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When Social Justice Failed, BJP Offered UP an Alternative

In the absence of any positive change, how long can a voter keep casting their vote based on false promises?

Amit Shah (C), president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gestures as he celebrates with party supporters after learning of the initial poll results inside the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, March 11, 2017. Credit:Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Amit Shah (C), president of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gestures as he celebrates with party supporters after learning of the initial poll results inside the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, March 11, 2017. Credit:Adnan Abidi/Reuters

They say that history cruelly judges those who refuse to learn from their mistakes. Facing a heavy defeat from the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2014, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav had been quick to address their failings. The result of their efforts was evident in Bihar in the 2015 assembly elections when the grand alliance between the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal trumped Modi.

A similar defeat was suffered by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2014, but it is now evident that Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati completely failed to learn from it.

Back in August 1990, then prime minister V.P. Singh took a positive step towards achieving social justice by implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations, but it crumbled after a few years. However, when Kanshiram joined hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav in 1993, the union could not survive for more than a few months.

Twenty four years later, Modi rose to power and the backward class leaders once again formed an alliance. This time Nitish and Lalu worked up the maha-gathbandhan and reclaimed their lost magic within a few months of the Lok Sabha election defeat.

The biggest coalition was formed by the SP and the BSP in UP after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. It turned out to be a huge success as it had wiped out the BJP and elected Mulayam as the chief minister of the state for the second time.

But a clash of egos and lack of foresight had led to a quick disintegration and the BJP returned to power. The break up bitterly severed relations between Mulayam and Mayawati, which so far remains one of the worst examples of political divorces.

The results of the 2017 UP assembly polls have once again brought up a number of questions that leaders of social justice need to answer. Had Akhilesh and Mayawati formed an alliance similar to the one in Bihar and won by a majority, how would it have affected crores of voters in UP? Could the slogans of the so-called proponents of social justice against poverty, starvation, unemployment and caste discrimination have benefitted the public? Did they have a strategy to combat the BJP’s design to dismantle their social fabric?

During the last 25 years, the so-called champions of social justice have only misused the trust their voters had been putting in them. Their activities have limited the definition of social justice to mean a nexus of political leaders, with their children and relatives, controlling power and the establishment, and looting political treasures – a nexus which is out of bounds for the general public.

Except for Rajnath Singh’s brief tenure, Bihar and UP have been governed by the forces of social justice with leadership in the hands of backwards and Dalits regardless of party, for more than 26 years. In Bihar, Lalu and Rabri Devi remained in power for over 15 years and Nitish has been ruling for the past 10 years. Nitish briefly handed over the reins to Jitan Ram Manjhi after the defeat in 2014. In UP, it was Akhilesh.

These leaders had been voted to power by chiefly the backwards, Dalits and minorities who had no education, no employment and no resources. The existing social fabric and the caste system had stifled them. After coming to power in the 1990s, Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati challenged the discriminatory system. In a way, they dealt a severe blow to social inertia. During their 15 year reign, Lalu-Rabri challenged communal forces attempting polarisation. As a result, no major communal riot, except a few minor incidents, were witnessed by the state.

But apart from this, their reign did not bring in any other development which could economically benefit their vote base. Similarly, the first phase of Mulayam’s term was focused on challenging communal forces.

In 1990, Mulayam ordered firing on karsevaks to safeguard the constitutional rights of the minorities. When out of power, he joined hands with Mayawati and took on the fiery communal Hindutva forces once again. The alliance briefly brought the Dalits and backwards together, but it could not continue for long politically or on ground.

Except for a few minor differences, the reign of Lalu, Mayawati and Mulayam have been similar in social, economic and educational terms. The public that voted them in was in struggling with poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. They needed schools with a new vision. They needed for old government schools to be protected to provide them employment opportunities. They also needed fresh education policies. But none of it happened and the decline in education finally proved disastrous.

A similar fate was met by the health sector. The public health system was wrecked with doctors running private practices in the premises of government hospitals. As a result, the general public and the poor had no access education or health facilities.

