Elections in Bihar have always been intensely fought and keenly contested. While the state ranks low on the possible markers of socio-economic development, it certainly would rank quite high on the index of political consciousness and awareness. An understanding of development and empowerment in Bihar has overwhelmingly been etched in the social framework of caste. This is because caste-based identities and hierarchies in Bihar have been sought to be countered singularly through backward caste-based mobilisation discourses and strategies.
As a marker of social and political churning, elections in Bihar, therefore, cannot simply be seen from a purely procedural point of view. It is not only about forming a government. Instead, at the micro levels, elections in Bihar are about expressions of social domination and subordination, which while determining electoral outcomes are also shaped by them. Ideologies and policy initiatives at most remain marginal factors. The social churnings are best reflected in the fact that the state had 25 chief ministers in 30 years (1961-1990) and just four in the next 30 years (1990-2020). The advent of Mandal politics only consolidated the challenges to the hierarchical social set-up — 15-years in office each for the Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi combine between 1990-2005 and Nitish Kumar after 2005 bears testimony to that.
Even though Nitish Kumar may have differed from his predecessor, in his functioning style, casting himself instead as a “Vikash Purush” or “Sushashan Babu”, essentially even his regime was nothing else but a latent attempt towards securing a mathematical edge over Lalu Prasad’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) vote bank through his own extremely backward-upper caste configurations.
Caste-based counter mobilisations may have “deepened/widened” or even “bridged” democratic deficits, conferring democratic legitimacy on Bihar’s polity. But the mindless application of policies of social justice overlooking issues of governance, all-round-development and rule of law has had its own costs – harshly impacting the youth in the state across the caste divide. This cost is now assuming alarming proportions, threatening even to pull down Nitish Kumar — one of the last remaining politicians of the Mandal bandwagon. And as the irony of fate would have it, Nitish Kumar’s best bet for political survival today is in entwining with the practitioners of Kamandal politics, even though the latter was rolled out in the 1990s only to override the former.
However, if the signals coming from the ground are any indicator, there are reasons to believe that the ongoing elections in Bihar may end up setting up a completely different narrative – something even different from the usual alternative narrative of BSPLO (Bijli-Sadak-Pani-Law and Order) that of late has characterised most state-level elections in India. Instead, the Bihar election would largely be contested on the twin issues of education and employment opportunities.
The sheer number of younger voters and their craving for education and employment opportunities in the backdrop of massive and ever-rising unemployment rates is driving this change. According to EC data, of a total 7.29 crore voters in Bihar, over 50 per cent belong to the age group 18-39. While 7.14 lakh voters fall in the age group of 18-19 years, with no first-hand experience of what Lalu’s “jungle raj” (lawlessness) may have been, even the other 1.6 crore voters in the age-group of 20-29-years and approximately 2 crore in the age-group of 30-39 years are unambiguously interested in and focussed on the issues of education – particularly higher education, employment and other related opportunities of securing a decent livelihood for themselves. The COVID-induced return of around 16 lakh migrant labourers from the affluent pockets of the country would only add to people’s aspirations of having an economically-secure life in their homeland.
Lalu Prasad may once have been averse to the average Bihari’s access to the digital world but the fact is that today, smartphones have made their presence felt in the state. Nitish’s rural electrification programme has only been a perfect complement to that as young unemployed voters can now charge their phones watching countless hours of post-truth videos sourced straight from the WhatsApp university, reflecting all kinds of political narratives — alternative, counter and even false. Additionally, smartphones only help to fuel their aspirations for an economically secure life: Being connected is making them increasingly aware of opportunities and facilities that exist in other parts of the country. A sense of relative deprivation may swing these votes in favour or against any leader or party and that may have a bearing on the outcome.
The crowds that Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies are generating or a Chirag Paswan’s call for “Bihar First and Bihari First” and their all-out attack on Nitish Kumar is not a sudden development. The absence of investment and the private sector as a whole in the state means that the younger generation pins all its hopes on sarkari (government) jobs and no matter how hard Nitish Kumar may try to counter this, the dye is well set. The absence of younger leaders in the JDU makes it all the more difficult for it to establish a connection with the younger voters. A Prashant Kishore on its side would have allowed the JDU to tide over the challenges effectively. But that is missing. Political realities are changing fast in Bihar. The era of political assertions and dominations via caste-based political mobilisation power is waning. However, the extent to which social identities would be trumped by economic aspirations will remain a mystery — at least till November 10 when the votes are counted.
The writer teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal
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