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Caste politics and the parivar

Pioneer logo Pioneer 12-06-2015

India: Sheer arithmetic indicates a unification of the Lalu-Nitish vote will defeat the BJP in Bihar. But politics is not merely arithmetic; there is also chemistry. It is here that the Janata parivar faces some challenges

On paper, the anti-BJP alliance could not have done better. The Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) have come together in Bihar. For all it matters, the Congress - a shadow of the party that once ran the State - is also part of the combine, as are a couple of other, smaller parties. Mr Nitish Kumar, unquestionably the most credible non-BJP politician in Bihar and probably the leading choice for Chief Minister if only individuals and not party affiliations were considered, is the face of the alliance.

Numbers would suggest an advantage for the Janata parivar in the September-October election. The historic vote share of the Nitish Kumar-led alliance far outscores that of the grouping of the BJP, the Paswan family's Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha's Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. In May 2014, Mr Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and Lalu Prasad's RJD contested separately. As a consequence, the BJP-led alliance polled about 39 per cent of the vote but won 31 of 40 seats. Sheer arithmetic indicates a unification of the Lalu-Nitish vote will defeat the BJP.

Yet, politics is not merely arithmetic; there is also chemistry. It is here that the Janata parivar faces some challenges. For the past 25 years, Lalu Prasad and Mr Nitish Kumar, or their appointees, have governed Bihar. From 1990 to 2005, Lalu Prasad held sway, losing to Mr Nitish Kumar and his then BJP allies that year and never quite recovering. Lalu Prasad and Mr Nitish Kumar have similar biographies in that both emerged from the vortex of student politics in the 1970s, were influenced by Ram Manohar Lohia and were the bright stars of the socialist movement. They are both OBCs. Their castes, Yadavs and Kurmis, are proximately placed in the upper echelons of the OBC hierarchy.

Having said that, the social coalitions that propelled Lalu Prasad to power in the 1990s and Mr Nitish Kumar to office a decade later were very different. Lalu Prasad relied on a Yadav-Muslim alliance, stitching together a winning combination of two groups each of which made up 14-15 per cent of the electorate. Mr Nitish Kumar began with no such numerical advantage. His Kurmi community comprises some four to five per cent of Bihar's voters. He put together a non-Yadav OBC vote - mobilising the Extremely Backward Castes/Classes, as they are called - and married to this a slice of the most underprivileged Dalits called the Mahadalits. The BJP got him the upper caste (or so-called "forward caste") vote. His record in governance gradually won him some Muslim support as well.

These two social coalitions are fundamentally different. For the moment, it appears Mr Nitish Kumar is the front for Lalu Prasad's coalition, since he is the cleaner, more acceptable candidate and since Lalu Prasad has been convicted for corruption and cannot contest elections. If this surmise - that the Janata parivar is essentially the traditional Lalu Prasad vote with a few add-ons - is correct, then the seat-sharing negotiations will see Lalu Prasad seeking to grab a vast majority of seats. This would reduce Mr Nitish Kumar to a weak and notional leader of prospective MLAs who owe their loyalty to Lalu Prasad.

Mr Nitish Kumar's key hope will be that he can retain much of the social coalition he built with the BJP. The BJP, in turn, will be seeking to hold on to that coalition, minus of course the Muslim segment. Which party becomes the true legatee of the JD(U)-BJP regime of 2005-2013 - when by popular reckoning Bihar had its best governance in decades - will determine how this coming election goes.

The BJP has one advantage: It has never run an independent Government in Patna. There will be an appeal to the sentiment that the party should be given its chance. That slogan the BJP used so evocatively in Lok Sabha elections in the 1990s - Sabko parkha baar baar/Humko parkho ek baar (You've tried the others time and again/Try us this once) - will no doubt be reincarnated in Bihar.

While that overarching theme, and a campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will matter to the BJP, the nitty-gritty of the election will be in caste management. This is an old-fashioned political battle. Of course, the result will affect the BJP and work to the advantage or disadvantage of Mr Modi and party president Amit Shah. Nevertheless, this election is not a referendum on the Modi Government. It is a provincial battle; it will be fought on local concerns and imperatives and a seat-by-seat, region-by-region caste calculation.

In essence, three questions will determine the final verdict:

By November, in the days before Diwali, Bihar and India will have the answers.

(The writer is senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and can be reached at

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Pioneer.

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