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Nitish Kumar's Honourable Exit: A brief history of caste politics

The author would like to thank Saumyajit Bhattacharya and Chirashree Dasgupta for discussions on the issue.  Awanish Kumar (awanishkumar86@gmail.com) is at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Nitish Kumar’s exit from the NDA maybe an honourable one, but he will have to shed his neoliberal “developmentalist” leanings if he wants to fight the feudal and communal forces that have taken root in Bihar. This article presents a brief history of the politics in Bihar that have led to this break between Nitish Kumar and the BJP-led NDA.

The exit of Nitish Kumar from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has raised many interesting questions about Indian politics lately. The idea that Nitish Kumar decided to break away from the NDA owing to constraints of his carefully engineered Muslim  “vote bank” has emerged as common sense. However, this is only partly the case. The deeper reasons for his exit from NDA have to be sought from politics in Bihar.

At the outset, it is significant to note that Nitish Kumar has not been alien to any political tendency present in the Indian political spectrum. Though he portrays Lalu Prasad Yadav as a politician preoccupied with caste, Nitish Kumar himself was one of the first politicians in Bihar to organise a caste-based Kurmi rally in early 1992. He tried his luck with the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) - Liberation during the Assembly elections in 1995. He has been with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) since the 1996 Parliamentary elections and it was only much later that he transformed himself into a vikas purush.

For the outside observers of Bihar politics in recent times, this shift from  “caste” to  “development” reflects the importance of Nitish Kumar and his governance mantra. The English-language media has celebrated him as the harbinger of good governance in Bihar, often avoiding the question of context and efficacy. In the meanwhile, the central government has been pushing to dismantle existing public schemes and implement, for instance, conditional cash transfers. Nitish Kumar has endorsed and implemented many of these policy prescriptions; while  many corporate houses andinternational agencies have put in a lot their money into Bihar and their confidence in him. 

Nitish Kumar has been running a coalition government with the BJP for two consecutive terms in Bihar. The sudden realisation that the BJP is a communal party bent on putting up Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate is ludicrous. Was it not his own party that was the first political formation to support the BJP in 1996? Babri demolition was fresh in the minds of Indians and here was an avowedly socialist party lending its hand to BJP when no other party came forward lest the act destroyed their secular credentials. More damaging to Nitish Kumar is the fact that he did not move out of the NDA government post-Gujarat riots in 2002. Clearly, at this juncture, his anti-Modi rhetoric does not hold much validity.

A more convincing line of argument comes from his fear of the rising feudal and upper caste power in the state which has overt support from the BJP and, in some cases, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This resurgence has been concomitant with communalisation and strengthening of BJP in several areas of Bihar, particularly Seemanchal, where there is an increase in the activities of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Upper caste resurgence

Based on various estimates, about 35% of total cultivable land in Bihar is under the Bataidari system. There is immense concentration of land ownership in a few hands (Bandyopadhyay 2009). Recently, diesel tube wells have emerged as the most important source of irrigation and after the arrival of Nitish Kumar, “tractors lead the business boom” in the rural scene, as reported by an English newspaper in 2010. In this limited context, a section of upper and backward-caste landed groups have taken advantage of the agricultural roadmaps implemented by Kumar. Roads have improved and so has access to markets. Not surprisingly, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been a casualty of landed groups in this atmosphere of selective dynamism in rural Bihar.

In his first term, Nitish Kumar backtracked on the issue of land reforms and taking firm steps against upper caste militias in the state. Added to this, he appointed a commission to look into the issue of backwardness among upper castes in the state. But the upper castes have been unhappy with Nitish Kumar. A bit of recent political history may be in order here. For the upper castes, Nitish Kumar represents the politics of Lohia and Karpoori Thakur that has, historically, been against upper caste domination. Riding on the support of growing number and strength of backward-caste peasants, Karpoori Thakur had coined the slogan of “Azadi and Roti”, social justice, self-respect and quality of life, in 1977 (Hauser 1997; also see Blair 1980). Till Lalu Prasad Yadav came to power, it was an era of rapid consolidation of various groups like backward-caste peasants, landless Dalits and Muslims; culminating in the political victory of Janata Dal in 1990.

Backward-castes consolidate

The worst fears of hitherto dominant social classes and castes came true after Lalu Prasad Yadav selectively dismantled their hold over the bureaucracy and local governance structures. Presumably, Yadav fulfilled the promise of 'Azadi' with his fiery slogans and absolute disregard for conventional authority while dealing with the state machinery and local powers. This may also have laid the basis for his subsequent decline.

