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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

Bihar: Patronising Class Interest behind the Facade of Caste Consolidation

Saturday 24 October 2015

by Arun Srivastava

As Bihar heads for what is being described as a mini-Lok Sabha election, the politics of pretention has been replaced by pragmatism and the leaders of both the conglomerates, the NDA and Mahagathbandhan, have started focusing on the strategy of caste collaboration. The BJP, which had taken the early initiative to reach out to the voters, has also been the first to experiment with this as the party has much at stake than the Mahagathbandhan and its leader, Nitish Kumar.

In the early phase of the campaigning the party boss, Amit Shah, had made it explicit that development would be the main agenda. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was presented as the icon of modern development. But this image of Modi being unable to fulfil the basic needs of party’s support-base, the upper-caste feudal lords, the leadership made a tactical switchover. It resurrected its tested tactics of class collaboration which it had used in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It justified its shift by alleging that Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar have been pursuing a crude form of caste politics.

However, the fact was otherwise. With Modi desperate to win over the backward castes, Laloo also made his intentions clear to launch the second phase of Mandal politics. But soon it became clear to Shah that this would not work as the electorates were divided on class lines. The BJP strategists opted for the line of caste consolidation for broader class collaboration. An impression was created that caste would decide the outcome of the election. An insight into the development would make it clear that on the plea of caste consolidation, the BJP was working on the line of class collabo-ration. Since Bihar has the bad reputation of being the most caste-ridden State, Shah tried to use it to malign the Mahagathbandhan and its leaders.

Let us look at the dimension and dynamics of caste politics in Bihar. Caste has always been used by the upper-caste rich people and feudal lords of Bihar to protect and promote their class interest. And this time it is no exception. Senior leaders and teams of experts have been busy evolving strategies to identify and connect with the castes and strengthen the base of caste consolidation. Apparently the exercise is an attempt to broadbase the caste support-base for the alliances, but in reality it is an effort to promote class hegemony. They are working on the thesis of caste consolidation to achieve the goal of class collaboration.

 Apparently the nature of the campaigning and emphasis of the leaders on caste narratives reinforces the perception that the caste has become the decisive factor in the Bihar Assembly elections. But this would be a simplistic evaluation of the narrative. After their success at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP leadership has been desperately striving to maintain the primacy of the caste collaboration as it suits their class as well as ideological interest. Behind the facade of caste politics it is the class compulsion that defines the dynamics and dimension of the political development.

 While the BJP has been assiduously pursuing the caste line, Nitish opened a new front by describing Narendra Modi as bahari. This is a tactical move to raise the issue of Bihari subnationality to counter the BJP’s caste consolidation. Nitish has made the electorate to chose between Bihari and “bahari” (outsider). Nitish said: “Bihar will progress on its own efforts. What will these outsiders do? I want to ask you a question, who will take Bihar forward, Bihari or bahari? If a Bihari is to take Bihar forward, then a real Bihari is here before you. We don’t need any of these ahari-bahari. Say goodbye to all these outsiders.”

Little doubt the verdict of the election would have wider ramification on the Indian politics and polity. While it would determine the future of the secular forces, it would decide the future of the Prime Minister, whether he would dictate or listen to diktats. What has been really surprising is that political analysts have not been able to correctly comprehend the nature of the caste assertion; is it of inclusive character or simply aimed at securing a win? Opinion polls utterly lack the political insight and depth. They simply look like commissioned programmes.

The situation needs to be examined in the light of the latest development—the electoral fight in Bihar between the Opposition’s Mahagath-bandhan and the BJP—turning tough. There are signs of concern in the BJP camp about the poll’s outcome. To cope with the challenging situation, Modi had to address a spate of public rallies not originally planned. Modi has plans to address nearly 49 public rallies in Bihar. He even addressed a meeting on the first day of the polling, October 12. Though technically he might not have violated the model of conduct, being the Prime Minister it was expected of him that he would at least maintain the facade of sanctity of the elections. He also mentioned that those casting their votes were doing so to usher in development!!

The most shocking aspect of the poll campaign is that top leaders, including Modi and Laloo Yadav, are using abusive language against each other. At a public rally Modi described Laloo as “Shaitan”, a remark unbecoming of a leader holding the office of the Prime Minister. With the NDA no longer appearing to have an edge it had a fortnight ago, when Modi was perceived as the most popular leader across the caste-lines, the parties have taken to the more vitriolic nature of campaign.