A look at the data from UP and Bihar shows that more private hospitals and schools have opened than government ones during the past two and a half decades. The way the so-called advocates of social justice have destroyed or allowed the destruction of the two institutions which could have helped secure the future of Dalits, Adivasis, backward castes and minorities, is unprecedented in the democratic history of India.

The biggest failure of these self-professed leaders of social equality has been in that they have always tried to imitate the upper caste model of governance. The government hospitals and schools face neglect because they have been replaced by a network of private ones which benefit only the rich. But no functional alternative was provided to the poor and deprived sections by their representatives.

If you look at the agricultural sector during the past 25 years, you will find that despite a slight improvement in production in some cases, most people have quit farming. As a result, those who depended on this sector for a livelihood are migrating to other cities in search of employment.

In both the states, political leaders needed to focus on the agricultural sector because their support base was farmers and labourers. But they failed at it terribly. None of the proponents of social justice worked to connect their voters to better public health, education and employment opportunities.

In the absence of any positive change, how long can a voter keep casting their vote based on continuing false promises? It is but natural to look for an alternative slogan which appeals in a different way. This is what has happened in UP.

When Lalu formed the RJD in 1997 and appointed Rabri as chief minister, V.P. Singh had said, without naming anyone, “The biggest threat to democracy is dynastic politics. When it appears that everything is functioning smoothly, helping a family member rise to power weakens.”

But the vocal leaders of social justice have openly practiced dynastic politics whether it is Lalu, Mulayam or Ram Vilas Paswan. Were they really ‘saving democracy’?

For most of them, social justice is restricted to family, relatives and, if they turn a little philanthropic, the top cream of their respective communities. Though Nitish did not practice dynastic politics, his lack of vision puts him in league with the rest of them. Why did it not occur to these leaders, that securing government institutions was crucial for their voters? These institutions could have strengthened their vote-base by making voters more cautious and alert. But a lack of foresight has hurt these parties the most.

When Karpoori Thakur became chief minister of Bihar, he made education free till seventh standard. In his second tenure, he made education free till matriculation level. He also rendered English as a non-compulsory subject, implying that a student who failed in English would be declared successful. It came to be called Karpoori Division. This step helped several Dalit and backward community members land a job. This group is the staunchest support base of Lalu and Nitish.

Akhilesh was neither born out of a movement, nor has he witnessed any social struggle of Dalits and backward castes. After coming to power, one of his first decisions was to scrap SC/ST quota in promotion. This is why, he had no answer to RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya’s remark about ending reservation. But his silence on reservation and promises of development could not save him.

Voters and their interests are integral to a democracy. But most political leaders have resorted to dynastic politics ignoring the lot of the masses. As a result, a second layer of leaders other than family members of the top brass has not come into existence.

The messiahs of social justice remind one of Premchand’s Gaban. “Suppose, we do achieve independence. What difference will it make? Mr John will be replaced by Mr Jagdish. What will change in our lives?”

For the public that yearns for social justice, it is a second independence. As one captor left, another took over. The challenge before Mayawati and Akhilesh is to restore faith in their support base and instill a new vision in them.

This article was originally published on The Wire Hindi and was translated by Naushin Rehman. 

  • Siddhartha

    Great insight and analyses on the perceived failures of the socialist movement spearheaded by Lohia. My only point of disagreement with the author is that I believe that VP Singh made a grievous error in adopting the Mandal Committee recommendations without further review on implementation challenges. It led to a free fall – Mandal politics took hold in the country, especially in the states of UP and Bihar. The reservation accorded to SC/ST under the constitution was warranted and resulted in social mobility of the most backward. However, it is unclear whether the OBC reservation led to social mobility, as it was shamelessly exploited by the creamy OBC layer in grabbing Govt jobs and university admissions. Secondly, Mandal politics led to institutionalizing an OBC power structure where exploitation of Dalits/SCs became worse, again in Bihar and UP. We descended the slippery slope of including more and more OBC groups in the reserved categories and the basis for that were purely vote bank considerations, rather than genuine backwardness of those communities. It significantly reduced merit quota in admissions and encouraged a process of reverse discrimination. An affirmative policy based on economic status would have been more sensible.