The overwhelming response among several political groups as well as mainstream media to the just concluded Bihar assembly election has been that it is a victory of ‘development’ over identity politics, namely ‘caste-religion’. A picture of ‘Nitish wave’ has been portrayed negating other pertinent socio-political factors related to Bihar elections. Mobilization of caste groups coupled with some welfare measures have played a critical role in ensuring the massive win of Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - that consists of Janata Dal (United) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Bihar assembly election saw a thumping victory for the NDA alliance which secured a total of 206 seats out of the total 243 seats. The winning of 84.77% of seats by the JD (U) – BJP alliance also curtailed the role of opposition in the news constituted assembly. The result was projected by the winning alliance as the beginning of new political phase in Bihar where people had voted for ‘development’ over ‘politics of caste and religion’. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and almost all major leaders of the BJP including party president Nitin Gadkari, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Shahnawaz Hussain and spokesperson Prakash Javadekar echoed the line that the result was a clear indicator of the end of ‘caste divide’ and politics of ‘casteism’, and a mandate that was based on ‘development’ in the state1. Even Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram held that the ‘development’ argument had prevailed in the state2. The victory of Nitish Kumar was seen as a ‘tidal wave’ that swept Bihar and cut across region, caste and gender3.
Notwithstanding the massive success of the NDA and the above mentioned responses to it, the result is a reflection of Nitish Kumar’s mobilization of caste groups that hinges on the combination of ‘Upper castes + Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and Mahadalits + Muslims’, with upper castes consisting of Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars; EBCs consisting of more than 100 castes except Yadavs; and Muslims (particularly OBC Muslims). Thus, it would be naive to think that this combination which cuts across castes reflects in any way the ‘withering away’ of caste politics on the contrary it is a ‘grand alliance’ of caste and religious groups.
In the wake of Lalu/Rabri rule in Bihar for fifteen years and with Congress being a shadow of itself in the state4, the mobilization of upper castes towards Nitish Kumar isn’t surprising, especially when the alliance includes BJP. As regards the EBCs, Nitish Kumar turned his attention to woo the castes other than Yadavs [who constitute about 20 per cent of the population] (Ganguli 2010). The EBCs consist of more than 100 castes and constitute about 32 per cent of the population (Mishra 2010)5. In 2006 the Bihar cabinet chaired by Nitish Kumar approved the setting up of the EBC Commission to suggesting ways and means to improve the lot of the EBCs (The Hindu 2006). In January 2010 addressing a rally in Patna on the birth anniversary of former Chief Minister and EBC leader- Karpoori Thakur, Nitish demanded that EBCs in the country should be accorded separate reservation on a national level (The Hindu 2010).
Similarly, Nitish Kumar has made attempts in the recent past to woo the Dalits who constitute about 15 per cent of the population in the state. One of the foremost among such attempts was the setting up of the Mahadalit Commission in 2007 to identify the most deprived among the dalits. Initially out of the 22 dalit castes, the Commission identified 18 castes as Mahadalit (greater dalit) and left out four castes: Paswan, Pasi, Dhobi and Chamar. Within two years, Pasi, Dhobi and Chamar were also included in the list and thus, leaving out only Paswan caste. As the Paswans have been known to be allied to Ram Vilas Paswan, it’s no surprise as to why they weren’t identified as mahadalits. It has also been held that Nitish’s Mahadalit strategy can be seen as his attempt to divide the Dalit votes and to wean a significant section of it, leaving out the Paswans, already allied to Ram Vilas Paswan (Mishra 2010).
In the case of Muslims, Nitish Kumar’s building up of a ‘secular’ image has certainly been well-received among the community. The re-opening of the infamous Bhagalpur riots cases, compensation and pension for the victims and conviction of the accused, and a communal-free five year rule despite allying with BJP had an impact on the voters of the Muslim community. In the run up to the election, Nitish’s manoeuvres with his ally BJP for preventing communally-tainted leaders like Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi from campaigning in this election and fielding Muslim candidates, including Muslim women, also sent a strong message to the community6. It should also be noted that even among Muslims, groups that come under OBCs seem to have given their overwhelming support to Nitish Kumar, as compared to the ‘general’ category or ashrafs7 who have been known to support parties like RJD and Congress.
