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Where is Caste in Development?

Bihar Assembly Elections 2015

Awanish Kumar (awanishkumar86@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar, Mumbai. 

A starting point for the new Maha Gathbandhan government in Bihar can be revisiting some of its own earlier proposals including implementation of land reforms , strong action against caste militias and ensuring justice to thousands of Dalits in the state, common schooling system and creating strong and equitable public service infrastructure delinked from the neoliberal obsession with growth. 

The author would like to thank Saumyajit Bhattacharya and Anisha George for detailed comments and suggestions.

The Bihar assembly election results have proved to be startling for some quarters of the academia, media and politics. Some commentators have begun to anticipate the return of the jungle raj now that Lalu Prasad Yadav is back with the largest number of seats in the assembly. A few others are disappointed that the Bihari electorate has not voted in favour of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) despite repeated promises of development made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. This article looks at the major factors that shaped the elections and its outcome.

NDA and Maha Gathbandhan

The Lok Sabha election results in 2014 in Bihar were very positive for the NDA. This success, despite the break-up of the BJP and Janata Dal (United) (JDU) alliance during the course of the last assembly, was interpreted as a vindication for the BJP and Narendra Modi’s model of development. The break-up between the two parties was located in their conflicting caste and class bases. While BJP was mostly supported by the upper castes, including the dominant feudal classes, the JD(U) had created a new alliance between non-Yadav Other Backward Castes (OBCs), including Most Backward Castes (MBCs)/Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and a section of Dalits. In the early 1990s, Nitish Kumar himself had forged a treaty with a section of the upper castes and dominant feudal interests in the form of his electoral alliance with the BJP. However, his focus on creating newer political constituencies through a careful management of this “socio-political coalition of extremes” led to intermittent crises. It was quite clear to both parties, though never explicitly conceded, that continuation of this alliance at the social level was impossible (for a brief review see Kumar 2013).

During the recent assembly elections, the BJP took up the mantle of maintaining and perpetuating the “coalition of extremes.” The alliance between the party and Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) signified the desire of the BJP to repeat what Nitish Kumar had accomplished during his NDA years. Undoubtedly, both Paswan and Kushwaha were given central cabinet positions despite their limited influence in the politics of Bihar. On the other hand, while BJP kept EBCs and Mahadalits at the centre of their political discourse, more than 90 out of 160 seats that they fought were given to upper caste candidates.

Added to this was a relatively new focus on Yadavs. It was hoped that a section of the Yadav youth would vote for the BJP owing to its developmentalist posture. Pappu Yadav, a strongman from Seemanchal, defected from RJD and formed a new party called Jan Adhikar Party-Loktantrik (JAP-L). JAP-L and Samajwadi Party (SP), along with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and others formed a third front.

In a completely centralised electoral campaign, Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah dominated. The streets of Patna were full of hoardings featuring only Modi and Shah and no local BJP leader. Modi tried hard to register with the audience that he came from an OBC community in Gujarat. In later speeches, he also claimed to be from EBC community because his caste happens to be listed in the EBC list in Bihar.

The Bihar assembly elections would also be remembered for setting a dangerous precedent for electoral campaigns. Modi himself set the tone in Gaya on 9 August 2015 when he questioned Nitish Kumar’s DNA. In the later phases of the elections, Modi stooped to communal polarisation of the worst kind. In Buxar on 26 October, one of the 31 rallies that he addressed in Bihar, he told the audience that the leaders of the Maha Gathbandhan (MG) were conspiring to snatch away reservation quotas from various social groups and give it to members of “other” religions. The objective of this speech was to deflect attention from the crisis emerging from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on review of reservation policy but the tenor against and targeting of Muslims by the Prime Minister himself was unprecedented.

Rather than withdrawing the remark, he repeated the allegation on 2 November in Forbesganj. On the same day, he spoke in Darbhanga and referred to the “Darbhanga module” and accused the incumbent government of sheltering terrorists.

During the last two phases of elections, the BJP released three advertisements published in newspapers across the state.

One of these questioned Nitish Kumar over the comments on beef eating made by Lalu Prasad Yadav, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Karnataka CM Siddharamaiah. The second advertisement accused Nitish Kumar of “harvesting votes by sowing terrorism” and the third advertisement insinuated that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav were conspiring to take away reservations from Dalits and backwards and give it to “minorities.” Last but not the least, in one of his rallies Amit Shah asserted that if BJP loses elections in Bihar, crackers would be burst in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the Election Commission forced the BJP to withdraw the print advertisements but could not take action against Modi and Shah for saying the same things in election rallies. Pakistan was also a subject of comments made by Bihar BJP leaders Sushil Kumar Modi, Ashwini Choubey and Rajiv Pratap Rudy.

It is interesting to note that the campaign from MG began on a much sober note. On 30 August 2015, the former Chief Minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, raised an unusual issue in the Swabhiman Rally held at Gandhi Maidan in Patna: what is the caste character of landlessness in India? Why did the government not release the caste data? Who are the poor? Who are the daily wage labourers? Are they members of the Rajput caste, or Bhumihar, Brahmin, Kayastha or Yadav castes? (paraphrased from the speech by the author).

