February 7, 2005
Contrary to the prevailing political analysis on Bihar, it’s not Laloo Prasad Yadav’s pre-UPA, anti-Centre rhetoric or his stand against the ‘‘communal’’ BJP that nurtured his party’s uninterrupted fifteen years of rule. It is his original agenda, that of smashing the dominance of the upper castes, which has fuelled his winning streak.
Remember the macabre slogan to behead the BHURA-BAL, an acronym for Bhumihar-Rajput-Brahmin-Lala castes, first heard in the initial days of his chiefministership. It is what he called ‘‘social justice’’, which even now remains his party’s main political plank. It is this that his opponents are out to displace by agonising publicly over Bihar’s dismal social development indicators or non-existent bijli, sadak, pani. The beholders of the ‘‘development’’ plank, the Bihari middle-class, which leaves no opportunity to ridicule the ‘‘buffoonery’’, ‘‘rusticity’’, ‘‘illiteracy’’ of the ruling couple, is ill at ease with all that the state conveys to the larger audience. But, alas, the more his opponents agonise over the absence of amenities, the more they reinforce Laloo’s invincibility. In the Bihar polls, if something does not matter it is the middle class interpretation of the resource-use. The electoral issue in Bihar, therefore, is not of ‘‘development’’ but in a largely agricultural economy, it is the provision of level-playing field.
For the poor of Bihar, it is important to decipher which way a particular political formation shall tilt when it comes to power or whether it shall at least maintain a neutral posture when it comes to resource-use rivalry. Can the lower-caste person refuse beggar without inviting bloody reprisal from the landlord? Will the farm-work wage be decided by the local dominance or by the minimum wage fixed by the state? Will a lower caste farm worker not be humiliated because of his/her caste? Most importantly, will the upper caste use instruments of state authority to subvert the aspirations of the lower caste. It is from this perspective that the electorates in rural Bihar gaze at the contention of different political formations and cast their vote on the day of denouement. It is, however, yet to be seen if Laloo’s political opponents could displace the factor of ‘‘social-justice’’ from the calculation of the electorates. But it is also important to ask, if the agenda of the ‘‘social justice’’ has traversed its full course and, consequently, exhausted itself? Have the poor backwards and dalits acquired a level playing field? It is on these questions that Laloo rests his campaign strategy and wrests initiatives from his opponents’ hands.
Upper caste dominance in a largely rural social setting is still a reality. Although politically marginalised, upper castes’ hold over the instruments of the state and the means of economic reproduction remain largely intact. Till the time this hold remains unbroken, any developmental intervention could only facilitate upper-caste resource-appropriation and unsettle the ‘‘social-justice’’ plank. The upper castes in Bihar have been reduced to play a perennial second fiddle to the main political formations of the backward castes. First by driving the upper-caste to take shelter under the BJP cover and then successfully keeping it at bay from state-power, Laloo has not only stunted the political formation but has also substantially dented the political confidence of the upper-castes. Any piggybacking on the Janata Dal (United)’s Kurmi-Koeri combine or the Lok Janshakti Party’s Paswan votes by the upper castes could help resurface their political power and humiliating dominance. It is this spectre that continues to bring political dividend to Laloo and hence his royal snub to Congress attempts to wring more assembly seats.
Laloo’s regime in Bihar has important implications for India’s post-Independence experimentation with democracy, governance and state formation. An interpretation away from the caste-communal-criminal paradigm shall help fathom better reasons for deconstructing Laloo’s winning ability as well as forge the counter-strategy to take on his political acumen. A casteist interpretation entails countering Laloo’s Muslim-Yadav electoral arithmetic by sewing another caste alliance.
Bihar’s future lies in the recognition of Laloo’s contribution and in the onward march of the ‘‘social-justice’’ plank, which is lately stagnating in a self-debilitating inertia. On the other hand, an attempt at denigration shall only reinforce his stature in the eye of his committed electorates. If that happens, the agenda of ‘‘social justice’’ shall silently wither away. That shall be the real tragedy with Bihar.
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