The results of the recent Assembly elections in Bihar are significant not so much for the sense of political loss that the analysts are reading in them for the present BJP-led regime, as they are for the emerging politics that the event signals at the national level. The “bigger arithmetic” that gave the decisive victory to the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance is neither extraordinary nor is it difficult to understand. It was bound to produce this result in the present context, questions about the “intensity” of the Prime Minister’s campaign or the “electoral approach” of the party notwithstanding.
I spent several years in undivided Bihar in my younger days and one thing that I can say has remained unaltered there, like it is unchanged elsewhere as well: it is the entrenched hold of caste politics. Political alignments among the caste leaders would often determine the outcome of the elections. Bhumihars and Rajputs in the past would seldom be on the same side of the fence and the Backwards would be internally divided between the dominant Yadavs and others, despite the fact that the leadership of the Backwards claimed the legacy of the Socialist movement of the Lohiaites.
In the recent election, the coming together of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav created a near unity amongst the Backwards, who represent a formidable 30% of the electorate. The Muslim minority of nearly 19% was already pitted against BJP. That this gave a winning formula to the Grand Alliance was foreseen particularly when its leader, Nitish Kumar, could not be brought down on the issue of personal image. The BJP’s vote share was more or less intact, but this did not help it in the numbers’ game.
BJP’s promise of development could not make much headway because, first, it was not accompanied by an emphatic declaration that the party did not believe in caste or community politics; and secondly, the socio-political appeal of a caste leader who was “nearer home” and who could render special assistance to his or her caste people when in power, seemed stronger than the assurances coming from the distant Delhi-based leadership.
It is, in fact, this set of parameters that can easily influence the contours of the future politics of democratic India. Caste spread in this country is generally linked to territory (and so is the community) and can often be combined with a regional sentiment, with the result that the leaders of caste politics could secure an inherent advantage of numbers in any election. You can change your religion, but you are stuck with your caste.
Reservations have made it easy for the leaders who come from the “creamy layers” of the castes to perpetuate their political empowerment. They have made sure that the word “classes” in the constitutional interpretation of Article 340 is effectively substituted by castes.
Reservations have made it easy for the leaders who come from the “creamy layers” of the castes to perpetuate their political empowerment. They have made sure that the word “classes” in the constitutional interpretation of Article 340 is effectively substituted by castes. The spirit of the Constitution was to extend special support of the state to economically weak sections of the people, particularly those who had historically been put down by the practice of “untouchability”.
Caste and community-based politics has disturbed the broad picture of democracy being anchored on “one man one vote”. We have to find a way of moving towards the restoration of this fundamental concept of democratic rule that incidentally would also be the best guarantee of secularism in the country. In the area of governance development, law and order and special support to the “economically weak” are the three planks that would bolster secularism — not the politicised debates centring around “vote banks”.
The transformation that the 2014 general elections brought about in India can be traced to Narendra Modi’s powerful appeal of personal probity, combining with the promise of strong governance and delivery, in a backdrop of all-pervasive corruption that seemed to have become the hallmark of the previous regime. Development should define the thrust of the Modi government in the times ahead.
This is the learning for it from the Bihar election. The Centre must step up the call for development, actively chase the scams of the earlier years and keep up the emphasis on accountability across the spectrum of governance.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau