Rickshaw-walas in Padrauna,in eastern Uttar Pradesh on the Bihar border the proverbial Purabias are happy to risk an accident when they crane their necks and turn back to eloquently describe why they cannot be equated with Biharis,politically or indeed in any way. Never mind that the musical drawl of their Bhojpuri is similar,as are the sowing season,crops grown,or every other statistic thrown up about poverty,health and other social indicators. The difference,they convince you,comes from their political arithmetic and to equate it all with the certainty of a Bimaru materialist would be a wild thing to do.
As far as differences between states go,this election will witness the culmination of a process visible for decades now. The answers will really emerge once the results are in,but the bottomline is already clear: looking for similarities even between states often clubbed together is fraught with danger. Consider the southern states. They veered off and have their own very peculiar dynamics: Kerala,Karnataka,Andhra and Tamil Nadu,each one unique and proudly distinct. A fascinating example of how states there have kept their identity,despite being cheek by jowl and integrated in other ways,is the district of Mahe within the Puducherry constituency,which as a result of our peculiar colonial past is situated on the Kerala coast. If you drive by you suddenly see DMK flags for exactly that stretch,amidst a sea of Congress tricolour and Left red they are quite unaffected by even their geographical location,set as they are amidst a full-blooded battle between the UDF and LDF!
North India did show signs of cohesion,visibly so in 1977,but it is now no longer easy to write about the
Bimaru bunch. As Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar put it in a recent article,the north has become a political mosaic in itself. While
Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are more visibly distinct from UP and
Bihar,those two are themselves very different from each other,in ways that have not always been understood except perhaps by the players themselves,who realise that equating them or looking for a common strategy is missing the point entirely.
Their social indicators have been almost the same,and caste has been central. Consider how the Ambedkarite revolution hit UP and not
Bihar. The Dalit population is much higher in UP than in Bihar. Meanwhile,Bihar has seen a polarisation between forwards and backwards for a much longer time than has been visible in UP. While earlier caste wars in Bihar played out more literally,in the form of blood-soaked Senas,UP has been more divided and fractious,and the BSPs moorings in raising Dalit consciousness (however much it may claim today to be of the Sarva Samaj) explains its core vote even today.
In Bihar,the backward-forward divide got a broader platform. This was in large part due to Left influence. Today that may be woefully small,but in the 60s and 70s,they influenced the debate much more (even electorally,in the 1969 Vidhan Sabha polls,the Lefts vote share,mostly the CPIs,was nearly 12 per cent); this influence stayed till 1989.
Lalu Prasads power built upon this base,much more radicalised than for his counterparts in UP. Lalu was careful in taking along the Dalits,and one of his major accomplishments when he was in power was to make sure that Behenjis influence did not grow in Bihar. His insistence on keeping Paswan on board is part of an effort to dissuade the Dalits in Bihar from seeking a distinct political identity,like they have in UP. His equation adhered to backwards plus Dalits,even when Dalit stirrings here were the favourite subject for PhD theses.
Lohias movement (though he was a UP-ite by birth) and later Jayaprakash Narayans Sampoorna Kranti grew roots in Bihar more firmly than UP. And Karpoori Thakur,when he became chief minister for the second time in 1977,accepted the recommendations of a state commission that one-fourth of state jobs be reserved for backwards. Whilst there was a violent reaction from forward castes,the decision in many ways prepared the ground for the radicalisation that was to follow.
The crucial difference between the two states is brought out most starkly by the two chief ministers. Whilst Nitish Kumars own caste (he is a Kurmi,an intermediate,landed caste) is not central to his appeal,which is broad-based and carefully balanced between the BJPs hold on the upper castes and Nitish wooing the extreme backwards Mayawatis own identity is a dominant theme. The fact that she is a Dalit ki beti has greatly influenced her political identity. One could argue that she is hoping to ride it out and add additional castes to her core support base; but it is open to debate how much support from backwards she can get,if at all. It appears that the backward versus Dalit cleavage will grow in this election one that is fanned by the Samajwadi Party trying to unite the backwards,Kalyan Singhs induction being justified on those grounds.
So,in this caste-maze,with wily state politicians in full flow with their abacuses,is there any scope for the national parties to scoop a significant number of these much-talked-about 120 seats? The most recent time that a national party could bridge the UP-Bihar divide was in the 90s,when the BJPs Ram Mandir campaign brought politics in both these states together; but that appears to have petered out,unless of course it is the BJPs hope that playing it both ways on the Varun Gandhi CD has something to offer. Where the Congress could draw hope from is the fact that UP and Bihar have delivered surprises in the past though woefully for them,more as drops than as surprise recoveries (1989,then 1991); and perhaps that their national job guarantee scheme,which has generated goodwill for the UPA in low job growth states like these,can be made into an issue sufficiently political to turn the vote. Otherwise,it is back to the caste chessboard and presence on the ground. Both are subjects that both national parties are loath to discuss in both states. Now thats a similarity.