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar had divided their focus areas and rhetorical punches. From the very beginning, Lalu Prasad defined the elections as one between the rich and poor and the forward and backward castes. At multiple rallies, he asked the audience to choose between the Bihar of pre-1990s period and Bihar of post-1990s, a period when Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar ruled the state with slogans of social justice and inclusive development respectively.

Social Justice Revisited

The key to understand Lalu Prasad Yadav’s political acumen is that he engages his audience in a multi-sided conversation, not only in election rallies but also on the verandah of his bungalow. It is hence no surprise that he actually spent quite some time in the speech mentioned above to stress on the wretched social and economic conditions of the backward castes in India. His command to all his “admirers” was to go back to their hometowns/villages and campaign against the NDA. He was carrying newspaper clippings to bolster his arguments and went on to say that the NDA had already lost the elections in Bihar. This was not simply a rhetorical sweep, but was accompanied with a new political and ideological rigour.

In a remarkable throwback to the 1990s, Lalu Prasad Yadav openly challenged the upper castes in Bihar with a specific case as an instance. The case related to Anant Singh, better known as Chhote Sarkar, who was a JD(U) MLA from Mokama, less than 100 km from Patna. Incidentally, Mokama falls under the Barh Lok Sabha constituency, which was represented by Nitish Kumar in the past. Anant Singh was a criminal with a long history but in this instance, he was accused of killing a young boy from the Yadav caste. It was Lalu Prasad Yadav who ensured that Anant Singh was put behind bars, thereby setting an example for other such feudal gangsters[i].

In the early parts of the campaign, Lalu Yadav mostly contested the Jungle raj-II propaganda and posed Mandal raj-II as an alternative. The inability of the central government to release caste census data was, according to him, a clear indication of the upper caste character of the BJP. While Nitish Kumar concentrated on his development plank, Lalu Prasad made explicit connections between development and caste. His repeated assertions made sense to an electorate who knew that development was never caste-blind. He was successful in communicating that BJP was not only a party of the rich but also an upper-caste party with insignificant representation of backward castes, Dalits and Muslims in its ranks.

Nitish Kumar’s development agenda targeted Bihar’s hunger for progress. With 90% rural voters, the creation of a uniform aspiration is difficult but he is seen as someone who has delivered on some of his promises. In certain areas, the improvements such as roads and electricity cannot be missed.

In the latter parts of the campaign, it was Lalu Yadav’s bold and courageous assertions regarding reservations and beef eating among Hindus that clinched the debate. First, he was successful in linking BJP’s communal agenda with its anti-backward and anti-Dalit politics. In this respect, he repeatedly invoked M S Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, which contains references against reservation policy and minorities. When Modi promised to give away his life defending reservations, Lalu Yadav dared BJP leaders to burn copies of Golwalkar’s book in public. After a long time in Indian politics has a mainstream politician linked Brahminism and communalism in his public rallies. Secondly, Lalu Yadav courageously stood by his remarks on beef eating among Hindus. His colleague Raghuvansh Prasad Singh even cited D N Jha’s Holy Cow to substantiate that beef eating was not alien to Hindus. This sent a strong signal to the electorate comprising Dalits and Muslims.

The Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav combine have complicated the development debate in the country. We must not forget that at a press conference after his resounding defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Kumar, who was the poster boy of developmentalism till a year ago before he snapped ties with the BJP, conceded that ideology had become a bad word in politics. It was this irony that forced Nitish Kumar to join hands with Lalu Prasad and revisit the social justice agenda proposed by Ram Manohar Lohia and taken forward by Karpoori Thakur in Bihar.

Dalit and Left Politics

Jitan Ram Manjhi and HAM appeared on the scene of Bihar politics at a crucial juncture in history. Manjhi’s independent outlook and his rebellion against Nitish Kumar were seen by many as heralding a new phase in Bihar’s Dalit politics. History presented a unique opportunity to Manjhi to accomplish a Kanshiram in a state not too dissimilar from Uttar Pradesh. Had Manjhi contested alone, he could have created an autonomous space for Dalit politics in a state where brutal massacres have been celebrated and Ranvir Sena chief Barmeshwar Mukhiya is called a Mahatma by leaders of the BJP. However, the outcome of the elections has dashed the hopes of many intellectuals and sympathisers of the Dalit cause. Out of the 20 seats that HAM fought, it emerged victorious in only one seat, won by Manjhi himself. He lost one of the two seats that he contested. Paswan’s LJP won only two out of 40 and RLSP got two seats out of 23 contested.

