As Nitish Kumar switches partners once again to remain Chief Minister of Bihar, much of the chatter has focussed on his apparent ideological flexibility. But behind his remarkable success as a survivor is a brain that has carried out experiments in social repackaging and political messaging that is possibly unmatched in the history of Indian politics.
There are three social groups that Nitish has focussed his political energies on — and they have over time come to constitute a social base that makes him indispensable to both the BJP and RJD in their attempts to form a government in Bihar. And Nitish has used this king-making leverage to remain king himself.
Mahadalits: Non-Paswans SCs whom he gave a political home
Post 1990, the Scheduled Castes (SC) of Bihar were attracted towards Lalu Prasad, but were quickly disillusioned by the Yadav dominance of his government. Nitish, who had broken away to form the Samata Party along with George Fernandes in 1994, realised the need to widen his base among the SCs. With Ram Vilas Paswan firmly in control of the Paswan vote — about 5 per cent of the state’s population — Nitish sought to target the remaining 12-13 per cent, which comprised Dalit communities such as the Ravidas and Musahars, who did not have a clear political patron.
In 2007, two years after he had become Chief Minister for the second time, Nitish coined the expression Mahadalit to describe the poorest groups among the Dalits. The State Mahadalit Commission recognised 21 of Bihar’s SC communities as Mahadalit, leaving out only Paswans. Ram Vilas protested vehemently, saying Mahadalit was an insult to Dalits, besides being unconstitutional. But Nitish stuck to his guns, and over the years bestowed a range of benefits to Mahadalits, including plots of land and jobs, tangibles such as radio sets and spectacles for the elderly, and approach roads and community halls for Mahadalit villages.
Mahadalit was Nitish’s remarkable political innovation, not so much social engineering as social repackaging by a new political-social entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to build a support base. For the last 15 years, Mahadalits have stood firmly behind him.
EBCs: The kingmakers whose potential he harnessed
A second group in which Nitish recognised potential was that of the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), also known as Most Backward Classes (MBCs). This group, made up of some 130 castes, constitutes an estimated 28-30 per cent of Bihar’s population. Some prominent EBC groups are Nishad/ Sahni, Mandal, Kahar, etc., and some nationally known EBC leaders include former MPs Captain Jaynarayan Nishad, Mangani Lal Mandal, and Vaidyanath Sahni. The socialist leader Karpoori Thakur is Bihar’s biggest ever EBC leader.
But the EBC population is scattered across the state, and their voting behaviour is often unpredictable. As a result, EBCs, often the least talked about group in Bihar’s complex caste configuration, are also potent vote-swingers and balance-tilters who can determine the electoral fate of any party or political combination. In 2014, it was the EBCs who tilted the balance in favour of the NDA in Bihar, as Narendra Modi’s ‘tea-seller’ identity resonated with them.
Nitish gave EBCs care and benefits. There were scholarships for EBC students, and 20 per cent reservation for both Hindu and Muslim EBCs in panchayats and local bodies. Along with Mahadalits, EBCs are considered a solid vote bank for Nitish’s JD(U).
Women: The caste-neutral constituency he harnessed
Although ingenious, recognising the political potential of Mahadalits and EBCs still lay within the broad framework of Bihar’s traditional caste calculations. Where Nitish thought outside the box was in recognising the caste-neutral constituency of women, and in rallying their support behind him.
It was the support of women that powered him to chief ministership in November 2015, and it was in response to the demand from that constituency that he imposed prohibition in Bihar the following year. While the success of his government’s ban on liquor is debatable, it remains his flagship social and political initiative that earned him the support of an important section of voters.
Through his years in power, Nitish also launched a range of schemes for the welfare of women and girls, often dovetailing them with his government’s schemes for Mahadalits and EBCs. He introduced a game-changing 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats, and last year reserved 33 per cent seats in medical and engineering colleges for women. The Bihar government has also given a 33 per cent quota to women in government jobs, 35 per cent in police jobs, and 50 per cent in primary teaching jobs at the panchayat level. Even in his party, Nitish has announced one-third reservation for women in organisational posts.
Perhaps the most visible and evocative reminder of Nitish’s so-called “gender agenda” has been the image of girls cycling to school in the state’s remote villages. Under the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana, the Bihar government gave schoolgirls Rs 2,000 to buy a bicycle. The impact has been seen in impressive reductions in dropout rates and improvements in enrolments of girl students.