Who forms the next government in Bihar is academic. The real issue is Mandal politics is getting a quiet burial in the state of its birth. At the hands of its original beneficiary.
The RJD has shed its Yadav-friendly (read Yadav-only) politics to embrace accommodative politics of the Congress variety for the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, departing from a trend Lalu Prasad Yadav set in 1990.
Till 2014, anti-Congressism was the single factor that united all opposition. Thereafter, anti-BJPism united them. The RJD-led“mahagatbandhan” is the first, serious experiment to not merely oppose a powerful political party but make a concerted effort to come to power on the strength of a deliberate strategy and a positive vote. There is not a single seat with a “friendly contest”!
Wheels of social justice
Sociologists pointed out the then Prime Minister VP Singh announced the Mandal report’s recommendations in 1989 that the wheels of social justice shall begin to turn, the backwards will replace the forwards and then be replaced by the Dalits and in this way these classes which remained deprived of power for decades will taste political and economic dominance, in the process co-opting the mannerisms of the forwards.
The wheels of social justice started turning after the Mandal Commission report, the upper castes who held sway after the Mughals and the Britons vacating power in politics and society for the emerging backward classes. The Dalits followed suit, though not as vigorously as their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh. The Kamandal brand of politics entered the fray in no time, introducing three-tiered politics in Bihar with communalism as the new variable apart from caste and class.
The ‘dwijas’ among the BCs
The Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris, the original and powerful beneficiaries of Mandal were the “dwijas”. For centuries they sauntered at the heels of the upper castes, wielding spades, guns and lathis alike. The educated among them took to the path of socialism to begin the fight politically, against the Congress but mainly against the domination of the upper castes. Mandal made them twice born.
They realised they could come to power on their own. All they had to do was consolidate among themselves and stop carrying the upper caste beast on their shoulders. Lalu Yadav was the Moses who told them coming to power is not enough; they need to become economically dominant in order to go up and occupy the top of the social ladder.
Congress, the default party
Congress was the default party in Bihar. The socialists did have a strong presence. In fact, the worst performance of the Congress in 1967 saw the SamyuktaVidhayak Dal, a front of 11 parties including socialists, leftists and the Jana Sangh, form the first non-Congress ministry on 05 March 1967. The then governor, Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, called it a “unique occasion” after swearing-in Mahamaya Prasad Sinha as chief minister. The socialists would thereafter mutate several times both in Bihar and at the Centre as the voters experimented with coalitions to ward off the Congress at intervals and later, the BJP. Why they failed in their attempts is a matter for another day.
Bihar, hunting ground for socialists
Bihar remained the favourite hunting ground of the socialists and the leftists for a long time. It was always a safe haven for them who otherwise failed to secure safe seats elsewhere. The likes of JB Kripalani, Madhu Limaye, yes, even George Fernandes, and Sharad Yadav got elected to parliament from Bihar.
By the 1990s when Lalu Yadav was heralding a change in Bihar, socialism of the Karpoori Thakur kind was already a hazy memory. Stalwarts were still around, like BP Mandal, Vinayak Prasad Yadav, Kapildeo Singh, Gajendra Prasad Himanshu and Ramanand Tiwary. But Lalu had other ideas. He wanted the Yadavs to be a hegemonic caste, just like the Congress was a hegemonic party. He had a coalition too, but of diverse backward and lower castes and Muslims acting as a subsidiary group to the Yadavs. They would give their votes and in return get a share of the power.
Yadavs inherit Congress heritage
The Yadavs would be the inheritors of the Congress heritage in Bihar. A Yadav did in Lalu ‘raj’ what a Brahmin and Bhumihar and Rajput could not do together – whether winning elections, indulging in corruption or mis-governance. In fact, the Yadavs were always the instruments of the upper castes who carried out operations that the latter did not want to dirty their hands with. Lalu got back at all that. The years he remained in power, the brazen manner in which he packed the government at all levels with Yadavs, the way he made his wife chief minister, the way he, in later years, severed links with old timers like Ram Kripal Yadav to hand over power to his Family, he was simply aping the Congress. And the Congress was unfit to challenge him, fit only to be given space under his umbrella.
Tumultuous relations between Nitish, BJP
The other backward classes which lost out in the social justice race had no other option but to find an alternate route to power. Nitish Kumar appeared divine as an alternative to Lalu and his ‘jungle raj’ infamy. The weakness of the former’s caste forced him to find partners. The BJP was game. That they had tumultuous relations over the last decade is an ode to opportunism and absence of political ethics.
The BJP and Nitish Kumar’s JDU brought back coalition politics to Bihar. Nitish, impossibly small in stature than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was happy being chief minister any which way. He wanted to assert himself, but he never had the numbers to do so. He even aligned with his bête noire Lalu in one assembly election because he thought that would make him chief minister. He knew the BJP would support him any time he wished to break ranks with Lalu. That happened too. But the BJP was not happy. It began to realise Nitish was simply selfish, his commitment to the NDA subject to him remaining chief minister. As he and the BJP went into the 2020 assembly elections, both had a shared regret: That neither of them could ever rule Bihar as a single party like Congress and Lalu before them. Nitish had obvious limitations. The BJP, despite brand Modi, was always a victim of one man’s resolve: Lalu’s. In 1990, he stopped them in Samastipur. Thereafter, his Muslim-Yadav combination was enough to stall the BJP’s and Modi’s lone march to power.
