In Bihar, identity politics is taking another turn

Aditya Mohan of the Mithila Student Union. Photo: Twitter/@AdityaJhamohan  

Bihar is the first State to have Assembly polls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with it not just the challenge of holding socially distant and safe polling, but also robust media coverage.

Covering elections — which necessarily means engaging with the wisdom of crowds — during a pandemic comes with many challenges. The first casualty for me was the act of loitering, that simple joy of shooting the breeze with your fellow man, preferably at a tea stall on the highway, or engaging in a politically charged debate. Much of that was curtailed as I followed very strict SOPs with regard to COVID-19. However, that did not stop me from venturing deep into rural areas to chase stories that had captured the country’s sympathy and imagination over the last few months — stories that were more than just the stacking of caste arithmetic and were about issues such as the flight of migrants from host States back home to Bihar; the constituency of women voters, so assiduously courted by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar; and angry voices on prohibition. “Yeh chunaav 80% jaat ka pinjara main hai, 20% feelings par (this poll is 80% in a cage of caste arithmetic, 20% on feelings),” said a senior leader acknowledging that issues like prohibition and events following the lockdown weighed in on the usual caste discourse, if only, in his assessment, a mere 20%.

Comment | The identity game in Bihar politics

My travels into sparsely populated interior villages gave important pointers on how politics is to pan out in the rest of India for the next few years, on hyperlocal aspirations, and the mutation of identity politics 30 years after ‘Mandal’ and ‘Mandir’.

One of the many interesting encounters I had in Bihar was with Aditya Mohan, who started the Mithila Student Union (MSU) in Darbhanga and its surrounding areas a few years ago. The organisation started with the aim of getting the academic session at the Lalit Narayan Mithila University to start on time. From that, the MSU has grown into an organisation that works in panchayats in Darbhanga and surrounding areas and has also, this time round, put up around 12 candidates extolling ‘Mithilawaad’, the hyperlocal interests of Mithila. The party has no symbol at the moment but the issues are to do with the establishment of an AIIMS in Darbhanga, an airport to be sanctioned for the area and, of course, academic sessions to start and finish on time with examinations. The group is in no hurry to be a big political force as members feel the future of politics is going their way; that caste and identity on their own are not going to be enough to win an election; that delivery on aspirations (not just roads and foodgrain) will be the way. Much of the poll rhetoric on job creation by the mainstream parties reflected this trend.

Encounters such as this show me that faith in democracy is alive and kicking, and identity politics is taking another turn in its evolution. Bihar, again, is showing the way in Indian politics.

This election that I covered with masks, sanitisers, and a diary full of numbers of contacts in Patna from whom to cadge home-cooked meals and private sanitised vehicles, had lessons to offer me yet again, other than just trying to be safe while doing my job.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 2:25:16 AM |

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