Breaking free of the post-Mandal deadlock


back to issue

THE life and politics of caste in India during the past two decades, inevitably took shape in conversation with Mandal. Project Mandal was not only about the policy of the state for extending benefits of reservations to the OBCs (Other Backward Classes), it was equally about an institutional and political logic that unfolded around caste in the 1990s. This twin logic of Mandal not only reinforced the presence of caste as a legitimate political and social category but, more importantly, put in place an overarching caste framework of politics that challenged the other dominant ideological frameworks of the time. At both these levels the Mandal framework marked a new phase of politicization of caste, with important implications for its life and politics.

The post-Mandal moment of caste essentially internalizes and thrives on the logic of Mandal. At the same time it complicates and defies that logic at various levels. Over the past century and a half, caste has occupied public space in the context of its interface with democratic politics, which has shaped the public presence of caste as much as caste as a factor has shaped democratic politics. This essay represents an anxiety about the ability of the prevailing democratic imagination in coping with the messy moment of caste and the politics it has unleashed.

Mandal contained an idealized vision of caste-based politics that rested on three distinct ideological expectations. First, it encouraged the formation of caste blocs in order to ensure effective political representation of the marginalized social sections. Second, its politics was linked to a vision of an imagined ideological unity of the Dalits and OBCs that would contribute to a deepening of Indian democracy. Finally, the Mandal framework had ambitious suggestions about caste-based politics as a liberating vision of politics that would contribute in the long run to the anti-caste discourse. We argue that twenty years down the line, the caste politics that took shape in the post-Mandal phase has largely failed these ideological expectations.


In the formal realm of electoral politics the processes of Mandalisation brought in two substantive changes. The first was recorded in the much celebrated argument about the ‘second democratic upsurge’ that led to increased levels of participation among the disadvantaged social sections.1 The other was about the changing social profile of elected representatives2 and altering the social bases of power. These changes, though important, could not make for a decisive moment in caste politics. The electoral successes of backward caste politics remained only symbolic and episodic. Rather, caste politics in the post-Mandal phase has become routinized and acquired the form of identity politics.

The arrival of the post-Mandal phase of caste can be seen as a convergence of three interrelated developments in the post-independence period. The first was an unfolding of a much contextualized democratic logic after 1947. It has been amply noted how the democratic logic transformed caste and how caste in turn ‘vernacularized’ the democratic idiom in a variety of ways.3 Much has been written about the politicization of caste and its implications for the early phase of democracy. However, the consequences of the second phase of politicization of caste since the nineties have still to be adequately analyzed.

The second factor that helped shape the caste-politics interaction at both these junctures was the distinctive institutional logic around caste put forward by the post-independence state. State discourses on caste recognized it as a legitimate criterion for identifying backwardness. At the same time the state successfully managed to manipulate caste rights by confining them to reservations. The reservation policy basically symbolized only a thin dispersal of resources controlled by the state. At the same time, it encouraged contestations among castes over their share in the meagre resources made available to them.


These contestations escalated in the context of a third development that induced changes in the material realm of caste. At one level the simple processes of modernization like urbanization, spread of education and spatial reconfiguration of communities, and so on, led to a secularization of caste. On the other hand the skewed model of capitalist development had multiple implications for caste. The few studies available indicate a complicated economic existence of present day caste communities.4

At the macro level one can still see a reinforcement of caste and class relations. This is especially true at the top and bottom of the caste hierarchy as the upper castes continue to monopolize higher level jobs and the Dalits get largely confined to the lower levels. However, there is substantial fluidity in the middle ranks of the caste hierarchy. Thus, a straightforward relationship between caste and class does not hold as regards the economic situation of the middle castes, including the OBCs.

Besides, capitalist development and the changing nature of caste occupation linkages have contributed to internal economic stratification within each caste and to the creation of a middle class. The new economy of the post-liberalization period intensified these economic divisions within castes and aggravated the material crisis faced by the small and marginal castes, forcing them to fall back on their caste identity for material and symbolic survival. Interestingly, along with the poor groups, the emerging middle classes from each caste too seem to invoke their caste identity in a more emphatic manner, mainly as a weapon for consolidating political power.


In the context of the three developments stated above the contemporary existence of caste acquires an extremely complicated character, most evident in the realm of democratic politics of the recent period. The interaction between caste and democratic politics needs to be understood in the context of regionalization of politics in a competitive multiparty system. The politics of caste has always played an important role in regional politics. Earlier, the dominant castes of a region managed to preside over the regional polities by combining caste with other factors like language. Mandal politics, however, disturbed these equations as it generated new political aspirations among the backward castes.

