On October 30 and November 2, 1990, over 50 Hindutva supporters died in police firing in Ayodhya after they defied prohibitory orders and tried to storm the Babri Masjid.

At that time, nobody could have imagined that the man who ordered the police action would go on to be honoured with India’s second-highest civilian award by the torch-bearers of the Ram temple movement.

Thirty-two years later, the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Narendra Modi on Thursday conferred the Padma Vibhushan on the late Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had ordered the firing when he was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The Hindutva supporters – or kar sevaks (volunteers for a cause), as they called themselves – claimed that the mosque had been built on the birthplace of the deity Ram. On December 6, 1992, the mosque was demolished by a mob of kar sevaks. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that a temple could be built on the site.

The decision to give Yadav a posthumous Padma Vibhushan is clearly aimed at wooing members of the Other Backward Classes ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Yadav was a revered Other Backward Classes leader in a state that is of vital importance to the BJP.

The saffron party’s outreach to the Other Backward Classes has been accelerated by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordering a caste-based census in Bihar. Kumar’s allies have called for a nationwide survey to protect the interests of Other Backward Classes.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Patna on January 24. Credit: PTI.

Many members of the Other Backward Classes say that their numbers have been undercounted and that a caste survey will allow them to claim increased representation in quotas for education and government jobs

The BJP has been shying away from this. Increasing the number of seats for Other Backward Classes will put them in conflict with members of other communities that are eligible for reservations.

Yadav’s Padma Vibhushan must be seen against this backdrop.

Yadav is not the only politician to have been honoured with a Padma Vibhushan this year. Former Karnataka Chief Minister SM Krishna was also given the award. He hails from the Vokkaliga community that plays a crucial part in the state’s electoral calculations.

By honouring Krishna, who had spent five decades as Congress leader and served as a Union Minister before joining the BJP in 2017, the Hindutva party aims to salvage its political fortunes in Karnataka, which goes to the polls later this year.

The party is keen on corralling Vokkaliga support to compensate for the possible loss of its Lingayat base, which is anchored to the clout wielded by sulking former chief minister and the group’s most prominent leader BS Yediyurappa.

Also in the national awards list is the late NC Debbarma, a leader of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the BJP’s alliance partner in the North Eastern state where elections will be held next month. Observers say that Debbarma’s party is slipping away from the BJP and the Padma Shri must be seen in this light.

While the message behind these selections is not lost on anyone, the honour for Yadav reflects the power-at-any-cost motivation that drives the Modi school of politics.

After all, Yadav, along with fellow Lohiaiite – as followers of socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia are known – and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, was the leading light of Mandal politics that emerged in the 1990s.

Prime Minister VP Singh in August 1990 announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations to reserve seats in government jobs and higher education for backward castes and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The late Ram Vilas Paswan, who was the leader of the Lok Janshakti Party, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav in April 2009. Credit: Reuters.

Mandal politics, predicated on the support of the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, emerged in the Hindi heartland as a counter to the BJP’s “Kamandal” brand of politics as manifest in the Ram temple movement. Kamandal refers to the religious water pot used by Hindu ascetics.

The Mandal movement signalled that the Other Backward Classes were a strong political force and could call the shots as they took their place among the ruling elites of India. Mandal politics also acted as a bulwark against the Ram temple movement that was fast aggregating Hindu votes in the BJP’s favour.

This reached a flashpoint late in 1990 after Yadav ordered the police firing on kar sevaks in Ayodhya.

While Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the prime minister at the time, claimed that 56 people had died, Yadav put the figure at 28. But he declared that he would not have minded even more being killed to protect India’s unity and integrity. The BJP characterised the incidents as a “massacre” of devout Hindus agitating for a just cause.

This marked the start of a bitter political battle between the BJP and Yadav that lasted up until a few years before the Samajwadi Party leader’s death in 2022. The BJP had derisively referred to him as “Mulla Mulayam”, accusing him of pandering to Muslims.

Credit: Akhilesh Yadav @yadavakhilesh/Twitter

Twenty-five years later, Yadav expressed regret at the firing incidents. Towards the end of his political career, he also praised Modi in Parliament. “I respect and honour PM Modi, who has taken everyone along and I hope he will return to power in 2019,” Yadav said, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Modi, too, had some good words to spare, calling Yadav a “key soldier for democracy during Emergency” as he paid tribute to him.

The political compulsions behind this mutual admiration are clear. But they do not negate the questions raised by the Padma Vibhushan for Yadav. Should a small demonstration of admiration by Yadav for Modi erase the BJP’s memory of the 50 people who had died in the police action he ordered? For the BJP’s rank and file, wouldn’t the award besmirch the memory of their fallen comrades?

Does it also not put Modi’s honour above that of the Ram bhakts who “sacrificed” their lives for the much-cherished Ram temple at the call of BJP leaders? The Padma Vibhushan only exposes the BJP’s confusion, its self-contradiction and insincerity about its Hindutva narrative.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.