Bihar’s election is arguably the most important political event of the year. There seem to be some breaks from entrenched patterns in the election discourse.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for the state. Chief minister Nitish Kumar has projected himself as a ‘development’ man and has also announced special projects and schemes worth Rs 19,500 crore. Irrespective of whether these packages will translate on to the ground, there is an underlying positive sign.
Politicians are recognising the hunger for development, and the need to deliver public goods for citizens at large rather than merely private goods for a few. But to conclude that Bihar’s politics has taken a turn for the better would be a mistake. For each party is investing as much in mobilising constituencies around the axis of religion and caste.
The underlying logic of the grand alliance between Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and the Congress is that the ‘anti-BJP’ votes would not fragment. This is also to consolidate the Muslim vote. Comprising 16% of the population, the ‘Muslim vote’ can swing results in close to three dozen seats. There are also now disturbing reports of localised communal tensions, propelled by majoritarian outfits. This is not to suggest that the BJP has engineered any clashes. But there are clear political moves by some of its affiliates to ensure polarisation, and reap benefits from it. Such cynical calculations, however, will cause long-term ruptures in society and must be resisted.
As the cliché goes, the people of Bihar do not cast their vote, but vote their caste. This election is no different.
The BJP is banking on upper-caste consolidation, and on making substantial inroads among Dalits. The Nitish-Lalu alliance hopes to ride on Yadav and backward votes.
To break into this category, the BJP is now targeting the Extremely Backward Classes.
Party war-rooms are focused on micro-caste calculations and decisions are framed to win the votes of such groups. Caste politics is neither unique to Bihar nor necessarily a negative feature when it becomes a tool for those who have been prevented from raising their voice. But caste-based politics, in itself, is not sufficient as Bihar’s own experience has shown.
The political elite of backward groups hijack power and there is no improvement in the lives of their constituents. Bihar’s election campaign needs to strike a balance between the universal notions of citizenship with the more specific identity-based grievances of its people, and assure all of access to opportunities across caste and religious lines.