The mobilization on the basis of above highlighted combination was backed by Nitish Kumar’s attempts to initiate social welfare measures. Two of the prominent attempts that cut across the state include the party’s role in ensuring reserving 50 per cent seats for women in three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions and initiating schemes like Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna8. The shadow of previous regimes in Bihar certainly has certainly worked in favour of Nitish Kumar and given such schemes (which are no doubt significant), a ‘revolutionary’ character.
Thus, all such views that project the massive win of the NDA in Bihar in terms of ‘victory of development’ over politics of ‘identity/caste’ are unfounded. Firstly, the result has to be seen in Nitish Kumar’s careful moblilization of several caste groups and formation of a coalition of ‘extremes’ (Mishra 2010). Secondly, added to the above mobilization have been his attempts in initiating some welfare schemes in the state. The result needs to be seen in terms of these two broad factors and any attempt to ‘disproportionally’ ascertain the importance of the second factor over the first is to miss the history of politics in the state of Bihar over the years.
1 See ‘Bihar election results: Political reactions’, NDTV, November 24, 2010, Available at http://www.ndtv.com/article/assembly%20polls/bihar-election-results-political-reactions-68243, Accessed on November 25, 2010. See also Banerjee, Shoumojit. 2010. ‘Caste dynamics have taken a backseat’, The Hindu, November 24, 2010
2 See ‘Chidambaram congratulates Nitish’, The Hindu, November 24, 2010, Available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article909198.ece, Accessed on November 25, 2010
3 See ‘Nitish tidal wave sweeps Bihar’, The Hindu, November 24, 2010, Available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article909050.ece, Accessed on November 25, 2010
4 After the Bihar assembly results, Congress President Sonia Gandhi herself accepted that the party didn’t have much hope in the election and has to start from scratch and rebuild it. See ‘Bihar election results: Political reactions’, NDTV, November 24, 2010
5 Backward Castes in Bihar include the ‘upper backwards’ (also known as Annexure 2 castes), namely Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris and Banias who rode on the Mandal wave of the 90s, and the lower backwards or EBCs (Annexure 1 castes), namely Kahars, Dhanuks, Kumhars, Lohars, Telis, Mallahs, Nais, Kevats, etc. See Mishra, Vandita. 2010. ‘The Bihar Glossary’, Indian Express, October 17, 2010
6 It should be noted that though the number of Muslim candidates fielded by JD (U) was less than that of Congress, RJD and RJD, the number of successful Muslim candidates: 7 was highest for JD (U). Also, the number of Muslim women fielded by JD (U): 3 was highest among all the parties. See ‘Muslim representation in Bihar House still low’, The Times of India, November 28, 2010
7 ‘noble’ or ‘highborn’ denoting the ‘upper caste’ Muslims.
8 Under this scheme, a schoolgirl gets a cheque of Rs 2,000 upon passing class VIII to buy a bicycle for going to school.
Ganguli, Amulya. 2010. ‘What makes Nitish Kumar special’, Ummid, November 24, 2010, Available at http://www.ummid.com/news/2010/November/24.11.2010/what_makes_nitih_special.htm, Accessed on November 25, 2010
Mishra, Vandita. 2010. ‘The Bihar Glossary’, Indian Express, October 17, 2010.
The Hindu. 2006. ‘Chairman of EBC panel appointed in Bihar’, September 18, 2006, Available at http://www.hindu.com/2006/09/18/stories/2006091810580300.htm, Accessed on November 26, 2010
The Hindu. 2010. ‘Nitish seeks separate reservation for EBCs’, January 25, 2010, Available at http://www.hindu.com/2010/01/25/stories/2010012557770700.htm, Accessed on November 26, 2010