In the post-Mandal scenario, the contradictions inherent in the agrarian structure and between the backward castes and Dalits in North India were developing at a rapid pace, particularly after certain backward castes which had a definite historical advantage made good use of new opportunities in land and agriculture. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, this led to a consolidation of separate political groupings belonging to the backward castes and the Dalits. In Bihar, however, it may be said that Lalu Prasad Yadav successfully incorporated the Dalit cause into his self-respect and social-justice agenda for a considerable period of time, at least till the Assembly elections in the year 2000.

However, much before Yadav's legitimacy was lost; Nitish Kumar had shifted away from the Janata Dal. The mid-1990s saw a consolidation in Bihar, a soco-political class alliance of sorts, between the Brahmans and Banias represented by the BJP; the non-Yadav middle castes under Kumar's Samata Party, and a section of the Rajputs represented by the short-lived Bihar People’s Party (BPP) led by Anand Mohan (Prasad 1997:3022). Nitish Kumar, hence, represented the political compromise between a section of backward castes and upper castes. While the backward caste and Dalit votes were divided, the upper-caste votes gradually got solidly behind the BJP-Samata Party-JD(U) combine during the late 1990s and thereafter. This process has been gradual, but it may be safely granted that the BJP succeeded in gaining acceptability across castes while projecting Nitish Kumar as the backward-caste face of the alliance. In successive Assembly elections in Bihar, the BJP expanded its own social and electoral base riding on Nitish Kumar’s back.  

Anti-Lalu, pro-“development”

In the Assembly elections of the year 2005, it was a genuine anti-Lalu Prasad vote that brought Nitish Kumar to power. The giant share of votes from the upper castes came to him via the BJP. The BJP, however, was unsure of how to place itself as long as Nitish Kumar did not hurt their political agenda. The wave of “development politics” had also tied their hands. On his account, Nitish Kumar did not disappoint the BJP and its political constituency. He allotted important ministries to upper-caste politicians – a major perception exercise targeting upper castes in the state, particularly after coming to power with anti-Lalu Prasad vote. He disbanded the Justice Amir Das commission, appointed in 1998 to investigate political links of Ranvir Sena, months after he assumed office in his first term. It is said that the commission had hinted at longstanding relations between the Ranvir Sena and senior leaders of political parties, especially the BJP.

In the course of time, however, for the upper castes, better roads and an improved law and order situation came with the Land Reforms and Maha Dalit commissions. In a society like Bihar, any “concession” from the State towards Dalits is viewed as an affront to the might and political weight of the upper castes. The BJP jumped at the opportunity of mobilising the upper castes against such acts of the government. All major upper-caste politicians exchanged parties and Nitish Kumar suddenly became a casteist in the eyes of the upper castes in Bihar. This was ironic given that the Land Reforms commission's report was never tabled in the Assembly and Nitish Kumar had already declared that it was not his intention to implement the recommendations of the commission.

Communalism takes root

The BJP soon realised its core strength which was, for a brief period,  camouflaged under the “developmentalist” propaganda of the Nitish Kumar government. By the end of 2008, RSS and ABVP had already started campaigns against Muslims in the garb of “Bangladeshis” in Seemanchal. Not only their visibility had increased, but the Sangh Parivar opposed the creation of a Aligarh Muslim University campus at Kishanganj. It was probably for the first time that RSS organised its national executive in Bihar, choosing Rajgir in Kumar's home region. This was the time when the Land Reforms commission's report was being circulated among MLAs by certain interest groups, and the RJD and BJP  were spreading propaganda that the government intended to takeover land from the landed castes. The resignations of major upper-caste politicians from JD(U) and the results of the by-election in 2009 brought setbacks to the NDA which was reflected in the mobilisation against the government.

During the second term of the government, the BJP had been more assertive of its different agenda. The party, after almost 15 years, convened its national executive at Patna in 2010. Major dailies in the state carried a page-long advertisement featuring Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar and listing minority welfare schemes launched by Modi as a message to Muslims in Bihar. The advertisement also mentioned the monetary help provided by the Gujarat government to the Bihar government during the floods in the state. Nitish Kumar was less offended by the advertisement than by the glorification of Modi and chanting of Modi for prime minister in the meeting. As we know, Kumar cancelled a dinner for BJP leaders after the executive.

