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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 47, New Delhi, November 7, 2020

Bihar Assembly Poll 2020: Tejashwi Has Transformed Political Agenda | Harihar Swarup

Sunday 8 November 2020

by Harihar Swarup

(India Press Agency, November 7, 2020)

It’s an election like no other in Bihar. No street side addas, clamorous band bajaa or flag-waving processions. In a pandemic, rallies are still jam-packed, yet voters stand within chalk circles at polling booths. A lead actor for the last three tumultuous decades is missing from the poll scene. Lalu Prasad is in jail but his son Tejashwi has stepped up. They share the same blood, but their political blood group seems different. The father bellowed out a war cry against upper castes, the son speaks in lilting tones on jobs for Bihar’s youth. Lalu banked on MY (Muslim-Yadav) support, Tejashwi is hoping for an MYY (Muslim, Yadav and cross caste Youth) constituency.

The transition from Lalu to Tejashwi reveals a larger transformation in the Mandal revolution. The anti-upper caste demand for social justice, has today given way to demand for economic opportunity, jobs and the right to economic well-being. Lalu led his caste army into a stunning social revolution against Brahmin-Bhumihar-Rajput-Kayastha castes who ruled Bihar for four decades after Independence. After he arrested BJP ideologue LK Advani, the social revolutionary also became a secular grassroots hero. His artfully earthy, wisecracking personality cult powered him to successive terms as Bihar’s chief minister.

31-year-old Tejashwi is speaking a different language. He is educated at Delhi’s English medium DPS RK Puram, he’s a cricketer who played in the IPL, and steers almost totally away from appeals to caste and community. Lalu yelled about the need for a ‘mahabharat’ between backward and forward castes, Tejashwi has barely mentioned any caste conflict or caste discrimination. He has only one refrain: jobs, rozgar, remunerative employment for Bihar’s youth. Bihar’s electorate may still vote on caste lines but at least the outward political narrative is slowly moving beyond caste identities. This is a dramatic change.

The shift in language between Lalu and Tejashwi reveals that the Mandal revolution – or the 1990s backward caste upsurge-has run its course. Parties like SP, BSP and RJD that once prided themselves on the demand for social justice, over time allowed their demands to become reduced only to a quest for never-ending government quotas and reservations. Caste assertiveness has also led a splintering of Backwards, Myriad subgroups want their own space: HAM or party of Mahadalits, VIP or party of Mallahs, RLSP or Kushwaha party are examples. Quota-focussed, fragmented, hostage to corruption and dreary self-aggrandisement, the Mandal revolution is a spent force, crying out for reinvention.

Tejashwi Yadav has begun this reinvention by his no-caste-jobs-for-all pitch. Here the ‘Mandir movement’ has been ahead of the ‘Mandal movement’. BJP quickly realised that ‘Mandir’ or religious mobilisation was not enough to propel its growth. It thus joined ‘vikas’ or development to its religious platform, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the latest BJP leader to effectively combine his image as Hindutva icon with vikas purush, merging the majoritarian message with a mai-baap state that seeks to deliver direct benefits like free rice and free cooking gas.

Where Mandir warriors allied their messaging to a development pitch and clever OBC-led social engineering, the Mandal government remained mired in the narrow struggle for quotas and failed to meet the demands of the post 1991 liberalised economy. In order to survive in a new India, Mandal leaders will have to marry the social justice demand with a demand for economic justice.

There are other differences between father and son. Lalu benefitted from the politics of caste, but in this election Tejashwi has been allied with the anti-caste Left in an attempt to broaden his appeal. RJD has also fielded upper caste-including Brahmin-candidates. Lalu was known to patronize Yadav strongmen and bahubalis, Tejashwi has not pitched himself as any kind of ‘dabang’. Instead he attempts a more low-key style.

It could be argued that chief minister Nitish Kumar made a beginning by combining a backward caste coalition with an agenda that promised better roads, law and order and infrastructure. This agenda remained incomplete because he was unable to fulfil rising expectations among the younger demographic. It is this ‘youth’ yearning for ‘rozgar’ that Tejashwi has tapped into.

But can Yadav junior be the genuine catalyst of change that Bihar craves? After all he is the child of the Lalu revolution and owes his political birth to the anti-upper caste warriors of his father’s era. Lalu’s jungle raj legacy still haunts RJD. Tejashwi’s avoidance of traditional categories of caste and religion could also be simply strategic. He could be making a virtue out of necessity because ranged against him is NDA which has already stitched together a formidable grid of myriad caste groups. Tejashwi rallies have been attracting stupendous crowds but will his rozgar pitch work electorally? NDA star campaigner, the PM is again pulling the emotional national levers of Pulwama and China to cut across caste fractures.

Yet by publicly ignoring caste Tejashwi has at least made a beginning in aligning the Mandal revolution to the more 21st century vocabulary of vikas. Bihar is India’s youngest state: 58% of its population is below 25 years. Over the last three decades and particularly over the six months of lockdown, the unemployment crisis has itself become a raging pandemic. A Covid and lockdown tormented electorate thirsts for economic healing. The Bihar elections of 2020 for the first time show up the limits of the Mandal revolution and reveal that Bihar’s politics may gradually be discovering that there is life beyond caste. (IPA Service)

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