Analysis | Bihar

Bihar Assembly elections | The end of social justice politics in Bihar

This year’s Assembly election in Bihar is the first in three decades in which Lalu Prasad Yadav (72) is not the central character — he is in jail and ill. Ramvilas Paswan died in the midst of the election, at 74. Nitish Kumar (69), incumbent Chief Minister, is fighting hard to slow down this terminal political decline. This is his last battle, win or lose. The three, all products of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s, pursued various versions of social justice politics.

Bihar has been an epicentre of Indian politics for at least a century. The State significantly shaped the course of India in the last 30 years, in the cross currents of forces unleashed by ‘Mandal, Mandir and Market’. 2020 marks the end of that era in Bihar; what new beginning this end portends is not entirely clear.

The era in question began exactly 30 years ago, on October 23, 1990, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra was stopped in Samastipur by Mr. Yadav, who was the then chief minister. The arrest of Mr. Advani brought to the forefront the conflict between the goals of social justice and Hindutva, until then concealed by the shared anti-Congressism of their proponents. Social justice politicians experimented with various coalitions at the Centre. Beyond opportunism, these divergent routes also signified different approaches to social justice.

Mr. Yadav never allied with the BJP and remained the most consistent, steadfast critic of Hindutva. He built a social coalition of OBCs (Other Backward Class), Dalits and Muslims that survived for 15 years, until 2005. He combined wit, empathy and an uncompromising opposition to communalism. He spoke about religious harmony, U.S. foreign policy and India’s nuclear policy in a manner that made them all legible to the rural voters of the State. He critiqued the developmentalism of state and market, from the subaltern perspective with regard to equity and representation. The rise of subaltern politics under his leadership was resisted by the upper castes. Political violence, crime and corruption on his watch shrunk his legitimacy and he ended up in jail, convicted on corruption charges. His social coalition crumbled as Dalits and the Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) groups rebelled against the Yadav preeminence in it.

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Paswan pursued a narrow strand of social justice politics, with no ideological exploration or grassroots mobilisation. He fashioned himself as a Dalit leader, but keeping himself in power became the sole marker of Dalit empowerment for him. His way of demonstrating secularism was to have a bearded Muslim cleric on his campaign trail. His politics spoofed social justice and secularism.

Mr. Kumar broke from Mr. Yadav in 1994, and rose as an alternative to his model of social justice. He pitched himself as the Mandalite for the market era. Bihar’s engagement with the market did not come through rising investments or urbanisation within the State, but through the export of workers to urban centres in the west and south, new centres of growth after liberalisation. A marginal increase in disposable incomes, rising media consumption, and a new religiosity characterised Bihar’s highly mobile youths, opening the space for a new model of politics.

Also read: Analysis | Tejashwi Yadav narrows gap as confusion plagues NDA

The EBCs and Maha Dalits who were left out of Mr. Yadav and Paswan’s politics, found a new hope in Mr. Kumar, who specifically addressed their concerns regarding representation in jobs and politics. He also spoke the language of market-friendly developmentalism. In alliance with the BJP that brought the upper caste votes, Mr. Kumar toppled the Yadav model in 2005. His ties with the BJP remained unsure all the time. In 2015, he joined hands with Mr. Yadav to win his third term, and returned to the BJP’s embrace in 2017 — tamed and humbled. Mr. Kumar’s claims of governance and social justice now sounds far-fetched in the aftermath of the pandemic. At least 23 lakh migrant workers returned to the State during lockdown, a large number of them walking thousands of kilometres. Unemployment has become the most resonating topic in Bihar in this election, against the backdrop of the ravaging pandemic. His hope of re-election is that his critics may not resent him enough to vote for his key opponent.

Also read: Bihar Assembly election | For voters, election promises are just old hat

Mr. Yadav fades into history as a figure who fought hard on questions of secularism and social justice, inadequate as he surely has been. His son Tejashwi Yadav is trying to restore the social coalition that he had built and lost — a tough, lonely test for the 30-year old. His father’s legacy is more of a burden, and is not mentioned in the campaign. Paswan’s son Chirag Paswan, 37, is advancing apolitical politics to new heights. Mr. Kumar is fighting with his back to the wall. He is the prime target of all others, including his ally, the BJP.

The BJP’s rise to prominence in its strongholds has followed the pattern of first riding piggyback with allies who are then swallowed up or discarded. That inevitability is closing in on Mr. Kumar. The BJP has its own version of social justice — accommodation of lower caste aspiration within its fold, and antagonism toward Muslims. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, another contemporary of the social justice trio, is a Backward face of Hindutva, and there are several others who have risen in recent years. The BJP will hold its place and grow, but there is an evolving emptiness in the rest of the field in Bihar politics. Social justice politics as we knew it comes to an end with this election. It is an yearning that has lost its language. What will be its new language and who will speak it remain open questions.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 12:16:38 AM |

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