In April 2010, during the Laxmanpur Bathe hearing, Barmeshwar Mukhiya, the self-proclaimed chief of Ranvir Sena, escaped trial because he could not be produced in  court. Mukhiya was accused in more than 20 cases, including masterminding the Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe massacres. In most cases, he was acquitted for want of “evidence” and in July 2011; he was released from jail and greeted with open jubilation by several politicians and sympathizers. Nitish Kumar remained ambiguous in his approach to private armies and justice to victims of caste violence in the 1990s. These critical acts of omission possessed immense symbolic importance in Bihar politics.

The brute force of the carefully managed feudal forces came to fore when Barmeshwar Mukhiya was killed in Bhojpur last year. The government meekly allowed a funeral march from Ara to Patna, a distance of 60 kms that turned into a show of strength and demonstration of feudal power across the route of the march and in Patna. Local BJP leaders actively mobilised goons to storm Patna that reminded the English newspapers of the jungle-raj of the Lalu-era. Undeniably, this was the lowest point in the  “good governance” story of Nitish Kumar!

What will Nitish do next?

The demand for higher quality of life from diverse segments of the population cannot signify a simple transition from “caste” to “development” politics. In the recent electoral history of India, right-wing coalitions have tried to paint issues of Bijli-Sadak-Pani as politics of development versus the erstwhile Congress politics of appeasement and patronage. Taken together with improvements in general public provisioning, has Nitish Kumar tried to move forward from 'Azadi' to 'Roti'? This remains unanswered as land reforms and concrete action against casteism and communalism have remained an impossible task for his government. 

The driving force of Janata politics was the material improvements for backward castes. The categories of most/extremely backward castes follow from Annexure I of the Mungeri Lal Commission implemented by Karpoori Thakur[i]. The creation of newer categories within Dalits, such as Maha Dalits, for implementation of government policy also changed the game in his favour. Nitish Kumar's social engineering lies in careful rhetoric and targeted schemes at specific social groups while keeping the caste-class free sloganeering of development intact. Caste remains at the core of his politics but neoliberalism has presented him an opportunity to refashion his agenda into a 'developmental' one.

Nitish Kumar and other regional leaders must realise that the BJP represents a diametrically opposite strand of social change. The local BJP cadre and their supporters have had a deep antipathy towards Nitish Kumar since the very beginning of his political career. Lately, this constituency had been running conspiracy theories about policies such as reservations for women in Panchayats and the much-hyped bicycle scheme for girls. Nitish Kumar is credited for defeating Lalu Prasad Yadav but is despised for the perceived continuance of Lalu's agenda in concrete, albeit, gentler forms. New agrarian developments in the state have created larger stakes in State-led change and social policy and hence, this new resentment is not only caste-based but also policy oriented.

Honourable choice

The Telegraph reported on 16 June 2013 that at a dinner hosted by NK Singh, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament from JD (U) in Cambridge, Singh asked Amartya Sen about the choices before Nitish Kumar. Sen, according to the newspaper, observed, “Well, Nitish Kumar has several options, but only one honourable one”. Nitish Kumar has chosen the honourable path by leaving the NDA. His core constituency is opposed to feudal powers in the villages, and “secularism” implies fighting such forces via defeating Narendra Modi.

The BJP has pitched unreasonably high hopes on Modi. It is not only the Muslims that are threatened by the rise of Modi but a large section of the poor and oppressed castes who know that Modi not only represents a particular kind of politics but a particular kind of development. Nitish Kumar seems aware of that too, as is apparent from his recent media interviews. If Nitish Kumar truly believes his fight against Modi is a clash of ideas over models of development, then he may need to shed his neoliberal leanings and pursue an agenda of alternative policies. If not,  his exit from the NDA merely constitutes political exigency.

References

Bandyopadhyay, D (2009): “Lost Opportunity in Bihar”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 47, pp. 12-14.

Blair, Harry W (1980): “Rising Kulaks and Backward Classes in Bihar: Social Change in the Late 1970s”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 64-74.

Hauser, Walter (1997): “General Elections 1996 in Bihar: Politics, Administrative Atrophy and Anarchy”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 41, pp. 2599-2607.

Prasad, B S (1997): “General Elections, 1996: Major Role of Caste and Social Factions in Bihar”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 47, pp. 3021-3028.

[i]During the second round of Assembly elections in late 2005, Nitish Kumar asserted that, “A major chunk of the EBC vote will go the NDA way, in addition to the upper backward castes like Kurmis and Koeris. Moreover, all the upper castes who had even voted for parties such as CPI-ML and BSP to defeat RJD, will vote en bloc for NDA”, see http://www.financialexpress.com/news/nitishcallsitannexure1politics/159316/1

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