Ubiquity of scarcity and primacy of group identities shape Bihar’s political context. Here, one cannot talk about development without invoking identity. In popular parlance, the perspectives on material issues emanate from the vantage point of caste and community. Thus, pitting the politics of development against the politics of identity in Bihar would be a case of both cognitive dissonance and analytical fallacy.
In this backdrop, the fractured electoral narratives we are witnessing in Bihar need to be filtered through the psychologies of various castes and communities. There are certain objective realities that set the background of Bihar’s political contestations. One, Bihari voters have minimalist expectations from their leadership. The state lacks the kind of competitive welfarism which defines the contours of southern states. Hence, the core support bases of RJD, BJP and JD(U) do not expect something transformative. Two, in a majority of the cases, the preference for material issues are a post-facto justification for a priori likes and dislikes of a party/leader. That is, Yadavs and Muslims rallying behind the RJD, upper castes supporting BJP or a section of Paswans endorsing LJP leader Chirag Paswan, are motivated not by the material issues, but a sense of prevailing affinities. Three, Nitish Kumar is facing the challenge of all sections of dominant groups, ranging from upper castes to intermediary castes like Yadavs and Muslims.
When the state is facing the combined crises of flood, public health, economic hardship, the plight of approximately 3.5 lakh contractual teachers and around 3 million migrants, the anti-incumbency narratives should have emerged from the most vulnerable sections, the EBCs and Mahadalits. What we see, instead, is a concerted anti-Nitish narrative by the dominant castes. The vast majority of the EBCs and Mahadalits are either silent or come out as confused.
In the power dynamics in Bihar, Nitish enjoys a unique position, wherein his centrality signifies the secondary position of the dominant castes and communities. To the Yadavs, he signifies an absolute marginalisation; and to the upper castes, he comes in the way of seeing BJP ruling the state like neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
It is not the first time that Nitish Kumar is facing a concerted challenge from groups otherwise diametrically opposed to each other. Nor is it on account of his colossal failure on the governance front alone. In 2009, Nitish Kumar attempted to empower the vulnerable groups by implementing the recommendations of the 2007 Vishvamohan Rishi Mohan Commission to identify the Mahadalits; the 2006 Udaykant Chaudhary Commission to identify and outline provisions for the EBCs; and the D Bandopadhyay Commission on land reforms. He hoped to introduce a series of developmental measures that would improve the conditions of the sections. But these pronouncements, in the aftermath of the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections, proved controversial. The RJD and LJP, along with a section of BJP’s upper caste leadership, projected them as politically motivated. This affected the voting pattern in bypolls held in September 2009, with the JD(U)-BJP winning just five of 18 seats. Expectedly, Nitish Kumar had to dilute the provisions pertaining to the EBCs and Mahadalits, while he rejected the recommendations on land reforms to appease the dominant castes.
Now, when we see caste and community-centric parties like RJD and LJP, with an alleged understanding with a section of the state BJP leadership, peddling a developmental narrative, the gap between their speech and actions are colossal. For instance, Tejashwi Yadav is as much concerned about consolidating the Yadav support base by preferring CPI(ML) as he is careful about denying space to Kanhaiya Kumar, the young CPI leader, partly on caste considerations. Chirag Paswan is fielding a large number of upper-caste candidates against JD(U) to cut into the incumbent’s support base. In a nutshell, the dominant groups like Yadavs and a section of upper castes are enthused with the vague possibility of dislodging Nitish Kumar. What sustains Nitish Kumar is the silence of his core support base, the EBCs, Mahadalits and Kurmis and a section of women who aren’t vocal. In the meantime, all we hear is the restlessness of the dominant castes.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2020 under the title “Who’s afraid of Nitish Kumar?”. Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst, associated with People’s Pulse