Addressing a seminar at Cambridge, UK, CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat said among other things that the Indian Left had made a mistake in paying insufficient attention to caste. He was right but probably not in the way he thought. Traditionally the Left was opposed to using caste as a criterion for backwardness.
Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was the first Indian socialist to have backed caste as a criterion. Lohia was right given ground realities. With little mobility in rural India and caste communities frozen in time and space for centuries, caste in large swathes of rural India for all practical purpose was indistinguishable from class.
However, Lohia was grievously wrong in substance. By recognizing caste as a legitimate criterion he failed to realize that he was thereby driving the last nail into the coffin of class consolidation. For short term consolidation caste as a criterion brings spectacular success. The long term implications sink in much later. I believe that Lohia himself became aware of his error. Once in his company I witnessed the departure of an aspirant for election who demanded the right to contest by citing his caste. Lohia regretfully remarked after his departure: “They cite caste when they seek a ticket for contesting elections. They are never around when we court arrest!” It was a telling observation and it stuck in my memory.
Oddly enough, it was Choudhary Charan Singh who best utilized caste as a factor in politics without muddying the ideological picture and creating negative long term results. In terms of agenda or ideological underpinning he never endorsed caste. He focused solely on class. Unlike the Communists he did not draw the line between labour and capital. He sought to polarize urban and rural India. However for purpose of elections he used the caste factor with uncanny skill in selecting candidates and profiling constituencies. He got the best of both worlds. He exploited ground realities without jeopardizing long term class consolidation.
Alas! At the end the Choudhary too succumbed to short term gain by sacrificing long term commitment. In a desperate attempt to retrieve lost ground by his mismanagement as a lame duck Prime Minister he suddenly supported the Mandal formula for job reservations in the government in the general election of 1979-80. This was personally suicidal for me. I was contesting the New Delhi parliamentary seat heavily populated by government employees incensed by this move. I was pitted against heavyweights AB Vajpayee and CM Stephan. I got an equal measure of tomatoes thrown at me by both Congressmen and JP supporters. Charan Singh’s move did not work countrywide of course. After the polls were over a chastened Charan Singh in a Working Committee meeting wanted to reverse his decision regarding endorsement of the Mandal formula for job reservation. He said it would balkanize India. But Madhu Limaye and a few others strongly dissuaded him. They said a reversal of decision would make him appear ridiculous. My support for him was ineffective. So that was that.
VP Singh without being even aware of the Mandal formula jumped to support it as a desperate move to counter Devi Lal’s Farmers’ Rally. He was briefed about the Mandal formula by Sharad Yadav. After VP Singh’s move the Sangh Parivar showed its lack of commitment. Instead of openly opposing caste based reservation the BJP started its Hindutva movement in an effort to indirectly counter Mandal by seeking consolidation of Hindu society on the basis of religion. Paradoxically the Mandal formula as an ideological agenda has never delivered results. In a UP assembly election fresh after he took up Mandal, VP Singh combined with Laloo Yadav against the Kanshi Ram-Mulayam Singh combination. The latter never talked of Mandal during the poll but focused on consolidating their respective vote banks. VP Singh and Laloo Yadav were trounced. So much for Mandal as a winning formula!
The Left has been correct in propagating class instead of caste. But it has displayed no commitment to its traditional belief. Like the rest of the political parties it has backed caste based reservation during elections. So it stands neither here nor there. It is a wishy-washy mishmash. If Comrade Prakash Karat seeks the real reasons for the Left’s failure he should delve a little deeper and discover how his party’s cosmetically approved measures fly in the face of genuine radical reform. He will not get answers from seminars held in Cambridge or in JNU.