Even as Mandal encouraged the formation of caste majorities, the changing nature of political competition in the states encouraged castes to go it alone and enter the game of political bargaining. This resulted in a major setback for backward caste parties that were established in the wake of Mandal. In most cases, the social base of the backward caste parties consisted of one or two influential OBC castes of the region and not alliances across castes. The combination of a dispersed nature of political competition, localized nature of caste and the material and social inequalities within OBC castes created difficulties in building caste alliances.

Instead, each caste started asserting itself in the political field by floating its own party with the help of its caste associations. The entry of these new players in regional politics led to a further dispersal of political competition and thus a failure of the Mandal agenda. Electoral politics in Indian states unleashed multiple texts of power during the post-Mandal phase as dominant castes struggled to retain their hold over politics and the smaller castes tried to pose a challenge to their dominance.


The politics of reservations provided another interesting dimension to the narratives of struggle for power on behalf of castes. In extending the benefits of reservations for the OBCs, the Indian state manipulated the group rights of backward communities at three different levels. While implementing quotas in the state controlled sectors, the other more radical recommendations of the Mandal Commission were neglected by the state. Also, reservations for OBCs came at a time when the state had chosen to shrink the size of the public sector and its welfare responsibilities. Second, in granting reservations to OBCs, the state restricted the issue of caste and social justice to reservations – positing reservations as the only instrument of social justice. Third, state practices culminated in a very porous category of the OBCs that the state could conveniently use in deciding the nature and extent of caste rights on its own term. The token nature of politics of reservations and its simplistic reading of caste rights gradually emptied it of any social justice content.


As the struggle for control over economic and political resources became intense, numerous castes, including the privileged castes, took recourse to reservation benefits and demands for quotas within quotas began to be articulated. At this stage, the reservation discourse was cleverly appropriated not only by the state but also by the dominant castes as they constructed desperate narratives of deprivation to justify their inclusion among the backward castes.

The material crisis faced by castes, especially by the majority sections among the marginal castes, created an excessive dependence of these groups on the state and its welfare policies. As internal economic stratification within each caste intensified and as castes split between rich and poor strata, sections from even dominant castes resorted to the politics of reservations. At the same time, the demand for inclusion in the backward quota became a handy strategy for the caste elites to unite an otherwise splintering community.

In this entire process, the focus of the politics of reservations gradually shifted from substantive claims of justice to mock contestations and finally to a near complete consensus over extending fixed quotas to all social groups in key sectors. This at one level created an illusion of caste equality. It also led to an apparent reversal of the logic of caste-based hierarchy, as even dominant castes began a sudden backward journey and proclaimed themselves as belonging to the backward castes in order to enjoy the benefits of reservations. It also provided symbolic pleasures of empowerment of the backward caste groups.

At the same time the politics of reservations contained a vivid subtext of power as the entrenched castes could manipulate it to their benefit. Most importantly, the reservation-centred politics of caste compelled caste groups to inevitably fall back upon caste discourse for their politics, despite realizing that it was inadequate to fulfil their political aspirations and material expectations.


The post-Mandal moment of caste has seen desperate attempts on the part of each caste to construct a multilevel, flexible caste identity that would be able to address all the contextual contradictions in the present-day life of the community and keep it united for purposes of politics. The most telling example of these attempts is the arrival of new caste associations. It is well-known that unlike the traditional caste panchayats, caste associations are essentially political in nature, reflective of the journey of caste from the world of ritual purity and hierarchy to the world of material interests and democratic aspirations. Caste associations, established initially when the democratic project gradually unveiled during the colonial and the post-colonial period had become almost defunct in the decades of the seventies and eighties. They were revived and acquired a new form as politics started speaking the language of caste in the post-Mandal phase.

The earlier caste associations facilitated a horizontal mobilization of caste groups and helped the construction of caste majorities. The new caste associations are more about assertions of a single caste identity. Most of the organizations are small, localized, leader-centric outfits that mainly engage in the task of political bargaining. At the same time they engage in the task of construction of a complex caste identity that oscillates between the texts of pride and anxiety, social cultural dominance and political material deprivations, the need to assert against and ally with other communities.

The construction of a caste community becomes extremely fluid as the reality of caste and the ideological world in which it needs to operate becomes complex. Caste associations of the small, artisan castes often double up as trade unions and business organizations. In the cultural sphere there are attempts to link caste pride with religious pride and invoke religious symbols in the wake of Hindutva politics.


As a response to Mandal most caste associations began to put forward the claims of backward status and demand benefits of reservation policies. These frantic attempts to hold on to caste as a mobilizational tool point to the essentially fractured nature of contemporary caste reality. They also symbolize a new moment in the caste-politics interaction where caste loses its mobilisational potential and struggles for political presence. Finally, they underline the dual reality of an inadequacy and inevitability of caste in contemporary Indian politics.

