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Political choices seem set at the time of birth

Sanjay Kumar is a criminal lawyer in Patna, Arjun Prasad is an NGO activist in Khagaria and Suman Sinha is a government official in Jamui.

columns Updated: Oct 17, 2015 21:18 IST
Hindustan Times
Voters wait in queues to cast their vote during second phase of Bihar elections at Gaya on Friday.(PTI)

Sanjay Kumar is a criminal lawyer in Patna, Arjun Prasad is an NGO activist in Khagaria and Suman Sinha is a government official in Jamui. I have known the ‘Bihari trio’ from my university days where we spent endless hours discussing politics, cricket and Bollywood — and shared notes before exams — over cups of sweet tea and bun maska. Post-university, the three have off and on served as my sounding board for things on Bihar, a state that never ceases to excite and amaze me because of the schizophrenic nature of its politics. So when the Bihar elections and its various gatbandhans — which look like tricky maths equations to me — were announced, we excitedly got on to Skype for a round of ‘chai pe charcha’ on the possible poll outcome.

As expected, it was a lively discussion; each arguing in favour of their party/leaders bravely but when it came to hazarding a guess on the results, all three chickened out. That did not surprise me much because the election — two rounds have been done already — can go either way. The pre-poll surveys also indicate such an outcome, which is actually great. Such edge-of-the-seat suspense — almost like the T20s —makes Indian elections a super value-for-money/time rollercoaster. And voters, especially in states like Bihar and UP, have to be commended for the fact that every five years they turn up in strong numbers even though the performance of leaders has been mostly poor.

The other day I read an interview of Mukulika Banerjee, London School of Economics professor and author of ‘Why India Votes’. To a question why India votes, she said that India is a country of deep social inequalities and the voting day is the only one when people can experience what equality feels like. “By pressing that button I prove that I exist because nothing in government policy seems to remember that people like me exist,” she added. This is true because every time I travel during elections, I hear people talking about voting being their ‘right’ and that it is their only chance to show the politicians who is the boss, at least for a day.

The electorate has been brave enough to surmount difficult terrain, calls for bans on the electoral process and inclement weather to come out and vote — the Bihar election is a perfect example of this — but most of our leaders have not shown the same level of courage.

When the Bihar election process began, leaders across the board started pleading for votes in the name of development. Roads, education, electricity — everything short of the moon — were promised but when it came to tickets, the search began in right earnest to get the winning caste mix for tickets though both coalitions are led by men — Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi — who project themselves as development harbingers. So the Nitish Kumar-led alliance has fielded Yadavs (64), Scheduled Castes (40), Muslims (33), EBCs (23), and Kurmi-Koeri-Vaishya (44) and upper castes (39); the NDA too continues to bank heavily on upper castes as the alliance has fielded no less than 85 upper-caste people as its candidates: Yadavs (28), Scheduled Castes (40), Muslims (9), EBCs (29) and Kurmi-Koeri-Vaishya (58) and upper castes (79).

A Delhi University professor I spoke to on this development versus caste debate said that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are unfairly blamed for pursuing identity politics. “Hardik Patel’s protest in Gujarat is also identity politics, is it not? When we go out of Bihar, we are so proud of Bihari lineage; when we go abroad, we see ourselves as Bengalis, Gujaratis etc…this is also identity politics… even gender is an identity,” he argued. “In Bihar the party that skilfully merges this identity politics with the development agenda will win”. I think development as a vote-catcher is nothing new and since elections started in India, politicians have used that as a magnet to attract voters. Wasn’t the demand/call for roti-kapda-makan tantamount to development politics?

But despite its potential electoral dividends, come elections, politicians seem to lose the courage to make development the sole plank. Nitish Kumar has a hundred reasons to talk about the Bihar growth story under him. And yet he too rushes back to the caste chess board, the moment the Opposition changes its political messaging.

Under Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s economic expansion has averaged more than 10% a year, exceeding the national rate. He is also credited with improving law and order and providing roads, electricity and food. In 2005-06, Bihar’s per capita income was 29.2% of the all-India figure. By 2013-14, it went up to 38.9% of the all-India per capita income, a significant improvement. In agriculture, Bihar’s growth rate has been 5.58% when the all-India average is 3.79%.If the development expenditure and social sector spends by states over the last few years were to be taken as the yardstick, his government is among the top three states.

Nitish Kumar has a strong base among women voters also because he had ensured 50% reservation at the panchayat level, making them more politically active. A recent survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies suggests that women voters have begun making electoral choices different from men. The voting in the first two phases — 55.5% women came out to vote — goes on to reinforce the trend.

On the other hand, Modi’s strong development credentials and the fact that he controls the financial strings at the Centre are good enough reasons to stick to developmentspeak. Yet what does the BJP bank on for securing a majority in the 243-seat assembly: Caste and communal polarisation.

This is such a shame. If politicians are to blame for this caste-oriented electoral process, so are other factors like village councils and family elders who keep this identity politics going because that is what they have known all these years and their power flows from such associations. As does the State’s affirmative policies because they continue in perpetuity without any periodic review. It may be a politically incorrect thing to say in these columns but this continual obsession with identity also shows that the country’s liberal Constitution that was supposed to end our old preoccupation with the idea that your place in life is set at birth has not lived up to its promise.

To move out of this casteist mindset, someone has to change the language of Indian politics. And right now, I don’t think any of our leaders are capable of such farsightedness and bravery. Not one.

First Published: Oct 17, 2015 21:07 IST