Nineteen eighty-seven was a tempestuous, course-altering year for India in more ways than one.
The spring snowmelt saw Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress party become fatally embroiled in the Bofors scam. Three months later, the monsoon failed and weathermen were resigned to writing long tomes on whether this was the drought of the century.
That same July, India became fatally embroiled yet again, in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict between Sinhalas and Tamils. The Indian Army was sent in to keep the peace but inexplicably ended up fighting the very Tamils they were dispatched to protect.
And to top all this misery, defending champions India were knocked out of the Cricket World Cup by England, in India, at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai.
But the biggest story of the year was the one whose long-term implications were least understood at the time.
Chaudhary Devi Lal and his Lok Dal party, in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), swept the Haryana assembly elections, winning 76 of 90 seats with 49 per cent of the vote.
This was the first material manifestation of electoral power by a dominant community in a state, and because of the shattering blow it dealt to the Congress, the victory was swiftly adopted as a template by enterprising politicians in the northern plains.
Two years later, Mulayam Singh Yadav managed the hitherto unthinkable — by aligning Uttar Pradesh’s dominant Other Backward Class (OBC) community, the Yadavs, with the Muslims to secure a simple majority with merely 29.7 per cent of the popular vote.
In 1990, Laloo Prasad Yadav successfully replicated this template to become the chief minister of Bihar.
Of course, by this time, most of India was cleaved between ‘mandal and mandir’ — a popular phrase of the time that aptly defined the discord between two primary political processes which had arisen: the identity politics of the Gangetic plains, based on alliances between OBCs and Muslims, and the BJP’s supra-caste approach based on the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi agitation at Ayodhya.
Both Mulayam Singh and Laloo Yadav were remarkably successful in applying identity politics for two decades. Not only did their approach wipe the Congress out of the north, but it also delayed the ascent of the BJP.
If Devi Lal could contemptuously call Rajiv Gandhi "that fellow" and still laugh all the way to the ballot box, so could the two northern Yadavs (cheered on by Marxists and intellectuals), for whom the BJP was ‘just’ a brahmin-baniya party that represented the worst of Brahmanical patriarchy (which they were intent on smashing).
What most political observers didn’t realise then, and what current chroniclers often tend to overlook, is that this style of OBC-driven, Muslim-dependent politics triggered a gradual reaction among those OBC communities who were cut out of power by such rank identity politics.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the BJP’s victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 1991 was largely driven by a consolidation of non-Yadav OBC votes. No wonder that the man who became chief minister, the late Kalyan Singh, was a member of the Lodh OBC community.
Unfortunately, the BJP was frequently a victim of pushmi-pullyu politics over the next two decades because of both external and internal factors, as a result of which this consolidation of the OBC vote in its ranks remained patchy, transitory, uneven, and even counter-productive at times.
The only state where the BJP’s approach clicked was Gujarat, primarily because it embarked on widespread, inclusive development earlier than others, on the back of aggressive industrialisation, which led to greater all-round prosperity. But this was badly offset by failures elsewhere.
Who can forget the ignominy of Uma Bharti’s revolt (also an OBC), which led to her temporary expulsion from the BJP in 2005? Kalyan Singh left the BJP twice — once in 1999, and then again a decade later.
In Karnataka, OBC Lingayat leader B S Yediyurappa’s revolt in 2012 led to the decimation of the BJP in assembly elections there the following year. And always on the sidelines were the Congress and other regional parties, waiting to take advantage of these slip-ups by the BJP.
Thus, it wasn’t until 2013 and the advent of Narendra Modi on the national stage that the process gained the requisite focus and impetus. Here, at last, was a popular leader who was an OBC, but who, rather incredulously to those who didn’t understand him or the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had nothing but open disdain for divisive identities.
In the past 10 years, the BJP under Modi has displayed an uncompromising return to the core values of the RSS: India first, zero tolerance for cultural separatism or identity politics, development, indigenisation, infrastructure, and industrialisation.
They are unapologetic about the policy and political positions they take and are even prepared to lose elections if need be. But they will not be thwarted in their rigid aims of building a supra-caste coalition, which grants them the electoral mandate to run governments at the Centre and in the states.
By and large, this approach has worked. Today, the majority of the BJP’s vote comes from the OBC community, and the party is increasingly starting to attract those sections of the dominant OBC vote in states where an electoral axis with the Muslim community is still functional.
The psychology is fairly straightforward: if a person feels politically and socially emancipated by becoming part of a power structure through identity politics or development and progress, then the first thing which becomes irrelevant is that identity.
As strange as it may sound, the first realisation of a successful Dalit, OBC, tribal, baniya, or whoever is that they are recognised for their merit rather than their caste!
Next in line are the tribal and Dalit votes, especially in provincial elections, because these communities vote distinctly more for the BJP in general elections than they do in polls to state legislatures.
And beyond that lie the linguistic divides of the deep south which the BJP has yet to bridge.
In conclusion, it is tempting to adopt a reductionist approach and to oversimplify and baldly state that mandal lost and mandir won. That is only true to a limited extent.
The correct phrasing would be: the ongoing expansion of the BJP’s vote base, especially across the OBC communities, which constitute the majority population of India, is but reflective of a majestic awakening as the subcontinent comes into its own, strives to emerge as a prosperous, developed nation, takes its rightful seat at the world table, and finally regains its civilisational ethos.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!