Arun Jaitley's Prediction For India In One Of His Last Interviews

Arun Jaitley's Prediction For India In One Of His Last Interviews

Cover of Sonia Singh's book 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes'

Today, Indian politics lost a rare politician - erudite, cerebral, honed in politics since his college days and an invaluable presence in Parliament. Arun Jaitley, ex-finance minister and a pivotal force in Modi 1.0 died today too young, leaving a void in our political landscape. Sonia Singh spoke to him in March this year for her book "Defining India: Through Their Eyes", just months before he stepped down as Finance Minister due to his cancer. At the time, he was full of optimism, looking ahead to an India of change, beyond caste and Mandir-Masjid politics. Today, just five months later, his words live on.

There's an ironic symmetry to the fact that my next conversation in this book is with Arun Jaitley, an exact counterpoint to Pranab Mukherjee. One began his political career as an Indira protégé, the other came to political prominence when he was jailed for protesting against the Indira Emergency. Both have very different perspectives of the years that followed.

Today, in a room lined with books at his residence, sixty-six- year-old Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the third most powerful man in the BJP, is busy troubleshooting with an ally on one phone and giving legal insight regarding a government matter on another while he keeps his focus on the strategic handling of the aftermath of the air strikes in Pakistan. Despite being struck by illness and not being able to present the Modi government's last budget before the 2019 elections, he remains in the thick of the political maelstrom. Yet he is also a leader whose vision isn't limited to a five-year canvas, and instead has been shaped by his vantage point in some of Indian democracy's key moments, from the Emergency onwards to Modi's landslide election victory in 2014 and now in redefining the rules of engagement with Pakistan.

'In the life of any country, the most defining moment is the creation of the country itself. That of course was the midnight of 15 August 1947. Perhaps if you look back over the last century, nobody can give another time besides 1947 as the defining moment, but since that is not in controversy, I would place three categories of defining moments in India-the first, relating to democracy; the second, relating to the economy; and the third, to security and sovereignty-related issues.

'Today,' he says,' the defining moment regarding India's sovereignty and security are the surgical strikes of 2016 and the air strikes at Balakot of 2019. India responded well over the past three decades in internationalizing Pakistan's role as the nerve centre of terror. However, India also conventionally maintained a policy dictated by foreign policy considerations that we must maintain the sanctity of both the international border and the Line of Control [LoC]. Since 1971, we had never crossed them. The terrorists breached the sanctity of both the international border and the LoC regularly. These terrorists are proxy for the Pakistan Army. We maintained the sanctity of the two. This was an uneven fight. Extraordinary situations require an out-of-box thinking. Conventionalists cannot find such solutions. India needed a leader who had fire in the belly and who could rise to the occasion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a leader with a difference. On this, both his admirers and critics agree. The surgical strikes of 2016 and the air strikes of 2019 changed India's approach. Terror must be attacked from where it originates. Otherwise, you will only be defending yourself against terror. You may succeed or may fail. The prime minister displayed decisiveness. Our army, in 2016, displayed the highest level of professionalism through surgical strikes wherein they destroyed terrorist camps next to the LoC. But the 2019 air strikes at Balakot was a daredevil operation of the Indian Air Force [IAF]. The air power was used to destroy the nerve centre of Jaish-e-Mohammed. The incorrigibles were taken by surprise. This marks a new approach of aggression in India's war against terror. We now bat on the front foot,' he says proudly.

'The stakes were extremely high,' I point out. 'Were you confident of the outcome especially when dealing with a nuclear nation?'

'Absolutely,' he says. 'I've always had full confidence in the professionalism and the assessment of the armed forces. This time, as well, they have more than adequately won the trust of the country, with our air force team coming back in such a short period of time with not even one casualty. Regarding Pakistan's nuclear bluff, will they use it to defend terrorists? We didn't attack Pakistan, we attacked terror.

