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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Bihar elections: Rupture of a coalition of extremes

The political alliance of Mahadalits, EBCs and forward castes that Nitish Kumar built may be deserting him.

Updated: November 9, 2020 7:24:17 pm
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during an election meeting, in Darbhanga, (PTI)

Written by Sanjay Kumar

The two rounds of polling in the assembly election in Bihar show indications of a shift in the political trend in the state. This shift seems to be against the caste equation engineered by the NDA — especially by Nitish Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD-U). Since 2005, the incumbent chief minister, who is the architect of this extreme coalition, had not only prepared its base but also built a superstructure on it. The equation in question was based on the coalition of Mahadalits, Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and by and large the Upper Caste Hindus.

The biggest question during this ongoing election is why is a rupture developing in the structure built by Nitish Kumar, and more importantly, why is that rupture deepening under his own leadership. Whatever be the reason, this rupture has caused a fear among the leadership of NDA, which has compelled them, time and again, to project Nitish Kumar as its unanimous choice for the chief minister’s office.

It was during his first tenure as chief minister (2005-10) that Nitish Kumar created a new category called “Mahadalit” communities through a cabinet order. By political design, the Dusadh community (Paswans) was excluded from this category. To make this new social category a formidable base, his government made two vital announcements. First, all those Mahadalit families not possessing homestead plots would be given three-decimal plots. Secondly, hundred per cent reservation was given to Mahadalits in the appointment of the 45,000 “Tola Sevaks”. These “Tola Sevaks” were appointed to ensure full enrolment of Mahadalit children in schools.

On the other hand, legal identity and category of many castes belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was changed and they were subsequently identified as Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs). In addition, Nitish Kumar also made legal provisions for reservation of EBCs in panchayat elections. This brought about significant changes in the character of the power structure at the grass roots. These decisions of Nitish Kumar clearly show that he not only built the base of his political and social character on the EBCs and Mahadalits, but also made it empowered it in every possible way.

In return, these social categories supported Nitish Kumar in the last two Lok Sabha and assembly elections. These social categories also made it clear to the government of Nitish Kumar that their opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad, is mainly based on an alliance of Muslims and Yadavs, and that they are capable of challenging them. The support of these broader social categories meant that the image of Nitish Kumar’s government and his political party has not been one of representing any particular caste. Rather, from time to time, he has been successful in sending the political and social message that the basic character of his government is based on the values of social justice and inclusive development. This is one view of the socio-political character of Nitish Kumar’s government.

The other view takes into account the other party involved in this extreme coalition, i.e., the upper caste Hindus. Majority of the upper caste voters always stood by the side of Nitish Kumar’s government in the belief and hope that his government would take care of their needs and aspirations in toto in its policy and programme. They also believed they would be allowed dignified participation in political institutions under Nitish Kumar. But the government could not fulfil their aspirations and needs as it was unable to provide them with gainful employment opportunities, representation in the Lok Sabha and in State Assembly or in the local bodies to their satisfaction. Therefore, during this period of one-and-a-half decades, the bitter memories associated with the so-called “jungle raj” of Lalu Prasad’s rule started to fade away.

As the ongoing election progressed, the upper caste voters clearly indicated that the ruling government has betrayed them during its extended tenure of one-and-a-half decades. In their resentment, they raised the slogan: “vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahi chalega, nahi chalega” (our vote, your rule, is not acceptable), a slogan that was raised by the backward castes led by the old Samajwadi Party during the 1960s and 1970s. That it is now being raised by the upper castes shows their resentment.

This is one picture of the rupture of the social-political base of JD-U. The second view concerning this rupture is about the Mahadalits and EBCs. They are no longer seen as showing their loyalty towards Nitish Kumar as they did during the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections. Even though it appears that at one level, the castes included in the categories of Mahadalits and EBCs are standing by the side of Nitish Kumar in his electoral efforts, at their own level, more than a hundred castes included in these social categories seem to be negotiating with other political parties.

It is crucial to note that such a politically and socially engineered coalition has its challenges waiting to manifest itself. The ruling party and its government designed and created a category with a top-down approach for their own political expediency, but the common people at the grass roots fundamentally identified themselves with their traditional caste identities rather than with this “official categorisation”. And these castes and their histories date back to centuries.

Amongst all these tensions, at a basic level, these castes affiliate themselves with the social category created via policy-legal framework only to the extent that they get adequate representation in political and developmental programmes. But as soon as their aspirations are sidelined, their social-political behaviour starts getting dictated primarily by their respective caste interests and the respective ideologies.

From this perspective, the rupture in the extreme coalition designed by Nitish Kumar, is not just confined to the ongoing election. Rather, the political implications of this trend are that in Bihar the seeds of a new political realignment amongst various castes and different social categories appear to be taking root. It does not matter anymore as to which face or political party is going to be at the helm of this new political realignment, but one thing is for sure that Nitish Kumar is not going to be the all-important and politically potent face of the new realignment.

Kumar is the founder of Deshkal Society Delhi and Co-editor of the volume, Interrogating Development: Insights from the Margin

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