On August 7, 1990, Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced that the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) would get 27 per cent reservation in jobs in Central government services and public sector units. The announcement was based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, under the aegis of former Bihar Chief Minister B.P. Mandal, which the Morarji Desai government had constituted in 1979 to address the vexed issue of caste discrimination. The V.P. Singh government’s decision took the total number of reservations for the OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to 49 per cent, thereby stirring a hornet’s nest.
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As thousands of students took to the streets, anti-Mandal protests became a defining feature of contemporary politics. It took a gory turn in September 1990 when a Deshbandhu College student, Rajeev Goswami, self-immolated. Though Goswami survived, he became the face of the agitation, and more immolation bids followed soon. The historian Ramachandra Guha puts that number at 200; more than 60 succumbed to their burns.
The Mandal moment fragmented north Indian voters decisively on caste lines and was the beginning of powerful caste-based regional parties. Two of the immediate protégés of the movement were politicians who had groomed themselves as socialist champions: Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, adherents of the socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia.
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The brand of identity politics unleashed by the Mandal moment would create leaders such as Mayawati, who became India’s first female Scheduled Caste Chief Minister in 1995 when she won U.P., and would give a major fillip to the Dalit political voice. To counter this, the BJP unleashed the kamandal edition of politics.