All eyes are on Bihar. The reform agenda of the Narendra Modi government will depend on the outcome of this closely fought election. Since the success of the JP movement in the 1970s, the political and electoral complexion of Bihar has had national resonance. It is likely that the Bihar poll outcome will have a domino effect in the Hindi heartland, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where elections are scheduled in 2017.
So, what is the principal agenda driving the Bihar election? Some maintain that the political formation led by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad is raking up caste in the name of Mandal part two. A couple of months earlier, this formation, they say, vitiated the provincial political discourse by insisting that the Union government reveal caste-wise details of the socio-economic census. Prime Minister Modi maintains that Mandal represented the collapse of the state and the lawlessness resulting in “jungle raj”. He argues that Mandal 2 will entail “rojana jungle raj ka darr”. This implies that the development agenda will be replaced by caste-centric lawlessness if the RJD-JD(U)-Congress combine wins. What is unsaid is that Mandal in Bihar was co-scripted by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, the poster boys of the Mandal Commission and development respectively.
When Nitish crafted the “coalition of extremes” with the BJP for the 2005 assembly election and persisted with it in 2010, it was described as a pro-development platform. The coalition was fractured when Nitish broke with the BJP. Later, when Nitish wanted to build a “coalition of the poor and marginalised”, it was referred to as a configuration of chosen castes. With Lalu as a significant part of the coalition, the maha gathbandhan is seen as an “out-and-out caste coalition”.
Since the 2014 general election, the BJP has been active in co-opting different marginal and subaltern castes in UP and Bihar. After Kalyan Singh, a powerful backward caste leader, was marginalised in UP, the BJP declined to the fourth position in the state’s electoral map. That led to the BJP crafting its political strategy of co-opting the backward castes in the Hindi heartland, executed with precision by BJP chief Amit Shah. A historical figure like Mauryan emperor Ashok was identified as hailing from the Kushwaha caste. The BJP government issued a stamp on him and his caste antecedents were highlighted at functions in Patna. Yet, the BJP is absolved of caste-centric mobilisation.
The fact is, upper caste-centric alliances are not referred to as caste combines, while a coming together of marginal and subaltern castes — as in the case of the maha gathbandhan — is invariably considered a caste-centred coalition. This double-standard is unacceptable. What must be recognised is that caste has been central to electoral battles since Independence. Initially, the electoral suzerainty of the traditional elite, the Indian National Congress, depended on the powerful Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim combination. When the Congress could not recoup its losses following the defection of Babu Jagjivan Ram in 1977, Rajputs were added to the trinity. The emphasis on caste has been more brazen in Bihar. The state has had powerful peasant, socialist, communist and radical movements, but unfortunately did not have any multi-caste social movement of consequence. In southern and western India, multi-caste movements assumed regional and economic identities, relegating caste to the background.
In Bihar, however, there were essentially two identities at play — caste and national. A Bihari subnational identity did not emerge. Thus, caste always had a larger-than-life presence in Bihar, especially in electoral politics. However, as long as the traditional elite had an electoral hegemony, their assiduously built caste arithmetic was not referred to contemptuously. But when a social group marginal in electoral politics emerged in the early 1990s, upsetting the political scenario, Bihar was immediately dubbed a caste conclave. This contempt peaked with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. What it reflects is the refusal to accept the paradigm shift in Bihar’s electoral politics.
The writer is member-secretary, Asian Development Research Institute, Patna.