After Laloo’s ascendance to power in 1990 the Bhumihars had completely lost their socio-economic importance. Most of the Bhumihar landlords had to flee the villages. A number of them had sold out their lands and settled in cities. Some of them even migrated to Delhi. Still some court cases are dragging on. In the rural belt of Patna their lands were also seized by the militant and Naxalite Dalits and Harijans. In urban areas too they had to face the challenge of the resurgent backwards.

After Nitish parted company with the BJP in 2013, the Bhumihars and Rajputs became angry with him only for the reason that they were haunted with the spectre of losing power and control on the State machinery. Any talk of ideology or politics is simply a facade. The upper castes were scared of the scenario where they would have to play a subservient role.

The 2015 Assembly election is in fact the battle for survival for the upper-caste landed gentry of Bihar. Nitish joining hands with Laloo Yadav has simply panicked them. They are aware that if they fail to grab power, they will be finished. The formation of the grand alliance has simply revived the nightmares.

The upper-caste people do not intend to provide a class colour to their fight against Nitish-Laloo as they apprehend that this would alienate the OBC people who have joined the elite club of upper-caste landlords after the eighties, especially in the post-reforms period. It is a class initiative camouflaged as caste assertion and consolidation. These people are also apprehensive of a scenario when the backwards and Dalits would come to share power. The constant rhetoric of jungle raj is nothing but a calculated attempt to persuade the rich and prosperous people to distance from the grand alliance.

The section of the OBC population which has benefited from globalisation and reforms is no more willing to identify themselves with the Mandal politics and aspirations. But their percentage is not significant. Still a vast population of the backward castes continues to linger under the shadows of the semi-feudal production relations. The political system and institutions of the state did not get the benefit of the reforms. Nevertheless, the beneficiaries from the backward castes prefer to align with the upper-caste people. In the present backdrop while Muslims and most of the Yadavs and Kurmis will remain with the “mahagathbandhan” (grand alliance) of the JD-U, RJD and Congress, the upper castes—Bhumihars, Kayasths, Rajputs and Brahmins—will constitute the core of the NDA support.

No doubt the NDA is striving hard to get the Dalits and EBCs on its bandwagon, it has also been showcasing Jitan Ram Manjhi, but then ground-level contradictions existing between the upper castes and these people is a deterrent. Notwithstanding that a major section of the Mahadalits and Dalits are angry with Nitish for having illtreated Manjhi, it is doubtful how far they would rally behind the BJP. They are yet to forget the killings of their kins at the hands of the mercenaries of the upper-caste landlords. Even while Manjhi was the Chief Minister, a larfge number of incidents of atrocities on Dalits had taken place. Manjhi used to speak against the upper-castes landlords. Once he had also narrated the religious and social discrimination meted out to him by the upper-caste people in Madhubani. It was during his regime that Dalits of his own area were evicted from their villages by the upper-caste goons. Some Dalit leaders of course intend to retaliate against Nitish for pushing Manjhi out of office, but a large section of the Dalits has been questioning Manjhi’s prerogatives and ideological commitment.

A key element in the BJP’s strategy has been to position Modi’s promise of “good gover-nance” against Laloo’s “jungle raj”, hoping that by doing so Nitish would recede into the background. But this has not happened, and Kumar has begun, according to RSS sources, to look like a dignified statesman: his choice of words and conduct have, they say, placed him above the fray. Even the BJP and Modi targeting Laloo as a “tainted” leader has not gone down well with his caste. The Yadavs interpret it as a move of the upper-caste leaders to malign him. Though in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections a sizeable chunk of young Yadavs voted for the BJP, this time the BJP’s big push has failed to dent the Yadav votebank. The community has consolidated around Laloo. The people from the backward castes also nurse the impression that the RSS and BJP have been using them to protect and promote the class interest of the upper-caste feudal lords. Their emphasis on Hindu was a part of this strategy. These people are also sceptical of the remarks of the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, on reservation. They are apprehen-sive that the Modi Government would end reservation based on castes. This has also caused panic among the EBCs, who are supposed to be close to the BJP.

Incidentally, class consciousness has also affected the BJP. The reluctance of Modi and Shah to name their chief ministerial candidate is now being looked at with suspicion inside the party with the party nominating veteran RSS leader, Rajendra Singh. The backward caste leaders apprehend that the RSS was trying to foist a Rajput as the Chief Minister ignoring their claim. Modi also addressed a public meeting in his constituency. Projection of Singh is being viewed as the Sangh Parivar trying to promote the Hindutva agenda. Singh is considered the “chief architect” of the BJP’s spectacular victory in Jharkhand. Hundreds of RSS volunteers from UP, Ministers from Jharkhand and party leaders from Uttar Pradesh have descended on the scene.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com