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Why Congress Mustn't Go Back on Rahul Gandhi's Caste Census, Social Justice Promise

Congress leader Anand Sharma's recent letter to Mallikarjun Kharge opposing a caste census shows that upper caste leaders from all parties still do not subscribe to ideas of social justice and do not want to share political power with marginalised castes.
Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

Anand Sharma is a senior Congress leader. He has written a letter to Mallikarjun Kharge, the first ever visible Dalit Congress president of the party after Damodaram Sanjeevaiah in the 1960s, opposing the promise of a caste census in the Congress manifesto for the 2024 general election. The letter’s principal ideological demand is that the party should continue its earlier stand of opposing identity politics.

In his letter, released to the media on March 21, Sharma wrote, “The Congress has never engaged in or endorsed identity politics, and a departure from this historic position on this critical and sensitive subject is a matter of concern.” He added, “It (the caste census) disrespects the legacy of former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.”

Sharma’s opinion on a caste census is not his alone: it is shared by Dwija (Brahmin, Baniya, Kayastha, Khatri and Ksatriya) leaders and intellectuals in all parties. They are all against any measure – either legal or enumerative – which weakens the control of Dwijas on the political, social and spiritual systems of India.

It is well known that even the Bharatiya Janata Party strongly opposes a caste census and the removal of the 50% reservation cap – something that has to be scrapped if proportional representation is given to various castes in the state structure. But they prefer not to come out openly like Anand Sharma.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra Must Talk About Social Justice But Also Spiritual Justice for Shudras, Dalits

For Dwijas, the position of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi remains the reference point on all questions of caste identity politics, particularly reservations and the sharing of power. Anand Sharma and leaders like him think that Rahul Gandhi – who comes from that very family – is departing from his ancestral position and promoting identity politics. At the same time, they depend on him to get the Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasi votes needed to bring the party back to power.

The RSS/BJP consciously Narendra promoted Modi, who came from a listed OBC caste. It is well known that Modi’s electoral success is based on his personal OBC identity politics and his efforts to mobilise most backward classes (MBCs) in states like Uttar Pradesh. How does Anand Sharma want Rahul Gandhi to defeat the BJP’s caste identity politics while sticking to the position taken by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi?

Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Photos: Indira Gandhi (Wikimedia Commons/GODL License) and Rajiv Gandhi (Indian National Congress website).

Anand Sharma and his ilk want Rahul Gandhi to continue the pre-Mandal era politics, which will totally destroy the Congress. Leaders like Sharma are blind to the fact that the BJP and Modi have brought caste and religious identities in their full form into electoral politics.

If Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were alive now, they would have neither been prime ministers nor would they have been fighters like Rahul Gandhi. They would have been where Anand Sharma is today, on the margins. Rahul, on the other hand, is adapting to the given situation, which is why his two yatras – the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Bharat Nyay Yatra – have had an impact.

On the question of religious identity which Anand Sharma raised, the Congress has seen the Muslim minority identity as a necessary element of politics. Indeed, the RSS-BJP has always labeled the politics of the Gandhi-Nehru family as ‘pro-Muslim’. The Sangh has traditionally accused the Congress of what it calls ‘appeasement’ but the BJP under Modi has now successfully used this charge to mobilise OBCs across the country as well.

What the Congress’s Dwija leaders who oppose Rahul Gandhi’s carefully crafted social justice agenda do not understand is that he is re-shaping the Congress in the context of post-Mandal developments and in the given context of the RSS/BJP’s ideological position on caste.

Caste identity, particularly, the OBC identity has become a force after the Mandal movement and V.P Singh’s regime implemented the Mandal Commission report (even if it was just one recommendation).

Since the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi opposed the Mandal report implementation, the Shudras/OBCs started distancing themselves from the party. A large number of Shudras/OBCs believe that the Congress is a Dwija-Muslim party. They believe that is the identity of the party. That identity needs to change for the Congress to win national elections in which the Shudra/OBC vote matters the most.

Anand Sharma is wrong in saying that Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi did not accept identity politics. Nor is Anand Sharma free from identity politics. He believes that Sharmas have the right to define what is identity and what is not. His last name is a name that advertises his Brahmin identity. That identity brought him top political positions via nominations to the Rajya asabha even if he never won an actual election. He does not want to accept the Shudra/OBC identity because that will take away a portion of power from the Dwija forces. They think that the Shudras/OBCs should vote for them without asking for a share in power.

The Indira -Rajiv’s anti-OBC reservation policy led to the rise of the RSS/BJP in the country. That also led to the formation of many Shudra/OBC regional parties which weakened the Congress. They always recognised the Muslim minority identity in their politics but never accepted caste identities.

Anand Sharma’s notion of inclusive politics means the hegemony of Dwijas by encashing the votes of the Shudras/OBCs/SCs and STs. Of course, Muslims have been voting for the Congress and elite Muslims were given a (small) share of power. Now, the RSS/BJP combine – conscious of caste divisions among Muslims – is reaching out to the non-elite Pasmandas.

Sharma seems to live in the pre-Mandal era. In the past, the the Shudras/Dalits/Adiavsis voted for the Congress without getting a due share of power. That does not work now. The situation has changed. The OBCs understand what is Anand Sharma’s ideological aim in creating a crisis in the Congress just before the national election where the caste census is going to be an issue for vote mobilisation. He wants to weaken the Congress further.

The Congress must stand by Rahul Gandhi’s battle for social justice, as he made it clear in his two marathon yatras. While ending the Nyay Yatra on March 16 at Chaitya Bhoomi of Ambedkar in Mumbai, Rahul read out the preamble of the constitution, which focuses on the idea of justice (social justice is part of it), even as hundreds of people participated. I too was part of that pledge.

Anand Sharma was never seen either in the first Bharat Jodo Yatra or in the second Nyaya Yatra. Now his cat is out of the bag.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His latest books are The Clash of Cultures—Productive Masses Vs Hindutva Mullah Conflicting Ethics and The Shudra—Vision For a New Path.




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