FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Lalu Prasad exploded on the political canvas of Bihar as a messiah of the underclass and thus commenced the still substantially semi-feudal State's eventful tryst with social change. That election year was remarkable in two respects. For the first time upper caste members in the State Assembly were outnumbered by those belonging to the Other Backward Classes. Secondly and hearteningly, the poor and the socially marginalised turned out to vote in larger numbers than before. The voter turnout figures bear this out, although only indirectly. In the 1990 Assembly election, the overall poll percentage jumped from 56.2 to 62.04. More significantly, and perhaps coinciding with Mr. Prasad's grand advent, the turnout improved from 51 to 58.6 per cent in Scheduled Caste constituencies and from 40 to 49 per cent in those reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The next five years saw Mr. Prasad grow into something of a legend. The belligerent spokesperson of the downtrodden told his legion of followers he had given them swar (voice) if not swarg (heaven). By the 1995 Assembly election, it was as if the floodgates had opened. The overall turnout dipped slightly to 61.79 per cent but quite remarkably Scheduled Tribe constituencies surpassed the general constituencies, registering a record turnout of 62.19 per cent. Admittedly, tribal folk are not the only voters in tribal constituencies. Yet it is worthwhile remembering that these constituencies reported abysmally low turnouts in the 1970s and early 1980s — 32.27 per cent in 1977 and 34.04 per cent in 1980.

The social transformation was visible equally in the legislature where the number of upper caste members stood reduced to less than half the strength of their OBC counterparts. The wheel might have turned a full circle for Bihar — and its charismatic OBC leader — judging by the statistics thrown up by the 2005 Assembly election. Mr. Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal lost 40 seats and its vote share plunged from 33 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent, indicating a major erosion of his support base. Having found their swar, his voters wanted their swarg as well. Interestingly, if the RJD chief's peak years witnessed a surge in voter turnouts, his defeat coincided with a massive drop in voter participation — from 62.57 per cent in 2000 to 46.5 per cent now. It is certainly disturbing that 2005 saw Bihar record its lowest voter turnout in 43 years. (In 1962, only 44.47 per cent of voters exercised their franchise in the State.) The drastic fall needs serious explanation and analysis, all the more given the recent trend of high turnouts. Psephologists will no doubt take note of this puzzling aspect. It is a democratic imperative that the Election Commission, which has seemed intent on targeting Bihar aggressively and as a special problem, investigate the reasons for this worrying reversal.

The analysis of the Bihar election and the post-poll survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and published recently in The Hindu leave no doubt that if Election 2005 belongs to anyone, it is to Ram Vilas Paswan. Emerging from minor league status, his Lok Jana Shakti Party won 29 seats on the basis of 12.6 per cent of the popular vote. Even more impressively, the script ran as if Mr. Paswan had written it: Bihar came under President's Rule, as he advocated publicly. At least for now, the Dalit leader has it both ways: a decisive future role in the State and Ministership at the Centre. The undisputed silver medallist is the bloc comprising the smaller parties and Independents, which caused more damage to the main players than is suggested by its combined share of 17 seats and 16.2 per cent of the popular vote. Hype notwithstanding, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (U) combine did only marginally better than the RJD alliance, with the latter, in fact, polling more votes. Worse, the BJP-JD(U)'s only hope of winning a forlorn game remains Mr. Paswan — the man who walked out on them before the 14th general election.

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