Bihar’s Two Resurrectionaries

01 November, 2010

THE UPCOMING ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS in Bihar are presenting an interesting conundrum to political analysts and psephologists—will the people of Bihar be swayed by the development story being aggressively pushed by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United)? Or will they throw their support behind the casteist politics of Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), had been in power for 15 years preceding Nitish Kumar.

In the months leading up to the elections, Nitish Kumar has been riding a high wave; the national media has even touted him as Bihar’s Vikas Purush. According to the 2009- 10 report by the state’s Directorate of Economics & Statistics, Bihar’s GDP grew by a remarkable 11.4 percent the previous year. It has also been widely reported that, over the past five years, the state has seen major improvements in law and order and the business environment.

Nitish Kumar’s claim of good governance is often compared with the all-too-evident chaos and corruption of the days of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Even the state electorate seems to be broadly consensual about the contrasting nature of the Nitish and Lalu governments. Although there have been some reports discrediting Nitish Kumar’s development claims, prima facie a tangible improvement in the law and order situation seems to have taken place. For the first time in decades, the state seems to be attracting the right kind of attention from investors.

However, beyond statistics and the general euphoria regarding Bihar’s turnaround under Nitish, there might exist the deeper and subtle nuances of a more intricate story. The Bihar that Nitish took over from Lalu in 2005 was far different from the one that Lalu had inherited from his predecessors in 1990. The Bihar preceding Lalu was ruled and dominated by  a small minority of upper-caste Hindus, who visited upon the vast majority of lower-caste Hindus and Muslims brutal poverty, oppression and exploitation. By the time his party lost to Nitish in 2005, the state had undergone a rigorous social engineering programme that brought about greater freedom and consciousness to the previously oppressed masses.

According to statistics from the last-available caste-based census in 1931, Backward Caste Hindus accounted for about 51 percent of Bihar’s total population, the Scheduled Castes around 16 percent and the Muslims another 16 percent. Upper-caste Hindus, therefore, constituted only about 13 percent of the population. Poverty was not the only affliction that the lower castes and Muslims suffered. Superimposed on their impoverishment were psychological subjugation and the forced, and forceful, denial of a free and decent life.

Amidst this prevailing social (dis)order, Lalu Prasad Yadav formed a minority government in 1990, riding on a Muslim-Yadav-Dalit alliance that held out to the oppressed masses the promise of freeing them from traditional suppression. In his first term, Lalu increased the quotas for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in the state administration to 27 percent. In 1993, the Patna University and the Bihar University Amendment Bill mandated the reservation of 50 percent of seats for OBCs in the senates and syndicates of these universities.

Furthermore, in the same year, the state assembly unanimously passed the Panchayati Raj Bill, according to which “the Panchayats with [a] majority of the people belonging to [the] backward classes will be reserved for them only and in these Panchayats upper-castes will be debarred from even contesting elections.” Many other policies were implemented that allowed greater freedom and power to the oppressed castes and marginalised communities.

Admittedly, these measures were according to a focused electoral plan. The RJD government, in fact, did little to improve the general economic infrastructure of the state, arrest its descent into criminalisation, or even bring about meaningful land reforms. The annual GDP growth rate declined from 4.66 percent in 1980-90 to 2.61 percent from 1990-2000. The proportion of landless households, meanwhile, increased from 14.19 percent in 1990-91 to about 30 percent in 2002-03.

It’s a shocking report card for any government. But on the other hand, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s caste-based policies brought about the political and social emancipation—if not exactly the economic deliverance—of a majority of the downtrodden relatively swiftly. Until about 1990, agricultural tenants and bonded labourers, many of whom belonged to the Backward Castes, were either prohibited from casting their votes or were forced to be partisan according to the will of their landlords. Lalu ended this.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, this emancipation went beyond mere symbolism as, for the first time, an entire generation of Backward Caste and Dalit youth grew up in an environment of relative freedom and dignity, unencumbered by an inheritable legacy of oppression.

So, by the time Nitish Kumar took office in 2005, this generation was better educated and better informed about its rights and eager to participate in its own economic uplift. Laloo might have silently watched over the economic breakdown of the state, for which perhaps there is no justification, but nonetheless his policies sowed the seeds of aspirations for a better life among its people.

Nitish Kumar’s efforts to improve the law and order situation and to provide a more efficient state administration might have been less effective—and certainly less inclusive— had their benefits been available to only a select minority of upper-caste Hindus. It is likely that the secure socioeconomic environment under him has been made possible by the presence of a capable workforce conscious of its rights—a spill-over from the policies of his predecessor.

Whichever way the elections go, it might be good to remember that the resurrectionary Bihar today is what it is because of both these men.

Anant Nath