On July 27, Nitish Kumar made an important announcement: all contract teachers, trained and untrained, would get payscales from August 1. The Chief Minister, who has used education as a political vehicle, has until now appointed 3.5 lakh contract teachers — half of them women.
For years now, Nitish’s social engineering project has had both a caste and a caste-neutral dimension. The latter — a focus on women as a constituency — was seen first in his masterstroke of giving 50% reservation to women through the Bihar Panchayati Raj Act of 2006 and, subsequently, in a host of schemes such as bicycles, uniforms, scholarships and cash incentives for girl students.
The backing of women voters helped tilt the scales in favour of the NDA [of which Nitish’s JD(U) was then a part] in the 2009 Lok Sabha, and 2010 Bihar elections. Voter turnout in the assembly elections was significantly higher than in the Lok Sabha elections of the previous year, as well as in the state elections of 2005 — and women were thought to have contributed significantly to the numbers at the booths. Some stories from 2010, when the NDA won 206 out of the 243 seats, are now part of India’s election folklore: about girls in Class 8 asking their parents to vote Nitish because they would get bicycles in Class 9, and about an RJD voter beating a rebellious sister-in-law who insisted on supporting the JD(U).
Given this background, the Chief Minister is looking again at his caste-neutral constituency of women. And yet, as he must well realise, 2015 is not 2009 or 2010.
The development plank that won 2010 for him now faces competition from the most vocal and visible advocate of development in India today — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now leads the rival side. And caste, never to be disregarded in Bihar, is playing out in multiple ways as the campaign progresses.
Nitish’s ally Lalu Prasad has been trying to create “Mandal II” by escalating the demand for the release of census data on caste. And the BJP has been underlining the caste identities of NDA leaders: Dalits Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi; OBC Upendra Kushwaha who hopes to split Nitish’s “Luv-Kush” (Koeri-Kurmi) combination; and Yadavs, Pataliputra MP Ram Kripal Yadav and Bihar Leader of Opposition Nand Kishore Yadav. Over the weekend, Modi himself appealed for support to the Yadavs, calling them “Yadu Bhai”.
For Nitish to win the tough election battle ahead, his caste-neutral constituency must continue to stand by him.
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