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Changing the political context

To say that Nitish Kumar's victory negates identity politics is overstating or perhaps even misreading the situation ... But perhaps a beginning has been made. Varghese K George and Mammen Matthew write. Number game | Podcast | Special | Pics

delhi Updated: Nov 25, 2010 09:04 IST

Bihar has changed, and for the better. But the nature of this change is more complex than "development winning over caste and identity politics".

Development and governance were indeed factors that contributed to the sweeping victory for the JD(U)-BJP combine, but so did a formidable caste confederation that Nitish Kumar stitched over the last five years.

Kumar's campaign speeches rode on the theme of development with the subtext of caste and religious identities. For his rival, Lalu Prasad, caste was the only text and the subtext as well.

In contrast, Kumar tailored his development agenda to address the concerns of all such groups that had been left out of the social engineering Bihar saw in the past two decades.

He carefully crafted and nurtured a political strategy that put extremely backward castes and women at its core, while not ignoring the expectations of the relatively privileged sections of society.

Development is not a concept that has any universal meaning, particularly in a society that is driven by sharp fault-lines along caste identities.

The roads were built, the schools got teachers, and the doctors were present at the primary health centres (PHC), at least once a week. But that much is not good enough to win a political battle in Bihar, yet. Who has got the contracts for building the roads, what is the caste of the teacher at your school and the doctor at your clinic are important questions in Bihar.

Development in Bihar cannot have a caste-neutral outcome. Kumar's real success is in understanding this and building in the caste component in everything that he did - from local body elections to teacher appointment to general political discourse.

An uncharitable interpretation of Kumar's caste politics is that he mopped up all sentiments against two particular castes - the Yadavs and Paswans, who were the prime beneficiaries of the first wave of lower-caste politics in Bihar. Non-Yadav backwards have been at the receiving end of Yadav empowerment under Prasad. Non-Paswan Dalits have been getting a raw deal, economically and politically, all through. Kumar mobilised their frustration and anger.

A more charitable take is that Kumar widened the umbrella of political participation, offering some fruits of development to the hitherto neglected and lowest in the caste hierarchy. He courted Muslims by quickly dealing with the remaining Bhagalpur riot cases of 1989, providing funds for madrasas and burial grounds and keeping controversial Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi out of Bihar's political equation. In that sense, Kumar took social empowerment from where Prasad left it and built on it.

In this hugely successful and imaginative journey, Kumar created three new identities, which go beyond caste - women, youth and Bihari.

Kumar addressed the development and empowerment aspirations of these three categories in tangible measures and promised a lot more in the second coming.

By introducing 50% reservation for women in local bodies and distributing cycles to girls in schools, Kumar awoke the latent urge of the state's women to be part of the progress. In 23 districts out of the 38 in the state, more women than men showed up to vote, and more women, perhaps, voted for the ruling alliance.

Kumar compared his governance with that of his predecessor and declared that it's no longer a shame to be known as a Bihari - a slogan that instantly caught on with the youth of the state who travel outside and face humiliation. He urged the youth to empower by learning - a departure from the Lalu-brand of politics.

"I am proud to be Bihari," said the BJP's spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad in New Delhi. That view is being echoed in many parts of Bihar, although the Bihari identity is still nebulous.

To suggest that Kumar's victory negates identity politics is overstating or perhaps even misreading the situation. Kumar did change the vocabulary of politics in the state. That's why everyone in Bihar and outside is calling the verdict a victory for development over caste. But it's too early for Bihar to put an end to caste and identity politics.

Perhaps a beginning has been made, and the credit is fully due to its new leader.