'The other point,' Arun Jaitley continues, 'is that Kashmir is the unfinished agenda of Pakistan since Partition. Pakistan never reconciled to Kashmir being a part of India. The initial years of domination on the state's politics by Sheikh Abdullah and an erroneous Nehruvian vision of Kashmir made it worse for us. The very thought that a separate or special identity for the state will lead to a better integration has been proved wrong. The journey of separate status for seven decades has been towards separation and not for integration.

'Article 35A [a constitutional provision of 1954 which gives the Jammu and Kashmir assembly power to decide who are permanent residents of the state along with rights like buying property, government jobs, etc.] is a constitutional puzzle. It was not inserted in the Constitution by an amendment made by two Houses of Parliament with the support of a two-third majority. It was an executive insertion by Presidential Notification. It entered the Constitution through the back door. It contains a fundamental breach of the Right to Equality in as much as it promotes discrimination between two categories of citizens based on an irrational criterion. It is constitutionally vulnerable.'

This from the man who was one of India's top lawyers and is still the government's go-to person for all constitutional and legal issues is an important indication of what the Centre's thinking on this is. Petitions against Article 35A are currently pending in the Supreme Court.

Arun Jaitley says, 'The combination of a special status coupled with Article 35A acted against the interest of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It prevented investment into the state. No major industries, no hotel chains, no private educational institutions, etc., came into the state. There was no specialized human resource from outside available for scientific research, management for hospitals and medical institutions and technical colleges. Why would anyone come to the state where he cannot own a house, his children cannot get admitted to government colleges, they cannot get a government job? The constitutional framework of the State hurt the people, but it satisfied the separatist psyche of some.

'Meanwhile, Pakistan tried conventional wars but lost out. In the last three decades it resorted to terror and insurgency organized and encouraged from across the border to create instability in the state. Democracy, secularism, and public order suffered. The people lived a life of insecurity because of terror. Governance and elections inevitably suffered in an atmosphere of fear. The entire Kashmiri Pandit community and most of the Sikhs were ostracized from the state. This was nothing short of ethnic cleansing. This is the single greatest failure of secularism in Independent India,' he says forcefully.

Today, he feels, is a decisive moment in addressing the entire Kashmir issue.

'The nation is now debating as to how to correct the Nehruvian blunder seven decades ago. Most Indians believe that Panditji's vision and formulation of Kashmir has proved to be disastrous. Seven decades' experience and the cost incurred stare us in the face. Our approach has to be guided by the principles of sovereignty coupled with keeping the welfare and security and interest of the Kashmiri people in mind. That dictates an aggressive posture against separatists and terrorists. What we are currently seeing is the attempt to establish a rule of law in the Valley. This is a decisive moment.'

A moment, however, where the government has been attacked for the rise in local unrest and the failure to hold state elections. And a time which requires rare unanimity among India's political class, an almost impossible task during election season. Perhaps, that is why in Arun Jaitley's opinion, the high point of Indian democracy was the adoption of the Constitution-a time when different strands of political opinion came together for an ideal larger than themselves.

He explains, 'Even though the Congress was the dominant party, the political leaders of that generation, besides being politicians, were of a much higher quality so you will find various viewpoints, tones of left- or right-wing thinking, Gandhians, community and regional interest being represented, yet you find all of them adopting one stand on sovereignty and, in those days, on sovereignty-related issues, the conservatism was far more than it is today. You also had a very high level of scholarship. If you see the quality of the debates itself, the language, the idioms used, they've lasted us for decades, and they brought out what was considered the best document made for India.

They realized that India needed democracy as the only system. The only consensus was parliamentary democracy, and that was a very wise decision because in a country with multiple regions, castes, religions, tribes, communities, eating habits, dress habits, everything being different, how do you ensure a system where every varied social, political, regional and community interest finds representation in the decision-making process?

