In Bihar, the importance of being Nitish Kumar
Bihar never fails to surprise. Given the intensity of anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar, his electoral fortune in the ensuing election should have nosedived. However, he remains the most preferred choice as the next chief minister (CM). This outlier phenomenon demands a focus into the prevailing political psychology of the voters in the state. Further, given the numerical preponderance of the backward castes in Bihar, a quick look into the internal dynamics within caste groups may also be relevant.
Since the 1950s, Bihar witnessed two diametrically opposed strands of backward caste assertion, the feudal and the egalitarian. Feudal backwardism revealed the psychology of the dominant backward castes such as Yadavs, the majority of whom aspired to dislodge the deeply-entrenched but numerically-weaker upper castes and emerge as the new political elite. Their political agency was radical and transformative as long as the upper castes were the reference. The moment the reference changed to the lower backward castes and Dalits, they revealed a conservative face. The vanguard of this strand was BP Mandal, a big Yadav landlord.
On the other hand, there was an egalitarian quest of backward caste assertion within the Lohiaite framework. Their aim was not merely to replace the hold of the upper castes by subalterns, but rather to erase the very feudal outlook that social groups in power tend to acquire. This thread was led by Karpoori Thakur, a committed socialist who rose from an extremely humble background. He belonged to numerically insignificant Nai (barber) caste.
This was not merely a clash of the political aspirations of the two leaders to assume the mantle of backward caste discourse, but rather, it signified the struggle as to which strand of backwardism, the feudal or the egalitarian, would prevail. They represented two contrasting subaltern aspirations within the democratic framework. One couldn’t have prevailed without vanquishing the other.
Hence, the saga of sabotage by feudal strand against the egalitarian ones is long: From BP Mandal collaborating with the Congress and dislodging the first non-Congress government in 1968 (when Karpoori Thakur was the deputy CM) to his diatribe in 1978 against Thakur who, as Bihar’s CM, dared to implement the backward castes reservation by dividing it internally. Within the 20% quota, 12% was earmarked for the extremely backward classes (EBCs) while better-off backward castes got 8%. Further, Mandal, as the chairman of the second Backward Caste Commission, ensured that this internal differentiation, popularly known as Karpoori model in Bihar, signifying the aspirations of weaker subalterns, was effectively denied.
In the aftermath of the death of BP Mandal and Karpoori Thakur, the mantle of backward caste aspiration passed on to two leaders at different intervals in the 1990s. Lalu Prasad decided to inherit Mandal’s legacy. He replaced the Karpoori model with the Mandal model, wherein 60% of share in reservation, exclusively reserved for lower Other Backward Classes (OBCs)/EBCs, was abolished, despite vehement protest from the EBC leadership in the state. That, in turn, compelled the EBC leadership to approach the high court and launch a popular agitation, leading to the withdrawal of the government circular and restoration of the Karpoori model.
On the other hand, Nitish Kumar meticulously attempted to inherit the legacy of Karpoori Thakur, both in opposition and as CM by earmarking special policy provisions for the EBCs and the Mahadalits. EBCs such as Mallahs, Nais, Kalwars, Kewats, Binds, and Tantis supported Nitish Kumar because there was a dominant perception that the Rashtriya Janata Dal leadership catered to the empowerment of only the Yadav community.
Since the 1990 assembly election in Bihar, Yadavs claimed a disproportionately large share of power in Janata Dal (JD) and then the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). They got 100 tickets out of 227 seats that the JD contested in 1990. Important contracts, liquor licences, casual and semi-permanent government jobs, chairmanships of boards and corporations began falling into hands Lalu Prasad chose, and they were invariably Yadavs. Yadavs were also preferred in the ministry, the party, the bureaucracy, business, local self-government and various committees. As has been extensively reported, they were cornering the largest chunks in recruitments to the lower bureaucracy within or outside the OBC quota.
The 1995 Bihar assembly election was a setback for the EBCs. Despite constituting around 28-30 % of the population, EBC MLAs made up less than 5% of the Bihar assembly. This lopsided representation between Yadavs and other OBC groups revealed anti-EBC approach of the RJD.
This intra-backward representational discrepancy, coupled with the arrogance displayed by dominant Yadavs in the public sphere where the EBCs and Dalits found themselves to be at the receiving end, remains the most abiding memory among the weaker subalterns who support Nitish Kumar.
Of all the mainstream parties, the RJD, until 2019 Lok Sabha election, has been giving least representation to the EBCs. A sudden change of course will not change the deeply ingrained perception among the vulnerable castes.
In this backdrop, the prevailing psychology of the vulnerable castes matters as they are as wary of the dominance of upper castes as of the dominant OBC castes such as Yadavs. Hence, when it comes to state elections, both the BJP and the RJD, without Nitish Kumar, are perceived by the majority of EBCs and Mahadalits to be the parties which cater primarily to the interest of the dominant castes. And that explains the indispensability of Nitish Kumar.
Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse
The views expressed are personal