On the other hand Left parties, who fought together, could manage three seats without any backing of financial and state apparatus. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation won three seats, whereas Communist Party of India (Marxist) stood second in one seat. The Left front also stood third in a significant number of seats. The important trend to note was that the Left front did much better than other smaller parties, including HAM, LJP and the self-proclaimed third front comprising Samajwadi Party, Nationalist Congress Party and Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party (Loktantrik). The Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen received an extremely poor response from Seemanchal voters. Yet, despite emerging as the third largest block in the assembly and performing better than many other parties, the media completely blacked out news related to Left front candidates.

Conclusion

In the early days of the campaign, the media was quite enthusiastic about NDA getting the “caste arithmetic” right. From the very beginning, EBCs and a section of Yadav and Dalits votes were deemed to be floating and NDA was poised to get a majority of those votes. However, it is only after the MG won a decisive mandate that the caste versus development discourse was reignited. A vote for NDA has been construed as a vote for development despite caste calculations remaining at the core of its electoral management[ii]. On the day of results, television channels messed up the reporting of leads and final tallies. It was unprecedented and no one knows how it occurred.

In the election rally mentioned earlier, one of the shocking things was that Lalu Prasad Yadav did not name any Dalit caste in his long list of caste groups that are landless. In fact, something more curious happened—Lalu Yadav had finished his speech and was about to leave the podium when someone from behind reminded him about Dalits. He resumed the speech for a few minutes and added a few comments about Dalits. In the emerging politics of Bihar, it is extremely important to understand the contradictions between backward castes and Dalits. If the Bihar elections of 2015 resemble the elections of 1990, the questions of that era remain equally relevant. The new politics and new government need to do more to emerge as a credible and insurmountable alternative to BJP that has made deep inroads in Bihar.

In the future politics of Bihar, what one has to watch out for is not the final arrival of “development politics” but whether a strong class coalition of all the oppressed classes/castes emerges against the compromising attitude of the beneficiaries of previous cycles of social and agrarian unrest in the state. The role of Dalits and other toiling classes in the socio-political change led by Lalu Prasad Yadav was crucial to that political movement in its own context. However, in his earlier governments Nitish Kumar had accorded a passive beneficiary role to the Dalits and other historically exploited castes of Bihar. The Nitish Kumar era has, in fact, seen a disenfranchisement of Dalits in Bihar politics and return of the landed class and upper caste hegemony. The Dalit political space had almost been completely eliminated by Nitish Kumar, both discursively as well as politically (see Kumar 2013; Ananth 2005).

With a strong mandate behind Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, the “subaltern resurgence” (Gupta 2001) has reached its newer phase but the basic contradictions remain as strong as ever. These results from Bihar are also a preliminary lesson in how neoliberal developmentalism can be challenged and reshaped by the complex caste-class politics in India. The old “developmentalism” of Nitish Kumar succumbed to its own contradictions but the inherent dilemmas of “development politics” in Bihar will continue to haunt. The mandate speaks aloud that development cannot be devoid of its social and political meanings. The differentiated nature of development for various castes and classes must be integrated in policy.

The members of the Dalit castes, landless, women and backward castes have voted for the MG and defeated ostensibly Dalit parties such as LJP and HAM. Wherever a radical Left alternative was found to be a strong force, the poor, landless and Dalits have voted for such parties. The mandate has a radical content and the new government must go beyond mere lip service to the cause of social justice. A starting point for the new government can be revisiting some of its own earlier proposals including implementation of Bandyopadhyay committee report[iii], strong action against caste militias and ensuring justice to thousands of Dalits in the state, common schooling system and creating strong and equitable public service infrastructure delinked from the neoliberal obsession with growth.

Finally, the Bihar results may also be interpreted as a reinforcement of the political and ideological potential of Indian democracy. Bihari voters, particularly those belonging to landless and Dalit groups, have voted for an alternative that despite its own chequered past stood for a project of social justice and development. The usual discourse of caste versus development stands discarded. Intellectuals and media need to break the binary of “caste” and “development” to appreciate the maturity and political nature of these election results.   

Notes

[i] Anant Singh has won the Mokama seat as an independent fighting from inside the prison.

[ii] Noted TV journalist Ravish Kumar once said, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that caste is the pet name for development (vikas jiska school ka naam hai, usi ka ghar ka naam jaati hai!)

[iii] The Bihar government had instituted a committee in 2007 headed by D Bandopadhyay to look into land reforms and developmental problems in the state. The committee had suggested sweeping changes with regard to land reforms in Bihar.

References

Ananth, V K (2005): “Bihar: Dawn of New Caste Battles,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 40, No 49, pp 5143–5144, accessed on 17 November 2015, http://www.epw.in/commentary/bihar-dawn-new-caste-battles.html.

Gupta, Shaibal (2001): “New Panchayats and Subaltern Resurgence,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 36, No 29, pp 2742–2744, accessed on 17 November 2015, http://www.epw.in/commentary/bihar-new-panchayats-and-subaltern-resurgence.html.

Kumar, Awanish (2013): “Nitish Kumar’s Honourable Exit: A Brief History of Caste Politics,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 28, pp 15–17, http://www.epw.in/web-exclusives/nitish-kumars-honourable-exit-brief-history-caste-politics.html

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