Nitish Kumar positions himself as the face of Mandal 2.0
By leading an all-party delegation that met Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi on Monday to push for caste-based enumeration, Bihar chief minister (CM) and Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar is perceived to have positioned himself as a pan India leader of Other Backward Classes (OBC); and asserted his stature in Bihar, where he is heading a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Though this is not the first time that Kumar has lent his voice to the need for enumerating castes, the fact that he led a delegation of parties including arch-rival, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), is seen as an attempt to burnish his socialist credentials.
It is also being seen as a move that has put the JD(U)’s coalition partner, the BJP, as the party leading the government at the Centre, in a precarious position as it is being called to clarify its stand on the issue. The BJP has been ambivalent on the issue, citing logistical impediments in carrying out the mammoth exercise as an excuse. In Parliament, the government said it has decided against a caste-based count, though some party leaders have off and on record stated there is merit in the demand.
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According to a person close to the JD(U) leader, the demand for caste-based census was first raised by Kumar in 1990 following a meeting with the former President Giani Zail Singh. “He told Kumar that the time is right for him to raise the issue,” the person said.
Though Mandal politics that ensued in 1990s was marked by agitations, in the current scenario, the Bihar CM has been careful not to appear adversarial to his ally though he is seen as the face of the coalition demanding a numerical dissection of castes and how they have benefited from welfare schemes.
“He has raised the demand without sidestepping political niceties and by taking along adversaries,” said the person quoted above.
To a question on whether Kumar envisages a larger role for himself by leading a coalition that is pushing for the caste-based count, JD(U) general secretary KC Tyagi said there is greater acceptability among parties on the need for caste-based enumeration and the issue is not as polarising as it was in the 1990s. “The atmosphere during the Mandal movement was that of agitation. There was acrimony between castes and leaders but that is not the case now. Parties such as the Bjiu Janata Dal, the YSR Congress Party, the Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party are also demanding caste-based census along with socialist parties such as the JD(U) and the RJD. Even the second-in-command in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Dattatreya Hosabale has said that reservation should continue till the time there in inequality,” Tyagi said.
Tyagi also likened Nitish Kumar to CN Annadurai, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader who led a campaign for justice for the so-called lower castes. “He (Kumar) has been successful in leading the campaign for social justice and will emerge as the Annadurai of North India,” Tyagi said.
Though the BJP has been tight lipped about Kumar driving the demand, the bonhomie between him and RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav has led to discomfort within the alliance.
“The government has said it will look into the demand. He (Kumar) himself said that they were happy with the meeting (with the PM)… these are issues that need consultation and logistical planning. It’s not something anyone can claim credit for,” said a senior BJP leader.
The leader declined to comment on whether this was the JD(U) leader’s attempt at repositioning himself in the alliance in the state.
“There is no denying that the JD(U) feels that it suffered during the assembly elections because of the campaign targetting the CM by the Lok Janashakti Party. There has been a strain in ties after BJP emerged as the bigger partner with more seats,” said a third JD(U) leader from Bihar. While the BJP won 74 seats in the 243 member assembly, the JD(U) won only 43 and also got a single berth in the Union council of ministers.
Commenting on Kumar asserting his supremacy in Bihar, political commentator Sandeep Shastri said, “After the Bihar elections, there was a sidelining of the CM as was indicated by the number of ministers from JD(U) who became part of the Union council of ministers. He is looking at asserting himself as the spokesperson of the OBCs across the country.”
Will a re-emergence of Mandal politics with Kumar as its face deepen the fissures in the BJP-JD(U) ties? Shastri suggests otherwise. He said the BJP leadership does not seem averse to the idea of a caste-based census as the party is no longer identified as a Brahmin-Bania or an upper caste only political entity but one with a wider base among the OBCs.
“Agreeing to a caste-based census would be a logical corollary to the passage of the Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill in Parliament. It won’t pose a problem for the BJP since the Hindutva constituency is with them and is not going to go away and by agreeing to a caste-based census it will consolidate its position among the OBCs,” he said.