Writers: Sanjay Kumar, Mohammad Sanjeer Alam, Dhananjai Joshi
Over last six decades, politics in Bihar has undergone a tremendous change. This change is often attributed to deeper structural cleavages along the axis of castes, although little, if any, attempt has been done to support or contest such oversimplified formulations with theoretical and empirical underpinnings. Even if some studies have tried to use empirical evidence, the analytical domain remains too narrow to understand larger socio-political reality in the state. This paper attempts to fill the gaps by going beyond overly generalized notions of caste induced politics. It is argued in this paper that the politics of Bihar has, indeed, been informed by dynamics of social relations chiefly manifested in assertion of caste identity, but it is not as simple as it appears to be, for the dynamics of caste and political preference operate in multiple layers of socio-political structures and get influenced by processes that are multi-dimensional.
The politics in Bihar in the post-independence period, as in many states of India, has gone through several transformational processes. These processes seem to have dialectical relationship between failure of long established national party in power and rising political consciousness among hitherto backward segments of society. Thus, at one level, Bihar has moved from single national party dominance to fragmented polity with many regional parties having their distinctive support bases. Until 1990, except for a brief period of 1977-79, the Congress dominated the politics in the state. At the other level, the polity has seen a kind of ‘role reversal’in a sense that the forward caste dominated polity gave way to the backward castes led polity. In the pre-1990s period, forward castes were is proportionately over represented in the assembly and so also in other public spheres. On the other hand, the backward castes, despite their numerical superiority over forward castes, remained under represented in almost all public spheres and political institutions in particular. The year 1990 reversed the dice of politics and political representation. Now the backward castes were in majority in the assembly.
A closer look at the caste dynamics in Bihar polity seems to suggest that the forward-backward divide has never been neat and compact. While in the pre -1990s, upper castes dominated the Congress as well as the assembly; there were deep-rooted conflicts amongst various constituents of the so-called forward castes within the Congress, which led to acute factionalism in the party. Similarly, consolidation of backward castes was also not compact. The consolidation of backward castes under the banner of Janata Dal in 1990 developed fissures within a period of five years. The backward castes split into two camps led by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Now, the two major backward caste formations Koeri-Kurmi and Yadav became political rivals. Again, Ram Vilas Paswan, the most popular Dalit leader, formed his own party and supposedly broke Dalit voters away from RJD. Furthermore, while Nitish Kumar led Samata/JD(U) formed an alliance with the BJP – a party seen as largely supported by forward castes, RJD struck alliance with the Congress still having its root in forward caste voters and more importantly it was traditionally the bete noire of backward caste interests.
Though the rout of Congress was hailed as a mark of change and Lalu led JD/RJD in power in the 1990s an epitome of social justice and dignity of poor, little did change on the ground except enhancement of voting rights and choices of the lower and marginalised social groups. For most part, Lalu could not move beyond politics of symbolism if one goes by macro level developmental statistics. However, in a context of age-long restrictive social and economic opportunities, perhaps issues of development or wider provisions of basic necessities as drivers of mass mobilisation take back seat for a while and the question of self-dignity becomes the prime mover for the voters. This is why the vulnerable communities continued to support RJD despite widely held view that the state under the regime of Lalu Prasad was characterised by anarchy, non-development, sagged economy and patronising fellow caste men.
The politics of ‘populism’ and ‘symbolism’ has its own limits and so has the empty sense of self-pride. Self-dignity alone cannot appeal to the voters for long. Along with self-dignity, people have other aspirations and necessities as well. Lalu Prasad failed to realise this and continued to play the same political trick and eventually was voted out of power after 15 years. In the assembly election held in February 2005, political rivals of RJD attacked it for neglecting development of the state. The issue of development appealed to the voter. Majority of voters held that development of the state was a major consideration when they voted for a party. As RJD had been in power during last 15 years, obviously it was to be blamed for neglecting development of the state. Thus, the verdict of 2005 assembly elections was largely the rejection of politics of symbolism, though caste identity of political leadership still mattered for a significant section of voters. On balance, it could be said that exit of RJD was a combined effect of loosening caste-community alliance and urge for better governance among the voters across the board. Later developments have shown that the politics in Bihar has now moved from symbolism to development to a significant extent. It is both a challenge and an opportunity for the incumbent government. It is a challenge because people have great expectation and want to see change on the ground. But, it is not as easy a task as people may think, for it has to start almost from the scratch. It is an opportunity because even if it is able to sow the seeds of development and demonstrates strong determination for the cause of development rather than relying on rhetoric, it may re-orient the politics in the state for the welfare of the masses.