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November, Mandal, and Mandir: The Fall of V P Singh and the Rise of OBC Politics

After decades, the forces unleashed by V P Singh will play a significant role in determining who wins in 2024.

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(This is part four of a four-part 'November' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.)

He was the quintessential Hindi heartland Congress politician when the party was at its towering peak.

Yet, the mother of all ironies is that he triggered political forces that have led to the virtual destruction of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

He wasn’t the prime minster of India for any meaningful length of time, and he died in obscurity. In fact, his government fell this very month in 1990 after a tumultuous 11-month tenure.

But the impact of the two political juggernauts he helped unleash on the polity of India — Mandal and Mandir — reverberate even now. Yes, the authors are talking about V P Singh, the loyal soldier of Indira Gandhi who became an anti-corruption crusader against Rajiv Gandhi.

But his real impact — you may call it benevolent or malevolent — is still being felt as caste and Hindutva battle it out for the heart and soul of India.

There have been times when Mandal seems to have triumphed over Kamandal. Then there have been times when the Hindutva project seems to have obliterated everything that came in its way.

The war is still being fought. In Bihar, in Maharashtra, in Tamil Nadu; in all of India as a matter of fact. Almost a quarter of a century after his government fell, the forces unleashed by V P Singh will play a significant role in determining who wins the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

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A Brief Recap

Sordid, petty, and simultaneously grand as the details are, the historical events that led to the ejection of V P Singh as prime minister need a revisit as they still cast a shadow over Indian politics.

For the record, Singh lost a no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha on 7 November by a massive margin of 356 to 151 and resigned (incidentally, about eight years later, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost a confidence vote by the narrowest possible margin of just one vote).

For those Indians born in the late 1980s and since, they happen to be about two-thirds of India’s population now. There would be no personal memories of the baffling, troubling, and yet exciting (for many) events that unfolded in the run-up to the no-confidence vote in November 1990 and the political earthquakes that have shaken Hindi heartland politics since then.

By the time the 1989 Lok Sabha elections were due, the once glittering reputation of PM Rajiv Gandhi was in tatters. He had infuriated right wing Hindus (and all “genuine” liberals) by making the Parliament pass a law that revoked a Supreme Court verdict giving alimony to a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano. He then infuriated the Muslim community by allowing the gates of the Ayodhya shrine to be opened for Hindus to offer prayers.

But the telling blows were delivered by V P Singh.

When Rajiv Gandhi won a historic mandate in December 1984, V P Singh was his choice as finance minister. Singh mesmerised Indians in 1985 with arguably the most forward-looking and market-oriented Union Budget. But after allegations regarding the Bofors deal surfaced, Singh raised the banner of revolt and became an anti-corruption crusader.

His “new” party, the Janata Dal, having remnants of the Janata Party of the late 1970s that ousted Indira Gandhi, ensured that the Congress lost the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. But it fell way short of a majority of its own and was propped by the Left and the BJP. The latter had gone from two seats in the 1984 elections to 89 seats in 1989.

V P Singh's Trump Card

His government and his coalition was engulfed by centrifugal forces from day one.

Senior leader Chandrasekhar publicly accused Singh and others of cheating and betraying him. Devi Lal was kind of pacified when he was made the deputy prime minister but mistrust persisted. Within a few months, it was clear that he had ambitions of his own. He decided to organise a massive gathering of farmers in Delhi to pressurise the government to adopt more farmer-friendly policies.

V P Singh felt cornered and decided to play what he thought was his trump card. In August 1990, he announced that the government had accepted the Mandal Commission Report submitted in 1980 that recommended reservations for other backward castes, in addition to reservations already existing for scheduled castes and tribes.

This announcement led to a massive uproar of protests across north India, led primarily by upper-caste youth. But the backward caste youth felt electrified and galvanised. The protests and the confrontations were so ugly that life came to a standstill in September 1990 in Delhi.

The co-author was with The Times of India back then, living in an area across the Yamuna river called Patparganj (the assembly constituency of jailed AAP leader Manish Sisodia). He still recalls walking all the way to office as whatever public transport that was available in Delhi those days had simply disappeared.

Newspaper offices were in a tizzy. Amidst all this, Saddam Hussein-led Iraq had invaded and captured Kuwait, and global oil supplies were disrupted along with a big spike in prices. Anyone who understood economics back then knew that India was hurtling towards bankruptcy.

