Bihar: Entering The Governance Era?

Why the Bihar elections will have nationwide repercussions

The champions of caste politics in Bihar, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad Yadav, inaugurating a fertiliser plant in Bihar in 2008. Aftab Alam Sidiqui / AP Photo
01 November, 2010

THE ONGOING ELECTIONS IN BIHAR will not only give the state a new government or re-elect the same one: these elections will have national consequences on two counts.

First, they’ll reflect—or not—a less caste and community-based brand of politics which has developed in this state at the expense of issue-based politics. Second, it will have implications for all the non-regional parties in the fray, the Congress, the BSP, and even more importantly, the BJP.

The fiasco surrounding the Commonwealth Games has made the demand for good governance more pressing than ever before in India. A country claiming to be an emerging power with the same potential as China cannot resign itself to being ruled by Kalmadi and Co. This commonplace assessment leads to another one: the world’s largest democracy cannot resign itself to have citizens voting for politicians of their caste when they go to the polls. Hence the importance of Bihar—the crucible state of caste politics. The socialist party, the most caste-oriented after the Ambedkarites, was born in Bihar and developed there as the first state party asking for caste-based quotas. More importantly, Bihar’s social conflicts have resulted in Jati Senas, caste militias with no equivalent in the rest of India. If a state whose per capita income is one of the lowest within India voted on the basis of development issues, India could claim that all hope is not lost for a brand of politics based on citizenship.

Some people argued last year that when the coalition between the JD(U) and the BJP scored a stunning victory at 2009’s general elections in Bihar—taking 32 Lok Sabha seats to the paltry four won by the rival Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janashakti Party—it was thanks to the style of the state’s popular chief minister, Nitish Kumar. The JD(U) leader, regarded as a ‘clean’ CM, was seen as having turned things around after taking over from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD government. Kumar implemented a developmental agenda that provided basic amenities like water and electricity to the people, as well as controlling crime.

But the JD(U)-BJP victory in 2009 was not primarily due to Kumar’s development agenda: the alliance actually had its greatest successes among castes and communities who had derived specific benefits from its policies. Most Dalits deserted the LJP and rallied to the JD(U)-BJP alliance, with the exception of the Dusadhs, who remained followers of the LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan, himself a Dusadh. This was largely due to Kumar’s measures in favour of those he called the Mahadalits: a group of Scheduled Castes other than the Dusadhs and the Chamars/Jatavs. Similarly, the Bihar government invented a new category of ‘backward Muslims,’ the Pasmanda—mostly weavers and dhobis—for whom it devised a reservation policy in the local bodies and to whom it provided educational scholarships. Even more specifically, Kumar offered a monthly pension of 2,500 rupees to the Muslim victims of the 1989 Bhalgalpur riots and their descendants (riots in which 1,000 people—mostly Muslims—died in not only the most deadly communal episode of the Ayodhya movement, but one the most violent upheavals since partition.) Partly as a result of this move, the RJD–LJP alliance, which took 79 percent of the Muslim vote in the 2004 general elections, retained less than a third of Muslim voters in 2009 according to the CSDS polls.

The fact that policy did not matter as much as vote bank politics is hardly surprising given the fact that general elections are not primarily intended to reward or punish Chief Ministers, in contrast to state elections. The coming elections will be interesting for precisely this reason. Will the voters decide to support or to sanction the outgoing CM because of his policies, independently of their caste and community?

The second national-level consequence has to do with the part non-regional parties will play. Over the last 15 years Bihar politics has been dominated by two parties, the RJD—whose leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav has been around for even more: 20 years, including 15 years in office (directly or indirectly)—and the JD(U), whose leader, Nitish Kumar, was once an ally of Lalu Prasad, when OBC politics, after Mandal, made the Yadav/Kurmi coalition possible. But national parties are also involved, be they in competition with regional parties or allied with them.