It is this dual reality of caste that marks the paradoxical nature of the post-Mandal moment. This does not suggest that caste is dead. Rather that caste inequalities are very much alive in the social and economic operations of contemporary Indian society and that caste identity still constitutes an important aspect of the public and private sphere of our modern capitalist universe. It also suggests its continued ‘relevance’ as a factor in democratic politics and concerns about sharing and distribution of power and resources.

At the same time, the moment suggests that the nature of caste is changing. There is a definite indication that the twin logic of modernization and democracy has not only changed the outward appearance of caste communities but has also undermined the constitutive principles of the traditional caste system in a significant manner. Caste today is less about ritual hierarchy and status and more about identity and power in the secular political realm, underlining the fact that although caste matters in social relations, it is definitely not the only factor that controls it. As such, organizing politics chiefly around caste becomes problematic. It not only leads to a shortfall of democratic mobilization but also produces public policies that are unable to address/understand issues of injustice and inequality in their holistic expressions. In this sense, caste becomes an inadequate tool for social identity and political mobilization.


And yet, there are several factors in the present democratic context that compel political actors to inevitably fall back on caste discourse for purposes of mobilization. The most important factor is of course the framework of Mandal laced with institutional logic that legitimizes caste in politics. The other is related to the changing nature of political competition and arrival of a competitive political arena. But most interestingly, it is the internal fragmentation of castes and fissures in the caste universe that forces them to invoke their community identity in order to cope with their material and political frustrations. A combination of these varied factors makes caste the only dominant idiom of contemporary politics and also produces the image of democratic politics as ‘casteist’.

The more serious part of the paradox surrounding caste lies in the fact that the political idiom of caste has today become completely vacuous. Despite its visible presence in the public sphere, caste does not seem to guarantee any effective political representation to the marginalized caste groups. The caste framework arrived with a promise of attainment of social justice. Then it became a site for contestations over representation and share in political power. At present, it merely consists of desperate struggles for political presence. The politics of presence, on the one hand, ensures only symbolic success for caste politics. On the other, it creates a strong possibility where the caste framework is appropriated by the dominant castes.

At a more nuanced level, the present juncture of caste politics creates a possible space that facilitates the entry of certain non-democratic claims within the democratic realm. As caste politics becomes devoid of its ideological content and as mainstream politics increasingly becomes competitive and tentative, appeals in the name of caste create small openings for political elites to gain legitimacy in democratic politics by invoking their traditional, essentially unaccountable, authority.


It is worth asking whether we, as a democratic collectivity, have a robust political imagination to respond to the current crisis of caste. At least the more obvious answer to this question is in the negative. As a democratic collectivity we have usually tried to address the question of caste (and many other complex questions too) by strait-jacketing it in this or that manner rather than complicating it. The collective imagination stops at finding some crude but direct answers rather than searching for possible alternative routes.

Supporters of modernization, along with the members of the upper caste who can afford to defy/ignore caste logic as a result of their comfortable journey in the modern sphere, plainly wish away caste. These groups show a great deal of impatience regarding the persistence of caste in our public sphere and its usefulness as a relevant category for understanding contemporary Indian society. Protagonists of caste politics on the other hand see caste as omnipresent in Indian society. For them the modern social order is only a restructuring of the caste hierarchy and democratic politics is essentially woven around caste identities. State discourses on caste also tend to be equally straightforward and conveniently simplistic.

The political project of caste seems to be at a crossroads in its post-Mandal phase. Clearly, practices of caste politics have ensured some democratic gains. They have also resulted in some loosening of caste and contributed to a consensus over caste-relevant sharing of power. These gains are, however, counterbalanced by strait-jacketing of the policy discourse on caste, a failure of the ideological expectations of Mandal and caste politics culminating into a routinized form of identity politics. The contemporary moment of caste makes it imperative to cross this junction of multiple challenges, both intellectually and politically. In order to respond to this impasse, more than reflexively thinking about caste and its interface with politics, we need to assess our contemporary democratic imagination and evolve a political practice that will allow us to overcome the deadlock.



1. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Participation in the 1990s’, in Francine Frankel et al (ed.), Transforming India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000; Javeed Alam, Who Wants Democracy? Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2004.

2. Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003; Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar (ed.), Rise of the Plebians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies, Routledge, New Delhi, 2009.

3. Lucia Michelutti, The Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India, Routledge, New Delhi, 2008.

4. D.L Sheth, ‘Secularization of Caste and Making of New Middle Class’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(34-35), 21-28 August 1999, 2502-2510.

5. Rajeshwari Deshpande and Suhas Palshikar, ‘Patterns of Occupational Mobility: How Much Does Caste Matter?’ Economic and Political Weekly 43(34), 23-29 August 2008, 61-70.