Bihar remains junior partner for 15 years
The BJP re-introduced single-party governance (that’s what the NDA actually is, as the Akali Dal has finally realised) in India. But Bihar eluded it. It has been a junior partner for 15 years now. And what has it got to show for this? The BJP’s weakest link, Sushil Modi, as deputy CM to Nitish.
What has the alliance given the BJP since 2005? A lowest vote share of 10.97% for 37 seats in February, 2005, 15.65% for 55 seats in October, 2005, 16.46% for 91 seats in 2010 and 24.42% for 53 seats in 2015. In the Lok Sabha elections, it got 29.4% vote in 2014, winning 22 out of 30 seats it contested. In 2019, for 23.59% reduced vote, it won all of the 17 seats it contested, ending up ruing the fact that it had parted with 17 seats for JDU and six for LJP.
JDU gets more vote share than BJP
In the two general elections, the RJD took a dent in its vote share. But in the last four assembly elections, only one, in 2015, did the BJP (24.4% for 53 seats) get a higher vote share the RJD (18.4% for 80 seats). But that was no solace as the RJD got much more seats for a lesser vote share. This showed to both RJD and BJP the advantage of vote transfer from the JDU, which is what is the only ace up Nitish Kumar’s sleeve. He has nothing else to offer. It is the anxiety of his poll partners that led to alliances.
Nitish thought he had worked out a similar arrangement this time. But the LJP is playing a spoil sport. What is the aim of Chirag Paswan, why is the BJP not discipling him, how much harm would Chirag do to his own party’s prospects are subject matters for another day.
Modi unable to resolve contradictions
The issue is how and why Modi and his strategists are unable to resolve the contradiction between their state and general election performances. The only reasonable explanation is nationalism of the BJP kind is merely a poll variable like joblessness and poverty and nothing more. Else, a truly nationalist segment which voted for the BJP in the general election will not suddenly be influenced by other considerations in the assembly election.
Now the situation is tricky for the BJP. One, for a party wanting to come to power, it is only fighting in 110 seats (unless it aims to do a Karnataka or a Madhya Pradesh or a Meghalaya in Bihar). Two, the LJP factor may damage the JDU prospects to some extent. Here, the point to ponder is this: The JDU supporter will vote for JDU. What about the Modi supporter? Because the BJP is not in the fray where the JDU is, will the voter transfer his vote to JDU? Or, in the absence of the BJP, will the voter’s possible disenchantment with Nitish Kumar make the vote go to some other party? In the seats the BJP is contesting, will the JDU voter transfer the vote to the BJP or will some local consideration shift the vote somewhere else? In both cases, the transfer of alliance votes is a question mark. Is the Modi brand stronger than all other local considerations this time in particular when the NDA is fighting only in name because the LJP is openly against JDU while siding with the BJP?
And we are not even touching the topic of Dalits and Mahadalits! The presence of several dalit parties in the fray has actually divided their lot. This is because their leaders are not mass leaders with a sway across the state. Jitan Ram Manjhi cannot claim popularity outside the old Magadh region. Similar is the case with Chirag Paswan. These dalit sections stand localised. In contrast, the CPI-ML has been assiduously harnessing the support of the landless peasantry and the labourer class among the scheduled castes and extreme backward classes.
Politics beyond communal polarisation
Is anyone talking about the Muslims? No. A majority of them continue to be with Tejashwi. Some small Muslim parties from outside are trying to try their electoral luck in Bihar. They, and the BJP, realise Bihar is one state where politics has just gone beyond communal polarisation.
This brings us full circle to the beginning. Tejashwi Yadav may have realised the extraordinarily complex scene quite early. The past election figures tell him he is nowhere in the picture as an adamant leader of the Yadav-Muslim combine. He has seasoned his politics with reason. He was accommodative. Both in terms of giving tickets to other castes and be seen to be mingling with other castes and embracing their demands. He refused to be provoked by the BJP’s ‘jungle raj’ taunt, using the occasion to drill into the minds of fellow Yadavs the help of other segments for a shot at power.
Neo-rich Yadavs with Tejashwi
A large section of neo-rich Yadavs supports Tejashwi. This section got rich during the ‘jungle raj’ years. They have shops, mega stores, food processing units, small factories, foundries, modernised dairy farms, investments in schools and English-speaking courses in towns and cities. Their children go to schools and colleges. ‘Jungle raj’ for them is a slur, a reminder of the dark days of political illegitimacy they want to forget. They do not mind going with anyone as long as they win. In fact, among the youth of Bihar, I am told by some journalists who still manage to visit the field, the resentment over lack of jobs is evident, but they are also angry with the ruling alliance using the ‘jungle raj’ slur.
The forward castes have their own complaints. For the last 15 years they have not tasted power, the power that was theirs before 1990. Theirs is a subsistence political existence. Nitish Kumar being the chief minister is a bane they carry. They are too identified with the BJP to go anywhere else. This election presents them a strange sight of the BJP in no mood to reign in the LJP’s anti-JDU campaign.
Which would be largest single party?
There was a time when it was said in Bihar that the backwards can never come to power without piggy riding on the back of one or more forward caste groupings. Today, Tejashwi has embarked on a return-of-the-RJD trail leading a mixed social grouping under the generalship of the Yadavs. That is the difference between the son and the father who apparently has had no role to play other than in candidate selection. The pre-election RJD alliance resembles an umbrella Congress of pre-Mandal Bihar.
It is a waste of time to speculate who gets how many seats. There is a trend in Bihar and it is palpable. The fight is only for the position of single largest party. Who finally forms the government is no longer a part of the democratic exercise of an election in India. We know what happened in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and most of the North-East.