Battle for the idea of Bihar

“The battle for Bihar has become as much about the idea of India asabout caste and development.” Picture shows women voters waiting in a queue at Muzaffarpur during the fourth phase of elections.   | Photo Credit: PTI

At a girls’ inter-college in rural Vaishali, the students, largely first-generation learners, pelt me with questions, asking me in the same breath about possible career options and why people of different castes and communities can’t live together in peace. These girls — liberated by the bicycles and scholarships given by the Nitish Kumar government — can intuitively see the connection between social harmony and the fulfilment of their ambitions.

In Bihar, these girls, mostly from the Backward Classes (BCs) and Scheduled Castes, are by no means exceptions. Indeed, peaceful co-existence as a pre-condition for a good life is a subject that would recur in the many conversations I had across Bihar, even when I had not initiated the subject.

A young Muslim mother in Gaya district’s Barachatti assembly constituency said >she was praying Nitish Kumar would return as Chief Minister, as she would then continue to live without fear and her children’s future would be assured. In Patna University’s political science department, M.A. students vehemently opposed all forms of social conservatism, including the attempt to impose dietary restrictions.

Battle for India

With growing intolerance casting its dark shadow over the country, the battle for Bihar has become as much about the idea of India as about caste and development, >a point Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad pressed home at every rally. “These elections are not about the future of Nitish, Lalu or Sonia Gandhi; it’s a battle for India,” he would thunder, adding, “This is not Haryana or Maharashtra (where the Bharatiya Janata Party won State elections last year); this is Bihar!”

Indeed, as I travelled though the State, it was hard to imagine that barely 16 months back, voters here had been seduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of an El Dorado. The excitement of impending change, visible in the run-up to the general elections in 2014, has been replaced by a mood of caution, a careful consideration of what an electoral choice would mean for the future of the State.

Nevertheless, it was evident that the BJP-led NDA, the principal challenger to the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, had erred in making Mr. Modi the face of its campaign. In 2014, he was the leader who had transformed Gujarat; today, as the Prime Minister who has failed to create jobs, control soaring prices and check rising intolerance and communal tension, his electoral plank of parivartan (change) sounds hollow. In Bihar, oddly enough, it is Mr. Modi — not the teflon-coated Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar — whose record is under scrutiny.

Even after a decade in power, Mr. Kumar has almost no critics, with criticism of his reunion with Mr. Prasad — dark forebodings of Jungle Raj Two — limited to the BJP and its core supporters. For Mr. Prasad’s followers, Jungle Raj is an euphemism for the Other Backward Classes (OBC)-led challenge to centuries of upper-caste dominance.

Sub-nationalist appeal

The lack of a local face to front the BJP’s battle for Bihar and the presence of a popular incumbent on the other side has also helped the Grand Alliance play the sub-nationalist card, possibly a first for the State, successfully, converting Mr. Modi’s jibe at Mr. Kumar’s DNA into an insult to Biharis. It has run like a leitmotif through the campaign with the Chief Minister asking at the end of each public meeting: “ >Whom do you want as your next CM, a Bihari or a bahari?” The audience would roar back: “Bihari!” It is this sub-nationalist thread, combined with the belief that social harmony is a necessary pre-condition for development, running through the campaign that has helped Messrs Kumar and Prasad to take the political battle beyond caste and development so that this election’s two keywords stand entwined in a socialist embrace. If the Gujarat model of development only chased growth, Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad are offering voters the idea that inclusive growth is impossible without social justice, communal harmony and freedom of choice — a view of the world that sits well with the State’s core liberal ethos.

In Bihar, social justice, or samajik nyaya, is shorthand for reservation that will ensure education and jobs for the BCs and Dalits, who together constitute around 70 per cent of the population. Add the OBC Muslims, who are in a majority in their own community and thus already enjoy the benefits of quotas, and you can understand why Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a review of caste-based reservation (repeated twice during the polls) was so damaging for the BJP.

If the Grand Alliance started the campaign as an underdog, it began to increasingly look like a winner, largely because Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad buried the rivalries of the past and communicated enough positive energy to their party workers to ensure that a majority worked in sync through the campaign.

At Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] and RJD offices across the State, a coherent storyline was offered to explain the last 25 years of Bihar’s history, dominated by the two men: in the first phase, Mr. Prasad awakened the OBCs and the Dalits to their rights and gave them a voice; in the second phase, Mr. Kumar delivered the fruits of development to these sections.

Neither the JD(U) nor the RJD has overplayed its leader’s achievements, both clear on what each brings to the table: the Chief Minister’s track record as “ vikas purush” (development man) and the RJD supremo’s “ janadhar” (people’s support), coalition sympathisers will tell you, make for an unbeatable combination. Mr. Prasad also makes it a point at each rally to announce that Mr. Kumar is the Grand Alliance’s chief ministerial candidate to counter the BJP’s efforts to create uncertainty in voters’ minds on that issue.

Synchronised campaign

Listening to the two men address separate rallies within a few hours of each other was like watching a perfectly timed double act: while one was sophisticated, cool, and above the fray, the other was overplaying the rustic, but galvanising the crowds; one was playing to the aspirational, the other to the pre-aspirational. Faced not just with the Grand Alliance’s cohesive campaign but with allies annoyed with posters that omitted to mention their names, and the BJP state unit unhappy with what one local leader described as “overcrowding by Delhi”, Mr. Modi changed his strategy post-Dussehra, to retrieve ground: he communalised the elections by suggesting that five per cent of the OBC quota would be sliced off for the Muslims in the hope that the Extremely Backward Classes would return to the NDA. Will that work?

On the >shoulders of Bihar’s voters lies a large burden: for they will not just decide which political alliance will rule the eastern state for the next five years; they are likely to influence the ideological direction India takes after the votes are counted on November 8.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 4:23:48 AM |

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