Tucked away in a nondescript corner of Bihar’s capital is the Prabha-Jayaprakash Memorial Museum – a tribute to socialist stalwart Jayaprakash Narayan and his wife, Prabhavati Devi. The museum has a series of images that record JP’s remarkable life – as a freedom fighter; a peaceful revolutionary who ignited a movement which rattled Indira Gandhi; and a political leader who brought together non-Congress formations after the Emergency.
Nearly four decades after the death of Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, his protégés are still battling it out for Bihar. As the politically significant eastern state gears up for one of its most important elections, the question everybody is asking is: will the alliance led by chief minister Nitish Kumar succeed in staving off the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or will the BJP lead a government in Bihar for the first time?
A file photo of Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly called JP. He was a peaceful revolutionary who ignited a movement which rattled Indira Gandhi.
The dates for the Bihar assembly elections haven’t been announced yet, but the political slugfest has already begun. Political pundits are gazing into their crystal balls, but there is no clear answer. Many are turning to Bihar’s vibrant political past to get a grip on the future of the state that has witnessed, and even pioneered, key political trends.
It is clearly a do-or-die election for all the players fighting for the 243-member assembly.
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A BJP win will burnish Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s depleting political capital at the Centre, reinforce Amit Shah’s supremacy in the party, obliterate the humiliation of the Delhi defeat and give the BJP more than strong shot in the UP elections. But a loss could mark the beginning of the end of the Modi era, trigger internal convulsions and distract from governance.
It is also a battle for survival for the anti-BJP alliance of Nitish, Lalu and the Congress. Nitish faced a humiliating rout in the Lok Sabha polls; this is a moment to avenge the defeat. Lalu has lost four elections in a row and stares at oblivion. And the Congress morale will shoot up both inside and outside Parliament if the BJP loses, offering a model to non-BJP parties on how to stop the Modi juggernaut in the state that sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha and 16 to the Rajya Sabha.
BJP's tallest leader in the state, Sushil Modi, and chief minister Nitish Kumar. (File photo)
Bihar’s politics has always been exciting. The first 20 years after Independence saw what political scientist Rajni Kothari termed the "Congress system". In Bihar, the Congress had the strong backing of the state’s Hindu upper castes, Muslims, and Dalits, with the so-called "forward castes" monopolising key positions. Bihar also witnessed a battle over land. Progressive legislation enabled land reform, but landed interests in Congress blocked its effective implementation.
Partial land reform did give some muscle to the middle peasantry. In 1967, Bihar was part of the wave that saw the installation of non-Congress state governments for the first time. The wide, disparate coalition however could not hold together.
When Thakur was the chief minister, MLAs from backward castes suddenly saw an increase in representation. (HT file photo)
The underlying resentment against Congress rule found another outlet as a student-centric movement soon escalated into demanding the ouster of Bihar’s Congress ministry. Socialist stalwart Jayaprakash Narayan had increasingly begun to feel that formal democracy was not adequate. The Patna University Students Union was then led by Lalu Prasad as president and Sushil Modi as general secretary. "The PUSU initiated the movement and we invited JP to speak," Modi told HT.
As a peaceful revolutionary JP ignited a movement that rattled Indira Gandhi, Bihar became the site of a fundamental political question – is civil disobedience legitimate to fight an elected government and are elections the only way to express popular will? Indira Gandhi called it anarchy, and used it as a pretext to impose the Emergency.
Nitish Kumar, who was an ally of Lalu in the early 90s, won 2005 elections in Bihar. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
The end of the Emergency saw the Janata Party come to power, reflecting and catalysing a change in power equations. Chief minister Karpoori Thakur introduced reservations for the backward classes in government jobs. This was also the time when former Bihar chief minister BN Mandal submitted his report to the central government, recommending reservations for OBCs in jobs and educational institutions. A decade later, VP Singh implemented it, changing India’s politics and society.
Meanwhile, the Maoists strongly raised the issues of landlessness and caste exploitation. Tensions between upper-caste landlords and Maoist militias escalated. Caste massacres were frequent. The year 1990 marked the beginning of a radically new phase – the rise of the regional satrap and the face of aggressive backward politics in Lalu Prasad. He promised power to the Yadavs and backward classes as well as security to Muslims. But the Lalu story is also symbolic of the degeneration of the politics of social justice. The empowerment did not extend to improvement in livelihoods. Law and order crumbled and corruption allegations mushroomed.
By 2005, Bihar was ready for change. And Nitish Kumar, in alliance with the BJP, created a “coalition of extremes” – the BJP brought in the dominant upper-castes; Nitish focused on the more excluded within marginalised groups. Combined with “development” – improvement in infrastructure and law and order – Nitish and the BJP won a second term in 2010.
It threw up new questions for Indian politics. Was the era of caste-based politics over? Could governance win elections? What was the right fusion? The rise of Narendra Modi strained the BJP’s alliance with Nitish. A triangular fight ensued in the Lok Sabha polls, but the BJP swept the election riding on the Modi wave.
The battle until 1990 was about displacing the Congress, and then revolved around who would end Lalu’s rule. But the big theme now is whether the BJP will succeed it maintaining the momentum of its spectacular Lok Sabha win. It won’t be long before we know.
(The writer tweets as @prashantktm)