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From Blocking Right-wing in 1990s to Poll Drubbing in 2019, Has Mandal Politics Come Full Circle?

The BJP in Uttar Pradesh was successful in overcoming the biggest political hurdle in its way — the alliance comprising the regional powers of SP and BSP.

Pranshu Mishra | CNN-News18

Updated:May 26, 2019, 11:28 PM IST
From Blocking Right-wing in 1990s to Poll Drubbing in 2019, Has Mandal Politics Come Full Circle?
BJP supporters celebrate the party's victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in New Delhi. (Image: PTI)

Lucknow: As the BJP zooms into its second consecutive term at the Centre, the spotlight is yet again on Uttar Pradesh where it successfully overcame the biggest political hurdle in its way, the 'mahagathbandhan' (grand alliance). The saffron party might have won a fewer number of seats as compared to 2014, but its vote-share increased to nearly 50%. To be precise, it is 49.6% as compared to 42.3% in 2014.

However, this spectacular achievement in the face of the most adverse political scenario is now leading to the question of Mandal’s relevance as an antithesis to the politics of Kamanadal. Though this time around, the BJP actually didn’t play the aggressive Hindutva card on ground, the symbolism of Hindutva, commonly known as Kamandal, remains associated with it. Despite a low-decibel campaign, the principle of Hindutva had remained the basic idea for the BJP and its ideologue RSS.

UP has the highest population and at 80 has the highest number of Lok Sabha seats. Around 40% of the state’s population belongs to the Hindu backward castes, comprising also the most backward ones. The Dalit population is estimated to be around 21% and the upper castes comprise another 20%. Minorities, including Muslims, constitute around 18% of the population.

Inception of Mandal Politics

The concept of Mandal politics, as an antithesis to the BJP and the RSS’s right-wing politics of Hindutva, was first established in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In UP and to a large extent also in Bihar then, the right-wing politics based on a larger Hindu identity was halted by the politics of ‘social justice’. While in UP it was socialist Mulayam Singh, in Bihar it was Lalu Prasad Yadav who became the symbol of the resistance against Hindutva.

It was also the time when a resurgent Dalit political and social movement, in the form of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was on the rise in UP. Soon, the concept of Mandal politics came to identify both the ends of this struggle for social justice comprising the backwards and the Dalits.

These two strong currents of political discourse halted the BJP’s march to power even in communally charged days following the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. In 1993, as the then SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP supremo Kanshiram joined hands, the strength of this coalition proved hard to navigate for the BJP.

Since then, till 2014, for almost two decades, the political landscape in the state was dominated by the two regional giants — the SP and the BSP. All through the period, although the BJP managed to form governments on a few occasions, it basically remained a third player in politics. But in 2014, the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah saw a miraculous transformation.

BJP's Thumping Victory

With a near clean sweep with 73 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections to the formation of a majority government in the 2017 Assembly polls and now wining 64 of the 80 seats in the 2019 general elections, fighting against a formidable SP-BSP and the RLD alliance, the BJP seems to have found and honed upon the formula to counter the caste-based politics of the regional players.

Former BBC correspondent Ramdutt Tripathi says, “For almost three decades, since the mid-1980s, the BJP had struggled for this larger unity of Hindus on the religious grounds. The Ram temple movement was also a political effort in this direction. The BJP and the RSS needed an emotive issue to bridge the caste divide and what better tool for them than the issue of Lord Ram.”

He adds, “However, the BJP’s experiments with temple politics and finally the demolition of the mosque could not get the desired results because the state was also witnessing a fresh wave of backward and Dalit political resurgence. For the socially and economically deprived, these new streams of political movement had a bigger appeal.”

So the question is — have these political movements, also seen by many as a social movement, lost their steam? Is the era of caste-based politics over or is it the matter of who is better equipped to play the caste card? In its politics has the BJP diluted the caste lines or has it just managed to win over a large section of the backward and Dalit castes?

Professor Prashant Trivedi of Giri Institute of Development Studies opines that it’s an issue of multiple dimensions. “The politics started with the aim of social justice of castes. It gradually turned into identity politics and finally reached a point where it will be more convenient to see them as pressure groups of certain sub-castes,” he says.

“This moral degradation of the Mandal politics gradually led to a situation where a large section of these socially deprived felt left behind. And, in turn, these castes left behind gradually moved towards the BJP against the perceived hegemony of the certain sub-castes, such as the Yadavs among the OBCs and the Jatavs among the Dalits,” he adds.

No doubt then that the BJP was successful in taking down this campaign of SP-BSP alliance primarily being the 'gathbandhan' of Yadavs and the Jatavs. The saffron party was able to successfully achieve the counter-polarisation of various other backward and Dalit castes.

Further, the failure of the 'gathbandhan' in coming forth with a policy alternative, some concrete common economic agenda, lack of any larger agitation on issues of agrarian distress and unemployment also restricted its hope of becoming a larger umbrella formation of all the OBCs and Dalits.

This failure of the opposition in moving beyond a simple caste arithmetic further eased the BJP’s path, which had a lot to answer on the issues of unemployment, stray cattle and farm distress.

On the contrary, the BJP filled this space by a larger agenda of universal appeal around three narratives of nationalism, Narendra Modi as the tallest leader, and finally the larger Hindu identity. Together, these three issues, along with a well-oiled organisation, helped the BJP overcome the caste alliance against it.

So, in a span of five years from 2014 to 2019, has the politics in Hindi heartland made a complete turn? Should Mandal no longer be seen as an effective tool against the Kamandal? Lucknow University's Professor Sudhir Panwar, a political observer, doesn’t feel so.

According to him, at a time when the entire opposition, including the Congress, could not withstand the saffron onslaught across the nation, the 'mahagathbandhan' should be credited for increasing its tally from five in 2014 to 15 in 2019. No doubt that the combined vote share of the SP-BSP-RLD came down to nearly 39% as compared to 42.63% of 2014, but it has been in one of the most adverse political situations, he adds.

But Panwar agrees that it is a challenging road ahead for the alliance. The SP and the BSP will either have to reinvent themselves and go back to the basic ethos of their politics of being similar to umbrella organisations for deprived castes, or else find themselves decimated in the political space.

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