Mandal 2.0 versus the new Hindutva?

The revival of Mandal politics has been suggested as a counter to Hindutva 2.0. However, it is doubtful whether Nitish Kumar’s alliance with Lalu Prasad will strengthen his electoral prospects against the BJP in Bihar

Published - July 22, 2014 12:40 am IST

“Mandal is the need of the hour. It is in response to Kamandal, to protect social justice,” Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad declared recently, wooing Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar for a full-fledged alliance. “Mandal” is the code for backward caste consolidation and “Kamandal” implies Hindutva politics. The suggestion also is that the primary fault line of politics in the State now is backward castes versus upper castes. Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar — companions in the early phase of backward caste politics, but bitter rivals in the last two decades — have already sketched the prelude to an alliance that they both hope will push back the Modi wave in Bihar before the Assembly elections in 2015. A preliminary test of this new alliance will be the by-elections in 10 Assembly seats in the State on August 21.

Aftermath of mandate Political parties and leaders are still in the process of reconciling with the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections. Parties that faced humiliating defeats at the hands of Narendra Modi have yet to overcome the shock. The future course of the Congress party appears unclear and uncertain while the Left remains in complete disarray. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders are struggling to comprehend the Maximum Prime Minister and foresee the future of the party under him. In that sense, the call for a revival of Mandal politics — which had slowed down the march of Hindutva in the 1990s — is the only alternative offered by anyone since the Lok Sabha results. Will this work?

Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad ran bitter campaigns against each other in the Lok Sabha election. Mr. Kumar’s campaign had three components — one, he advertised the series of development initiatives under his rule since 2005; two, he explained his breaking-up with the BJP in 2013 after 17 years of alliance as a matter of principle, and three, he repeatedly reminded people of what he described as jungle raj or lawlessness — the dispensation that Mr. Prasad led or controlled for 15 years prior to his tenure.

Mr. Prasad on the other hand, promised the “return of Lalu Raj” — which, in his narrative, was an era of backward caste empowerment. Mr. Yadav sought to draw people’s attention to the twin dangers of the BJP, which he said was communal, and Mr. Kumar, who he alleged had betrayed the backward castes to appease the upper castes. Mr. Prasad tried to stir up the dissonance among the backward caste voters who thought — for good reasons — that upper caste bureaucrats controlled Mr. Kumar’s administration. The results of the election showed that people did not accept either of the two and voted overwhelmingly for the BJP that won 31 of the 40 seats.

If his opponents are smart and issues are framed imaginatively, the Bihar Assembly elections next year could be the first test of the sustainability for Mr. Modi’s politics.

The RJD-Congress alliance won just seven seats while Mr. Kumar won only two, making the defeat excruciating and humiliating for both. In an impetuous response to the possible political extinction that stared them in the face, Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad have quickly embraced each other.

Nepotism, corruption Bihar will indeed be the first real opportunity for the opponents of Mr. Modi to challenge him. State Assembly elections before Bihar’s — Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi, Maharashtra and Haryana — will not cause any serious discomfiture to Mr. Modi. If his opponents are smart and issues are framed imaginatively, the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015 could be the first test of the sustainability for Mr. Modi’s politics.

But whether a rerun of Mandal politics can challenge Hinduvta 2.0, the repackaged version of Sangh Parivar politics — which in its current avatar combines material aspirations with majoritarian identity politics and in the process subsumes caste politics — is doubtful. The success of Hindutva 2.0 has been to a great extent aided by the extreme failure of many of its opponents as administrators and leaders, and their brazen corruption and disregard for public good. Mr. Yadav is prominent among them.

The ideals of social justice and secularism were hollowed out of their essence. In Mr. Prasad’s case, he reduced secularism into a negative concept — the absence of riots on the one hand, and patronisation of a self-styled and often regressive section of Muslim leadership on the other. As for social justice, it was reduced to demanding, promising and occasionally declaring quotas for various groups. Mr. Prasad’s politics not only sucked the soul out of these values, but he also used it as a shield and an excuse for nepotism, corruption and worst of all, the brazen promotion of his immediate family in politics. When he was forced to give up the post of Bihar Chief Minister in 1997, he ensured that his wife, Rabri Devi was in the seat; two of his brothers-in-law were elected to Parliament. His wife and daughter, Misa Bharti contested the Lok Sabha election in May and lost. His son, Tejaswi Pratap is being groomed as a successor. After fielding Ms. Bharti from Pataliputra, overlooking the claims of veteran Ramkripal Yadav, Mr. Prasad said that it was an act of empowering women.

Rise and fall One significant subtext of the 2014 election results in May has also been the rejection of dynastic politics, as the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the RJD and the Samajwadi Party faced the wrath of voters. Parallel to this, and common to some of the big winners is that they do not even have families to promote; Ms. Jayalalithaa, Mr. Naveen Patnaik, Ms. Mamata Banerjee and Mr. Modi are examples. Therefore, Mr. Prasad, who once inspired confidence among the backward classes, Dalits, the poor in general and Muslims, has now come to represent a spectrum of unacceptable practices in Indian politics. Being a convict in a corruption case does not help either.

Mr. Kumar, whose politics has been built on his opposition to “Lalu Raj,” on the other hand, has attributes that are winning elections for leaders in other parts of the country. He has been a focussed administrator who was successful in repairing the broken structures of the State and kick-starting development in Bihar. He has also been mindful of expanding the scope of empowerment politics through various government interventions. In fact, a majority of voters in Bihar still look up to him though they did not vote for him.

The question then is why did he fail so miserably in May? He made two serious miscalculations while parting with the BJP. One, he thought he could make a winning social alliance of Muslims and the Extremely Backward Castes that he had cultivated as a constituency. But both were caught in ‘the Prisoner’s Dilemma’ of guessing what the other would do, and he ended up getting none. The second was in underestimating the crucial role that upper castes had played in catapulting and sustaining him in power. When they preferred the BJP to him, Mr. Kumar was left with no reliable bloc. His politics — which combines development with social justice and secularism — was trounced by Mr. Modi’s offer of development with Hindutva and its own version of social justice. As the BJP mopped up large numbers from all castes, and Muslims and the Yadavs consolidated behind Mr. Prasad, Bihar became the peculiar case where the most liked leader finished a miserable last.

By aligning with Mr. Prasad, Mr. Kumar may be committing the third mistake in the sequence — and this one could be fatal and unlikely to give him another chance. Parting with the BJP had made him vulnerable to the criticism that he is an opportunist, but that had not completely ruined his reputation in governance. Aligning with Mr. Prasad will not only blunt his claim of good governance, as there will be the looming threat of the return of Lalu Raj by proxy, but will also reinforce and prove true the suspicion that he is a political opportunist. In any case, there is diminishing returns for antagonistic caste politics devoid of an economic agenda — the hallmark of Mr. Prasad.

If Mr. Kumar wants to cash in on the goodwill that he still has among Bihar’s voters, there have to be more imaginative ways of going about it. Trying to revive Mandal politics in alliance with Mr. Prasad to counter Hindutva 2.0 may be an easy route, but unlikely to be a successful one.


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