'Since then, in our Parliament and legislative bodies, you'll find all kinds of opinions which are represented. And in the making of a decision process, of legislation, of policy, any decision maker, when in government, because you have to normally rule from the Centre, has to factor in those varied interests-equality, multiplicity of religions, fundamental rights, free and fair elections. Some of the institutions which we have created are dependent on that.'

More importantly he stresses that it is this constitutional democracy that was the key in determining how two new countries, born in 1947, have taken very different paths today.

'Pakistan and India were one nation before 1947. We strengthened democracy every day, made it more vibrant. Why did Pakistan fail? Why did they have martial law four times? We created an institution, and the most important factor, a very professional army. Our Election Commission under any government was always fair and highly trusted, theirs was accused of rigging elections; our judiciary, irrespective of the governments, was always fair and commanded trust, it never followed the ballot box or the government. It kept you guessing which way they are going till the last minute. There, you had multiple occasions where martial law was upheld, the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and many other judgments that followed during the Musharraf era. So, I think, in creating these institutions, this was a well-thought-of idea of democracy laid out in our Constitution.'

Since then, Arun Jaitley tells me, democracy in India has faced an existential challenge only once-when he witnessed it first- hand. In a sense, the young student leader's political coming-of-age happened during the Emergency. As the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) head, a right-wing all-India student organization affiliated with the RSS, and a Delhi University student, he was busy organizing student agitations and demonstrations of Opposition leaders from Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in Delhi to JP (freedom fighter and political idealist, Jayaprakash Narayan was the man who became the face of the anti-Indira movement) in Patna when the Emergency was announced.

'The only real threat to democracy in India came in 1975. The ultimate experience of the 1975 Emergency and the consequence was such that nobody will ever dare repeat it. You used a democratic instrument-the Constitution and the Emergency provisions under it-to subvert the Constitution from within; you suspended fundamental rights; and scared the courts into delivering a judgment. This was the only time in recent history where the courts have been, or at least the Supreme Court became subjugated to the government. You detained people and there is no remedy in the law even if it is an illegal detention; you censored the press, you virtually had a Parliament without an opposition,' Arun Jaitley recounts animatedly.

'After the 1971 elections and the Bangladesh victory, Indira Gandhi was an all-powerful prime minister like Prime Minister Modi post 2014 and now after the strikes as well. How did the Opposition and people's anger start building up?' I ask.

'After Indira Gandhi won the 1971 elections, she wanted the accumulation of all power,' he replies.

Indira Gandhi seemed invincible in 1971, but more so in 1972 in the state assemblies because of the Bangladesh victory. The 1971 election was pre-Bangladesh but the Bangladesh liberation strengthened her position. It is a lesson for all Indians in politics,' he says. 'From 1972 and absolute invincibility, she became highly unpopular by 1974. Do you know the rate of inflation in 1975? It was 24 per cent-that's something which is incredible to believe now. What was the meaning of the economic reforms started in 1991? To undo most of what she did.'

Indira Gandhi nationalized food grain trade, insurance, and every conceivable industry, such as coal mining, so that there was no investment in these areas. There were no jobs left except in the public sector. So, the commanding heights of the public sector meant that the government had very little resources; whatever the government put into manufacturing units of the public sector was the only economic activity, otherwise it didn't take place. There was inflation, unemployment-it just needed to be flared. How did it get flared?

'In 1974, in Ahmedabad, there was an engineering college called LD Engineering College. Because of the inflation, food and edible oil prices went up. The college had to substantially increase the hostel charges and those children came out on to the streets in protest. Then, this spread to students in the next hostel and within two or three days, the whole of Gujarat had lakhs and lakhs of people on the roads. No jobs, high prices, fees went up, hostel charges went up and then it flared up in Patna. Soon, government employees weren't getting raises because of the poor economic situation. So, bad economic policies led to bad governance and increasing socio- economic discontent and it was most evident in 1974 when the railways strike took place organized by George Fernandes.'

