reservation. But how? With 10% reservation for the poor from non-SC/ST/OBCs, overall reservation is already above 60% at an all India level. In states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, it is above 75%, at least on paper. Many of those who opposed Mandal then are now propagating reservation for Jats, Kapus, Patels, and Marathas. If Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh extend reservations to Patel and Kapu communities respectively, on the lines of Maratha reservation in Maharashtra, these states also would have reservation beyond 75%. Without a scope for increasing reservations for OBCs, three scenarios would come into play. One, there would be demand for reservation for SC, ST, and OBCs in the private sector. It could materialise only if the demand generates forceful pan-India movement. Two, the need for exclusively reserving seats for women within SC, ST, and OBCs might become evident, providing an opportunity to the women’s movement in India to remain relevant. Three, the government might move out a few ‘dominant’ castes from the OBCs list to create more space for non-dominant OBCs. In fact, the 5-member Mandal Report had one dissenting voice in the form of Mr. L.R. Naik, the sole scheduled caste representative in the commission. Mr. Naik, in his dissent note, demanded the sub-categorisation of OBCs and reserved seats in proportion to the community’s size. But the Commission rejected his demand, citing a lack of caste-based numbers. These numbers should be available after the 2021 Census. The Yogi Adityanath government is already proposing to create categories within OBCs to restrict Yadavas from accessing most of the reserved jobs. Earlier, Nitish Kumar had pioneered the Mahadalit category within SCs in Bihar, which is considered a successful social and political experiment. The astute political equation that BJP and its allies have engineered amongst non-dominant castes amongst OBCs will reach a zenith if they win the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2020 and 2022 respectively. Without a socio-political delivery to these castes, the BJP’s engineering would collapse under its own weight.
In the pre-independence era, the Brahmins’ aspirations for political rule was evident. In the early years of independence, the non-Brahmin upper castes began to assert their political importance. In the Mandal era, numerically dominant castes from OBCs emerged as the new rulers. The next age, in all likelihood, would be of the conglomeration of numerically smaller castes from OBCs and SCs, which altogether constitute an influential number in important states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, etc. There are clues of survival and revival for the fledgling Mandal parties as well as for the grand old Congress party in these emerging scenarios, only if they wish to survive to revive themselves.