In 1990, when Jagannath Mishra’s final stint as chief minister of Bihar concluded after just 95 days in office to make way for Lalu Prasad, it was seen as the end of a political era. Mishra, who died at 82 on Monday after a long ailment, was the last Congress chief minister of Bihar as well as the last Brahmin leader to have claimed the office. Bihar, along with Uttar Pradesh, had been, at least since the Sixties, the epicentre of the social and political churn in north India that resulted in the gradual decline of the “Congress system” and waning of upper-caste dominance. With the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations in 1990 and the rise of subaltern leaders, it was thought that the era of upper caste dominance of politics in the Hindi belt was dead and buried.
Mishra was the last stalwart of the old order. “Dr Sahib” was a leader from the time when the Congress was to its supporters an “umbrella party” and to its opponents a dominant feudal force. In Bihar, the party was seen by many as a regressive force, particularly in terms of its treatment of OBCs and Dalits. The assertion of the OBCs, led by the likes of Lalu and Nitish Kumar, was about stitching a social coalition that was both ideologically coherent and numerically powerful. Muslims, Yadavs, OBCs as a whole and Dalits, became a politically dominant force that saw the rise to power of a discourse of dignity and social justice.
While Mishra, who was charged in the fodder scam, and the Congress, have been unable to resurrect their fortunes in Bihar, and the backward caste coalition has splintered, the BJP has emerged as a force in the state. Though the junior partner in the Nitish Kumar government, its influence has steadily grown. While the BJP has sought to expand its social base by offering posts to members from a cross-section of communities, many party and RSS leaders have questioned caste-based reservations. Thirty years after Jagannath Mishra was CM, the prospect of an upper-caste CM no longer seems as faraway.