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The Rise of OBC Politics

But the economy was not the dominant theme in the minds of ambitious Indian politicians between August and October 1990.

When Singh announced the acceptance of the Mandal commission report, L K Advani and his core team of strategists in the BJP realised that this could divide and even derail the Hindutva project that the BJP was weaponising since the mid 1980s.

As a counter to Mandal, Advani decided to focus on Mandir. He announced a grand Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya to mobilise Hindus to re-erect a grand Ram Temple that was allegedly destroyed by the first Mughal Emperor Babur who built the Babri Masjid over the ruins of the original Ram Temple.

Fact or not, tens of millions of Hindus across India believed the rhetoric and gave an ecstatic response to the Rath Yatra. An RSS pracharak and unknown junior BJP leader from Gujarat named Narendra Modi was given the task of organising the first leg of the Yatra that started symbolically from the Somnath Temple.

There was frenzy, ecstasy, and ugliness in full display as riots broke out in many places. The Rath Yatra launched the political career of Advani and provided momentum to the BJP to eventually win political power in the mid-1990s.

OBC politics is the fulcrum around which political gladiators have revolved since then. The unknown Narendra Modi who organised the first leg of Yatra is an OBC. The biggest face of the movement for the temple was another OBC, Kalyan Singh. Interestingly, when Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate in 2013, he first consulted Kalyan Singh.

Even as upper caste youth like Rajiv Goswami immolated themselves in protest against Mandal, the BJP never openly backed those protests. The fruits are being enjoyed by the party even now as it has built a formidable non-Yadav OBC base that is married to Hindutva.

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The Rise of Lalu and Mulayam

But OBC politics also made the political careers of two Hindi heartland stalwarts: Mulayam Singh Yadav who was then Janata Dal chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Lalu Pasad Yadav who was then Janata Dal chief minister of Bihar.

Both had embraced Mandal and were determined to thwart Mandir.

When the Rath Yatra led by Advani entered Bihar, Lalu Yadav publicly threatened that he would not allow the “communal” Yatra to cross over from Bihar to Uttar Pradesh. On 23 October 1990, Advani was arrested by the Bihar police.

Since that day, Lalu has become a favourite of the Muslim community. And the Yadav-Muslim vote bloc that he crafted that day in 1990 remains the most potent political force in Bihar even now.

But the fate of the V P Singh government was sealed because the BJP withdrew support.

In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Yadav too was keen to establish his Mandal and secular credentials. He got an opportunity soon after Advani was arrested. Tens of thousands of karsevaks were unmetered by Advani’s arrest and kept marching towards Ayodhya with consecrated bricks for the Ram Temple.

On 30 October, CM Mulayam Yadav ordered the police to stop the devotees at any cost. The police opened fire, killing many of them, though the actual number of devotees killed that day in police firing is an ideologically contentious issue.

Like Lalu, Mulayam too became a preferred leader of Muslims and the Yadav-Muslim vote bloc crafted by him since then remains a formidable political force in Uttar Pradesh.

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The Fall of the Congress Party

By the first week of November, it was clear that the days of the V P Singh government were numbered. Yet, he was not the biggest loser in November 1990. In the long run, it is the Congress that turned out to be the biggest loser.

Muslim voters in Bihar and UP had discovered new champions in the form of Lalu and Mulayam. The upper-caste Hindu voters dumped the Congress in favour of the BJP. Dalits asserted their political weight through Kanshi Ram and Mayawati of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party).

There was virtually nothing left for the Congress.

Bihar and UP will send 120 members to the Lok Sabha in 2024. The best that the Congress can hope for is 2 out of 80 in UP given that Mulayam’s son and legatee Akhilesh is in no mood to offer many seats or support to the Congress. In Bihar too, it will rely on winning just about a few seats thrown its way as crumbs by Lalu and his son and legatee Tejasvi Yadav.

In effect, one can argue that out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress has been reduced to a cipher in 120 seats.

Quite clearly, V P Singh could not have envisaged all this when he went to submit his resignation to the President on 7 November 1990. He faded from public view as the Mandal and Mandir forces continued their battle for supremacy with each formation going through ebbs and flows.

On 27 November 2008, V P Singh passed away. But India was so engulfed by the monstrous terror attack on Mumbai on the night of 26 November (discussed in the previous column) that almost no one paid any attention.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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