The RJD shifts from an antagonistic discourse to ‘Sarvjan’ politics
The Bihar assembly elections mark a definitive, historical shift in the politics of the state. This can be seen in the slogans and narratives of the campaigns. The Janata Dal (United)’s hoardings read “Nitish sabke hain” (Nitish represents everyone). His main opponent, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav has promised to give one million government jobs to people on his first day as chief minister (CM).
Appealing across caste-class lines is nothing new for Kumar but the Yadav scion’s promise is a tacit acceptance that the old vocabulary of the Mandal politics of caste will not yield positive results. Hence, it has been replaced with an appeal to mobilise the poor with a promise of stable government jobs. This marks the entrance of sarvjan (all people) politics in Bihar.
This change was seen in the ideological somersaults of the RJD on the issue of reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS). When the Narendra Modi government introduced EWS reservation, the RJD was the only Mandalite party to oppose the bill.
However, soon after, senior RJD leader, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who passed away recently, declared that the party regretted its decision to oppose the bill in Parliament. By the time the bill was introduced in the Bihar assembly, Tejashwi Yadav said he was not against EWS reservation in principle. This non-antagonistic political vocabulary is not confined to Bihar alone. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), this change was visible in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s strategy to openly court the Brahmin vote in the 2007 elections.
Such strategies have been described as part of the “coalition of extremes” in the past. However, this is a mischaracterisation of the socio-political map, for it is premised on the misleading Brahmin-vs-non-Brahmin dichotomy born out of an excessive focus on the rhetoric of the Mandal-based parties and the BSP in Bihar and UP as well as the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu earlier.
This strategy was tempered by electoral arithmetic in other Hindi heartland states such as Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh which did not have a single numerically preponderant non-Brahmin caste to act as a pivot for electoral mobilisation. Here, the Other Backward Class (OBC) and Dalit leaders have always employed the strategy of using non-antagonistic vocabulary to ensure silent mobilisation of their own caste while enabling building multi-caste alliances to obtain a majority. Nitish Kumar and the Lok Janshakti Party’s late Ram Vilas Paswan employed this method of mobilisation as their own castes did not have the numerical strength to emulate the RJD or the BSP.
In Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, OBC leaders such as Ashok Gehlot, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Bhupesh Baghel respectively have championed this model of politics for a long time. It is based on ensuring upward mobility through modernisation and cultural inclusion within the Hindu social order rather than employing antagonistic rhetoric and rejecting Hindu cultural norms like the early Ambedkarite movement did. However, this model of politics has been ignored by the media and academia.
This election is unique for the complete absence of the old rhetoric and dichotomies of secularism versus communalism or forward-versus-backward castes. On the contrary, it is employing a universalistic language, claims of representation in employment, development, corruption and good governance. This has been brought about by a rapid shift towards a market-based economy, which makes the promise of reservation less appealing; fragmentation within OBCs; and a modicum of upward mobility and socio-political confidence among a section of the oppressed castes, which makes their mass mobilisation difficult.
There had always been a disconnect between the RJD’s rhetoric and its arithmetic. But now, it has astutely accommodated the upper castes through disproportionate representation via its alliance partner, the Congress. This is nothing new. What has been called the coalition of extremes in the UP/Bihar has long been the model for silent mobilisation in the Hindi heartland.