As the political tension increased, even student elections saw a prime minister address a campaign rally. Arun Jaitley vividly describes the atmosphere back then.

'In Delhi, I was the president of the students' union, and Mrs Gandhi had come and addressed a Delhi University youth rally at India Gate's boat club lawns. I announced that if I win in the university campus, JP will come and speak. So, when JP came and stood in Maurice Nagar and delivered a speech, on all the three sides, from St Stephen's college you could only see students on hostel tops, building tops, trees, streets-it had become a very tense political environment. So, if anybody is to take a lesson on how to lose popularity the 1972-74 period is the best-case study since Independence.'

'Many today, especially the Opposition, would draw parallels with what you are saying and the current situation with Prime Minister Modi. They call it an undeclared emergency,' I say.

His rebuttal is swift. 'Forget prime ministers, even governments don't have absolute power today. The media, NGOs, civil society, political parties, public opinion, and even the Opposition, has power. The judiciary has the power. A civil servant can say, I don't agree, and make you rethink a decision, so even within a democratic system, these are the internal checks and balances because there's a spread of power in democracy. The Indira Gandhi government's attitude was, "What is this institution? We are the elected people. The Parliament is sovereign and since we have a majority in the Parliament, we should be allowed to do anything, even superseding judges and appointing those friendly to the government." The election law was also amended retrospectively, to get her election declared valid.

'A plan was then put in place,' says Arun Jaitley. 'Once we detain all the Opposition leaders, there is no Opposition left, Parliament is completely without an Opposition, you can pass anything and can amend the Constitution and make all kinds of laws.'

When these developments were taking place, the young Arun Jaitley invited JP for the second time to Delhi University and called student leaders from across the country. This included a fascinating list-Lalu Yadav, Sushil Modi, current Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satyapal Malik and the current vice president Venkaiah Naidu. Arun Jaitley was the convener of the committee appointed and he had the opportunity to travel with JP across the country, where the crowds supporting him and his slogan 'Sampoorna Kranti' or 'Complete Revolution' were growing. It was in this charged atmosphere that came the fateful midnight knock.

'When the Emergency was proclaimed at midnight on 25 June 1975, they came to arrest me. I managed to escape by going to a friend's house nearby. They took my father instead but released him subsequently. The next morning the university was closed since it was June. So, I collected as many people as I could and burnt an effigy of Mrs Gandhi and got arrested. I courted arrest. I technically became the first "satyagrahi" against the Emergency because on 26 June, this was the only protest in the country. For three months, I was at Ambala Jail.'

However, the law student decided to make the best of his time as a political prisoner.


'I must confess it was in jail that I picked up an aptitude for reading and writing. Friends and family would send me books or I would borrow them from the jail library; its librarian was a very eminent man. He was Delhi's best-known ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, Dr N.S. Jain, who was in prison for having killed his wife. Occasionally, I wrote pamphlets that used to be translated into Hindi and sent out.'

'How did jail change you?' I ask.

'Jail is a state of mind,' he replies. 'If you have a lot of liabilities outside, like family, livelihood issues and so on, then it worries you and kills you. We were young students, we had no such problems. Both my sisters were married, my father was a lawyer and my parents lived by themselves. So, I thought either I live with my parents and complete my studies, or I live here in jail. If you have nerves of steel, you can take it. At that time, we lived as a middle-class family in an India where the living conditions had not made us very vulnerable. Those were the days without an AC, so you had to sleep under a fan, or sleep on the terrace. That's what we did in prison. If you feel like you're a part of an ideological struggle and you're fighting for democracy, then that gives you a sense of pride about what you're doing. It also gives you an opportunity to shape your own ideas. For instance, I read the entire Constituent Assembly debates in jail. I would read a lot, write occasionally, and that's a passion that's continued. On a lighter side, morning and evening we would play badminton and volleyball.'

