In Bihar, in the absence of a wide market or a substantial corporate sector, the youth increasingly aspire to enter the state structure or any of its institutions. In most of the developed states of India, however, the politics and development discourse revolves mainly around the market. These states function as well-oiled machines and their principal preoccupation is with promoting markets. This leads to a mammoth establishment of corporate, industrial and financial institutions in those states, which not only dominate the national market but effortlessly get integrated into the international economic grid. And it is the market that directly or indirectly controls the politics. Since 1921, western India has been the political centre of gravity, which oscillates around market hegemony.
Maharashtra controls 29% of the national market with 9% of the population. In complete contrast, Bihar controls just 4% of the national market with 9% of the population. The market here is still very small, and the engagement related to it is minimal. The trajectory of political discourse in Bihar for a politician or an aspiring youth revolves around entering the state structure. This is exactly the opposite of what happens in market-centric states, like Maharashtra or Gujarat. Recall how Harshad Mehta and the Ganesh idol were venerated in the same pandal in Bombay? In Bihar’s matrimonial market, the sensex of dowry is dependent on the position of a groom in the state structure. In the case of an IAS or an IPS officer, dowry crosses all limits and grooms are literally auctioned to create higher benchmarks for dowry during every marriage season.
In this backdrop, when Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, talked of revisiting the ‘positive discrimination’ in India, it sent shock waves through the social justice constituency of Bihar. This agenda is bound to generate an emotive response. When the Mandal Commission report got implemented, a student of Delhi University, Rajiv Goswami, immolated himself in protest in 1990. Recently, during Bihar’s assembly election campaign, Lalu Prasad threatened to commit suicide if ever the ‘positive discrimination’ legislation was withdrawn. Hardik Patel’s movement in Gujarat is more to end ‘reservation’, rather than to ensure ‘positive discrimination’ for the Patidars, the social community he belongs to. The narrative of this duo is facing an electoral backlash in Bihar, where market engagement is still peripheral.
Bihar is yet to test such formations electorally; hence the huge uncertainty about the outcome of the ongoing election. In the last 25 years, Bihar always had a bipolar electoral context; but in this election, the components of two coalitions have changed fundamentally. The Lalu-Nitish axis, along with the Congress, is leading the Mahagatbandhan coalition. Three of the earlier support bases of the Lalu-Nitish coalition — Ram Vilas Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Pappu Yadav — are in the opposite front. The entire social justice constituency on both the sides of the political divide is not only wedded to the concept of the state, but is also mindful of the benefits of positive discrimination. Even before the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, the lower backward castes (Annexure-I) had entered the state system at the lower level of service with the implementation of the Mungeri Lal Commission Report.
Over the years, it has created backward caste elites of considerable consequence. Later, Nitish Kumar brought them on the centre stage of governance, implementing positive discrimination in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), by reserving 50% seats for women, 20% for lower backwards and 10% for Dalits, he broke the feudal hold at the lower power centres of the state, a task that even the Lalu-Rabri duo could not complete during their stint. In Bihar, the elite, both old and new, post-Mandal or post-Mungeri Lal, is essentially innocent about market operations. The absence of a ‘stock exchange’ has further contributed to equity and market illiteracy in Bihar. Even within the BJP ranks, apart from a few exceptions, market is an alien domain for many. Thus, Bhagwat’s assertion about banishing reservation is proving to be a ‘game changer’. In the first round of election, the Mahagatbandhan, led by Nitish, appeared to have been surging.
Incidentally, Nitish, even after his alliance with Lalu, is not afflicted by the anti-incumbency factor. His tenure of nearly a decade is indeed a benchmark in the post-Independence history of Bihar. Earlier, along with Lalu, he had co-scripted the electoral democratisation of the state in 1991. In the process, the ramshackle state that existed practically collapsed. Later, in 2005, Nitish not only resurrected the state, but also established its authority. He built roads, bridges, institutions and brought a plethora of social sector reforms, effectively playing the role of a provider. Unintentionally, however, he could not be the enabler, who could accentuate the productive forces in the state and expand the market. This is because the entire edifice of development and market creation in the primitive phase of economy is sutured around tenurial reform. Without ensuring these basic reforms, a state cannot register authentic growth. Whichever coalition wins the current election, it cannot rest on the laurels of being a ‘provider’ only. By increasing the productive forces, a provincial society not only banishes its insularity, but is able to engage with the national and international market.
Shaibal Gupta is member-secretary, Asian Development Research Institute, Patna. The views expressed are personal.