The result of the 2014 Lok Sabha election is unprecedented. There has been a massive sweep for the NDA under the leadership of Narendra Modi. The “plebiscitary” character of the national campaign has marginalised many of the diverse social and regional agendas, which characterise the composite culture of India. Bihar’s “resurrection” story that unfolded over the last decade was ignored in the national discourse. A decisive vote for Modi will not only strengthen the Centre to the detriment of provincial interests, it will allow the corporate sector to drive the economy from the front.
While the UPA, thanks to Lalu Prasad, has been able to maintain its tally in Bihar, the JD(U) has been routed. Taking moral responsibility for his party’s defeat, Nitish Kumar has submitted his resignation as chief minister. Against the backdrop of ethno-religious mobilisation on an unmatched scale since the announcement of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Nitish justified his decision to sever ties with the BJP at a press conference immediately after resigning,. The cataclysmic election result, he said, is essentially because of majoritarian polarisation. Nitish made it clear that the split from the NDA was not tactical but “ideological”. His prediction of how things would unfold has come true. Nitish’s resignation has also taken the wind out of the sails of his detractors and will bring back a moral agenda into politics and governance — almost non-existent till now.
When Nitish assumed office in 2005, he wove a “coalition of extremes” to ensure multi-caste/ class support for his governance. With the break-up of the NDA in Bihar, this coalition collapsed. Thereafter, Nitish worked out a counter coalition — an agglomeration of non-powerful social groups. But this did not work. On the other hand, the NDA devised an alternative coalition of extremes by bringing Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha into its fold. But an alliance between Nitish and Lalu could result in a new coalition of upper backward articulate castes and other non-powerful social categories, which would be electorally formidable.
Earlier, in order to maintain the coalition of extremes, Nitish had avoided taking up class issues, particularly land reform. However, this assiduously built coalition was strained when, during his first term, he introduced positive discrimination for lower backwards and women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). With the social justice movement reaching a decisive stage during the previous regime itself, this new reservation further weakened the hegemony of the traditional elite. Positive discrimination in PRIs was Nitish’s first substantive policy decision that altered his government’s class-caste neutrality. It was the fear of Lalu’s resurgence that muted the traditional elites’ resentment of this change. But when its consequences became clear during his second term, the traditional elite started distancing itself from Nitish. The emergence of women’s constituencies in PRIs was a further “encroachment” into lower power centres. The separation between the JD(U) and the BJP only formalised what was already a grassroots political reality. Nitish had tried to break lower centres of power from above, without a grassroots movement.
Earlier, the upper sections of society had dominated all three wings of state — legislature, executive and judiciary. In the legislature, this hegemony had been broken since the Nineties. Thereafter, in order to further the social justice agenda, the new legislatures had to restructure the civil and judicial services, making space for the subaltern. While the Mungeri Lal and Mandal commissions were meant to address this problem, their short-run impact has been limited. Thus, in Bihar, the goal of making space for the subaltern was sought to be achieved by strategically placing functionaries belonging to weaker social groups. Later, this strategy was abandoned by Nitish in the name of strengthening the state structure. This sent out a wrong message — that the social justice agenda was not receiving attention.
The social composition of the upper sections of the civil and judicial services matters most. People are always eager to know who the chief secretary or director general of police is. Their importance might be misplaced, but who occupies these posts defines the image of the service and the political inclination. In this respect, Bihar had a dismal record. After assuming office in 2005, Nitish made serious efforts to re-establish the authority of the state, almost non-existent then. For example, the rate of convictions has been very high in Bihar in recent years. Between January 2006 and June 2013, no less than 83,000 criminals have been convicted — the highest in the country.
But there was a discrepancy between the social profile of the offenders in general and those who were convicted. The former comprised people from nearly all sections of society. In contrast, the latter were mostly from the middle and lower sections. This is because of the social character of the judiciary and bureaucracy, dominated by the upper echelons of society. Consider, for example, the ease with which perpetrators of rural massacres — mostly belonging to the traditional elite — manage to get exonerated. Such cherry picking in law enforcement negates Nitish’s social justice agenda. The BJP’s success in the elections in Bihar could be attributed, at least in part, to this.
Nitish’s resignation will have catalytic consequences in the state. It seems that all political forces pursuing the agenda of social justice, that were earlier fragmented, will once again unite. Lalu is also open to supporting the JD(U). This will completely change Bihar’s political and social configuration. The new discourse that will unfold here will resonate in the Hindi heartland. A coalition of the political forces pursuing the social justice agenda could mean that class-specific issues could be taken up without fear of backlash. A new script of electoral politics could be written.