The one thing the young man from a Punjabi household used to good food found difficult, however, were the jail rations deprivation he's done his best to make up for since then. The quality of food at regular Jaitley lunches are legendary, as is his fondness for butter chicken at Delhi's Moti Mahal.

'The jail food used to be very bad. As a detainee, you'd get a fixed ration allowance-a total of Rs 3. After an agitation, it was increased to Rs 5, which wasn't as bad as it is today. But you could afford a chapati and a vegetable at one time and a chapati and a dal in the next meal-these were the only two meals possible. Additionally, you'd use various techniques to improvise. All of us faked illness so we could get a medical diet of eggs, bread and butter which used to suffice as breakfast. Secondly, they had instituted false cases against us, so we didn't take bail on those cases, so, the trials would go on and on. When we'd go to court in a jail van, our family or friends would wait for us to hand over cooked food, and I would come back holding tiffins of food in both hands for my co-detainees. Earlier, no meetings with family was allowed but after a few months, they were allowed to visit once a month, then once a week. We shared it. Monday-your family will come, Tuesday-your family will come, and so on. Each family was instructed to bring some add-ons. Plus, I used to supervise the kitchen, and that is where I picked up an aptitude for good food. You see, you organize parathas for breakfast. For the non-vegetarians we'd slip some money to the jail guard who would bring us some lamb or chicken, and we'd cook it there. So, we made the best of the Rs 5 and improved upon it.' Arun Jaitley smiles.

'A silver lining there to nineteen months in a prison cell,' I say. 'But what, according to you, are the larger lessons you and India learnt from the Emergency?'

He replies after a pause. 'If you ask me, the most worrisome parts of the Emergency were three: you could use a constitutional provision to subvert the Constitution; when the prime minister turns dictatorial, the whole government machinery accedes, not a single police officer in the country said, "I won't file a fake FIR." I had seven FIRs against me for giving a speech at 4 a.m., that I wanted to overthrow the government, those kind of FIRs, but they were all fake. Not a single district magistrate got up and said, "I won't sign a false detention order"-this is worrisome; and finally, except political workers, the judiciary, media, civil service, and civil society, all other institutions collapsed.'

Listening to Arun Jaitley relive his Emergency days forty-four years later is fascinating, especially as he is such a strong critic of Indira Gandhi, yet it is to her that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is most often compared in the sense that both are seen as strong, autocratic leaders, in complete command of their parties and governments. 'If Indira Gandhi was the Congress, Narendra Modi is the BJP,' I state.

'No, I think it's a larger issue,' he says. 'There's a changed world order taking place. That global change is-you experimented in all liberal democracies with moderate leaders, power-sharing, and consensus-based politics. Post the Second World War, this was the pattern of liberal democracies. Over the last decade and a little more, it's changing. In the initial phases, there was only one exception: Margaret Thatcher. But otherwise till the 1990s, the post-War experience of liberal democracies was moderate leaders and consensus-based politics and that led to weakening the decision- making process. Today, look at the strong leaders around the world-Angela Merkel-look at the US and Turkey. Look at how Theresa May's politics depends on whether she sticks to her guns and delivers. If she delivers, the entire world perception will be that she's going the Thatcher way. Even where she can't carry her whole party with her, she is not going in for consensus. Look at Japan. The global model in democracies today suggests there is an evolutionary change happening all over the world.'

Linking this trend to India, Arun Jaitley continues, 'What led to our failing in the UPA-2? Parallel power centres, a prime minister in power, in office but not in power, policy paralysis- the reaction to that had to be a strong and decisive leader. But a strong and decisive leader doesn't mean you're an autocracy. Your democratic systems and institutions will work, but this is an evolution that must play out. Democracies themselves are now trying this alternative model,' he says, placing the Modi style of leadership as part of a larger global change.

Moving to the economy, the current finance minister chooses what he sees as the defining change, 1991 and the economic reforms under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, outlined by then finance minister Manmohan Singh.

