For all the development that Bihar has seen in recent years, caste remains integral to the political discourse and electoral positioning in the state. Last week, it was implicit in JD (U) leader Ali Anwar’s passionate statement that Ishrat Jahan—one of the four killed in an alleged fake encounter in 2004 in Gujarat, a case that could even lead to BJP leaders in that state— was “Bihar’s daughter” and that her killing would be avenged. Responding to the “logic” of Anwar’s statement, a senior JD (U) leader, not wanting to be named, makes a candid admission: “There nothing called vote for development, at least not in Bihar.”
Caste, there is plenty, and the jockeying has begun following the political realignment caused by last month’s break-up between the two leading parties in Bihar—JD (U) and BJP— after 17 years. As the state heads for elections, due in 2014, caste dynamics will be the underpinning of electoral choices of all parties, drawing both from old positions and new calculations.
Caste is Cast
“The caste calculus in the state has not changed one bit,” says Jawaharlal Nehru University professor and political analyst Sudha Pai. Roots of current political positions in Bihar’s caste matrix can be traced back to the Mandal politics of the late-1980s and the ensuing social-engineering experiments.
Implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the then prime minister VP Singh—leading to the creation of a new category of other backward castes (OBCs) for job reservations—caused significant churn in North Indian politics. Backward classes replaced powerful upper castes in positions of political power, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
But, even among backward classes, when it came to political empowerment, there were first among equals: the Yadavs among OBCs, and the Paswans and Jatavs among the Dalits. Many other castes within the OBCs and Dalits were excluded politically—and, by extension, socially and economically. The ruling Janata Dal (United) anchored its political appeal here—in the most backward classes (a loose term for non-Yadav OBCs) and Mahadalits (Dalit communities that are yet to benefit from social engineering). “We are genuinely in favour of the oppressed—those who have been sidelined by powerful communities in mainstream politics, like the Muslims, among others,” says the unnamed JD (U) leader quoted above.
Pai says it is “anyone’s guess” that JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar will focus on MBCs and Mahadalits, like last time. “There is no doubt that Kumar can approach voters among non-Paswan Dalits and MBCs with much ease,” she says. “They seem to have lost no respect for him and don’t seem to bother about any realignment of political forces.” As chief minister of Bihar, Kumar created a quota in civic bodies for MBCs and implemented health schemes for them, and allotted land to Mahadalits for free. Since it was not constitutionally feasible to offer a quota within quota for either Dalits or OBCs, he offered them assembly seats and positions of power in panchayats or other local bodies. Such measures helped Kumar dent the political fortunes of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who claimed to represent the aspirations of all OBCs and Dalits, respectively, in the state.
tailor their political positioning to this caste matrix. For example, about 40 of the BJP’s current 91 legislators in the state are either MBCs or Mahadalits.
According to state BJP leader Sushil Modi, the party will use its MBC leaders, notably one Narendra Modi, to take on the JD (U) in its stronghold: the backward caste vote. “The JD (U)’s position is aimed at helping those who want to thwart a backward class leader’s bid for the top post,” he says. “Narendra Modi is a leader who has come up from a humble background.” Kumar retorted: “Modi is closer to corporates than to backward classes even in his state (Gujarat).”
Even as the verbal jousting gains pitch, the split between the JD (U), which has 118 legislators, and the BJP has pulled the Kumar government out of its comfort zone. The doors of the chief minister’s Anne Marg residence will now have to open for many hangers-on and whimsical legislators who will demand their pound of political flesh in exchange for their loyalty. Most of these MLAs are former socialists who are known to realign at the drop of a hat. This means that Kumar, who has so far maintained an impeccable image on issues of patronage, may come under pressure.