'If you look at the growth rate from 1947 to 1991-what was called a Hindu rate of growth-there was no entrepreneurship, no opportunities. I grew up in that period and I know India was a land of shortages. If you went to a telephone exchange, the waiting list used to be twenty-two years for a phone. Members of Parliament used to be given one scooter to be allotted out of turn, some phones to be allotted out of turn and two HMT watches to be allotted out of turn because everything was scarce. I think 1991 changed that and now it's changing for the better every day. I'll leave it at that.'

I find it interesting that Arun Jaitley doesn't choose demonetization as a defining moment of India's economic history.

'It was a part of several steps we took to reduce black money, increase tax base, and digitalization,' he says but doesn't go further.

'However,' he continues, 'instrumental in changing the entire character of Indian politics has been the Mandal Commission.† Mandal is a positive step from a social-justice point of view but it also became a very powerful political instrument. The BJP had already seen this trend being created so even at the cost of losing urban support, the BJP supported the Mandal recommendations. The BJP always, as a rule, gave preference to OBCs [Other Backward Classes] as chief ministers.'

'As a young, urban-educated lawyer, did you support it?' I ask.

'At that time, I was also a politician and we realized that while there may be reservations about some communities still being included in the OBC list but in the case of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for sure, and the OBCs, to a large extent, reservations are still required. In OBCs, you require a change where you must ensure that the "creamy layer" principle effectively allows this to penetrate to the weakest in the OBCs, so broadly if you ask me, the answer is, yes, I did support Mandal.'

This created a divide in the party's urban base however, with young Delhi University students from other castes even setting themselves on fire to protest against Mandal.

'Delhi's urban mood was anti-Mandal,' Arun Jaitley points out, 'and, therefore, we were all at the receiving end when we supported it. However, captured by the Lutyens mood, Rajiv Gandhi made a fatal mistake. On 6 September 1990, he delivered his longest, and Congressmen call it his best-ever, speech, lasting three hours in Parliament. He tore Mandal into pieces and the Congress for the next few generations lost the OBCs' support. One speech cost the Congress the OBCs. The Congress as a party from 300 to 400 seats, it was the umbrella organization, the rainbow coalition within the Congress-woh post-Mandal India mein 100 to 150 seat ki party ban gayi. Rajiv Gandhi's one fatal mistake cost the Congress the whole election. The BJP, meanwhile, supported Mandal. Vajpayeeji and Advaniji had stones thrown at them when they went to Safdarjung hospital to meet anti-Mandal protestors who had immolated themselves. We took a decision that day though, I remember, I was in the meeting and we still went ahead and appointed Kalyan Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Narendra Modi, all OBCs, as chief ministers of key heartland states. Indian politics, as we knew it, changed and the change was in two ways.

'One, the impact of Mandal on social justice was positive but its impact on politics was not so. In fact, at times, it was adverse. Post- Mandal, political parties in India became caste-based. A family with a leader and an inheritance and ownership of the party within the family became the rule. This had a demonstrative effect even on the non-Mandal parties. If you look at People's Democratic Party [PDP], National Conference [NC], Akali Dal, Samajwadi Party [SP], Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK], maybe on a future date, even Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP], Rashtriya Janata Dal [RJD], maybe Trinamool, Biju Janata Dal [BJD], this new Telangana Rashtra Samithi [TRS]. All post-Mandal parties followed the Congress principle of dynasty, some because of Mandal and others because of the demonstration effect. Power family mein rakhna hain [To keep political power in the family] and the leader is the symbol of the caste. Politics, yeh hai ki bhai, jeetne ke liye, apni caste toh aa gayi, ek aur jodlo [To win, you must have the support of your own caste and then add more castes in support] so you can get a bouquet. You need multiple flowers in a bouquet, this kind of alliance started taking place from place to place. Now, when these combinations come to power, the quality of governance is very poor.

'However, Mandal had a positive impact on empowerment, both political, economic, jobs wise, and educationally. For instance, I asked in the SRCC governing body what was the cut-off, they said 97.75 per cent, so I asked what was the OBC cut-off, they said 96 per cent. So the gap is so narrow now so there is an empowerment in the OBCs, it's a positive step. In the nature of political parties and the quality of governance, however, it is not a positive step.'

Politically, the BJP also learnt another important lesson: the importance of a core ideology.

'We learnt a lesson in the 1980s. Even when we lost, we stuck to our ideological position and rebuilt, 2 to 89 to 126 to 163 to 183.

Our isolation was completed and then today we occupy a pivotal position in politics. And in the 1990s we became a bipolar system. The Congress never stuck to its ideological position. I delivered a Vajpayee memorial lecture [Arun Jaitley first became minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet] on what was the ex-prime minister's key contribution. If I had to select one, I said, he took an ideological position even when there were only four MPs, he took an ideological position even when there were only two MPs and from a non-starter, he went on in the 1990s, he created a party and finally, by the time he retired, in his last ten years, he made it a centre-stage party. So, he made Indian politics bipolar. If India had not become bipolar, the communists would have withered away-they are globally irrelevant. You'd have small regional parties and you'd have a monolith of the Congress. Since the Congress was dynastic, and the regional parties could never have gotten together to challenge the experiment. But for this contribution of Mr Vajpayee, India wouldn't have become a bipolar political system and virtually been under a dynastic party. Unipolar and probably more akin to a kingdom,' he states.

'Have we also now seen a shift politically from what was once called minority politics to majority politics in India?' I point out. 'Are we now socially a different country post 2014?'

'There are two trends,' Arun Jaitley responds. 'Muslims, in particular, were being told they are the vote balancer. If you overuse that card, then you must remember that everybody has a vote. Muslims aren't the only ones with a vote. A reaction against such politics was seen in 2014,' he says tersely, a reference to the fact that in a shift from traditional caste-based and minority votes, there was a consolidation of what analysts call a 'Hindu' vote to the BJP leading to their record 282 seats.

'Having said this, I am making a prediction. I am seeing in my day-to-day life, in urban India, in the metropolitan cities, caste and religion differences have substantially come down. Every invitation I am getting for a wedding this season, the girls are working, they
choose their spouses themselves, parents are agreeing. I can see caste completely collapsing in metropolitan India. It is now going to move to tier-two, tier-three cities. In metropolitan cities, caste is collapsing, regional differences are narrowing and even inter-religion marriages are becoming visible. I can see an exponential growth in India's middle class. Women are getting into formal employment and many more will take their own personal decisions. Within my family, social circle and even amongst the political class, this trend is increasing. It will still take some time for rural India to accept this. Even amongst the Muslims, I can now see a middle and aspirational class grow. The bread-and-butter issues will be primary.'

Would the hardliners in his party agree, though? 'Will that mean an end to mandir-masjid politics?' I ask.

He replies, 'For extremely sentimental issues you have to be pragmatic. Ram Mandir is a hugely aspirational issue of the majority community. For example, if you see, agitations have disappeared, and to get a crowd of 5000 people is becoming impossible to organize. Protests are of a very small size; now you take your grievances out on Twitter. I see a situation emerging in twenty-five years, when the middle class will be the dominant class. Therefore, the character of politics will completely change and for parties to survive only on caste or religion will be difficult. Performance and governance will matter.'

An India where politics has moved beyond caste and religion-a hope for the future shared by one of India's most powerful and erudite politicians.

The commission was headed by Bihar MP B.P. Mandal to consider the issue of reservations. Its report accepted by the V.P. Singh government in 1990 said that 52 per cent of India's population belonged to socially or educationally backward classes and recommended reservations of 27 per cent government jobs for the OBCs. This led to widespread demonstrations across India. Opponents said Mandal signaled the death of merit.

Excerpted with permission of Penguin India from 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh. Order your copy here.

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