In political terms, Bihar is one of the most important states of India. With a population of over a 100 million and an electorate of over 66 million, it has a legislative assembly strength of 248.
Looking for a big win in the Bihar legislative assembly election in October-November 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi staked all and campaigned hard addressing over 35 public rallies across the state.
Victory in the election was so important for him that he, an ‘outsider’, did not hesitate to pit himself against the local luminary, Nitish Kumar, former chief minister of Bihar.
The election results were a stinging repudiation of Modi’s ambitions. His party won only 58 seats in an assembly of 248.
The united opposition of Janata Dal United (JD-U) led by Nitish Kumar (71 seats), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad (80 seats) and allies won an overwhelming majority of 178 seats.
The consequences of Modi’s defeat are likely to be far-reaching for Indian politics.
Lesser lights in the party have attributed the party’s poll loss to caste-related maneuvers of the opposition and faulted them for ignoring ‘development’ as advocated by Modi.
What is missed by the ruling BJP leaders in the politics of Bihar is the significant role of the movement of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) of which the victorious former chief ministers Kumar and Prasad are leading players.
The so called ‘backward classes’ have acquired a distinct national identity and have actively democratised and shaped Indian politics in the period after the 1990 Mandal Commission Report, which identified and legitimised them.
The OBCs constitute 42% of the Indian population and include multiple groups apart from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), categories which are already legitimized, and the Muslims.
Far from being a monolithic unit, the OBCs include several sub-castes and caste-like formations in a complex caste system, which Perry Anderson has characterized as the ‘secret’ of Indian democracy.
The JDU leader Nitish Kumar (a ‘Kurmi’ by caste) and the RJD leader Lalu Prasad (a ‘Yadav’ by caste) are from the OBC category in Bihar playing a leading role in the politics of the state.
The ‘Hindus’, which the BJP claims to represent, are internally divided and come mainly from the lower castes with about half of them in the OBC category.
‘Hinduism’ itself is a complex melange of beliefs, practices and rituals with no strict internal unity. The religion is an invented and limited category covering a multiplicity of castes and caste-like formations in the rapidly changing Indian social formation. A sociological and anthropological approach is needed to understand them, which the ruling party intellectuals do not want to or fail to appreciate.
The party leadership thus stumbled and fell in Bihar in the face of the formidable combination of the OBC political forces led by Kumar and Prasad. In essence, the BJP represents only a small percentage of the ‘forward castes’ including Brahmins who have dominated democratic politics in India since 1952 when the first parliamentary and state assembly elections were held.
Prasad rightly pointed out during his electoral campaign in 2015 that the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP, has never had a non-Brahmin as its supreme head.
Bihar has provided a ‘fertile ground’ for OBC politics. The state assembly elections of 2015 was a competition between two opposing political and social formations: the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the JDU/RJD- led Grand Alliance.
The BJP, especially towards the last stages of the electoral campaign in Bihar, made its ‘Hindutva’ affiliation explicit by referring to the issues of beef eating and protection of the holy cow. Thus, Prasad declared that the election was a fight for the rights, identity and dignity of the backward castes/classes and the marginalised, which appealed to the majority of the rural electorate.
Prasad repeatedly mentioned the issue of the rights and dignity of the marginalised as against the spurious talk of ‘development’ indulged in by Modi. He had successfully articulated this concern earlier during the Mandal Movement (1990-2005) in Bihar; he added to it and called for ‘inclusive development’ involving the participation of the Dalits, the Backwards and the Muslims.
He stated that the state assembly election, 2015, was a battle between the ‘forward’ castes and the ‘backward’ castes, that the ruling BJP was the political mask of the RSS, the right-wing Brahmanical ‘Hindutva’ formation, and that Modi was its popular face. Was this a class struggle in the form of caste struggle?
The BJP campaign argument that it believed in ‘the development of all’ could not erase the JDU-RJD response that it essentially represented the ‘forward’ castes. The RSS allegation that JDU and RJD had proposed to cut the percentage of government jobs for the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and OBCs in order to benefit the Muslims, did not help it.
On the contrary, it became a powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition combination to discredit the BJP for its attempted exhibition of an anti-Muslim, pro-Hindu ‘communalist’ political agenda.
The concept of ‘development’ advocated by Modi differed crucially from that espoused by Kumar and Prasad.
Conditioned by the ideology and practice of the RSS, Modi its ‘pracharak’ (advocate), together with his political experience in the capitalistic political economy of Gujarat, had a natural inclination for a growth-oriented strategy of development from above.
Kumar and Prasad, products of the post-independence social movements in Bihar, based their concept of development as process involving struggles for equity, justice and development from below based on an inclusive approach. They were followers of some of the tallest leaders of the Indian freedom struggle who stood for social justice.
Entering the electoral campaign in Bihar, Modi knew nothing of the complex politics of Bihar which had had many intellectual leaders with socialist inclinations. Though it had developed an electoral-political base in Bihar, the BJP’s leaders could not be credited with any intellectual understanding of the social situation in Bihar. Many from Bihar viewed ‘Hindutva’ only as a basically anti-Muslim doctrine.
Prasad has been a much maligned politician. But as chief minister for over a decade, he was connected to the rural poor with a gift for political mobilization in caste as well as class terms. For him, ‘development’ had to go hand in hand with ‘dignity’ of the poor.
This approach is startlingly contemporary and is part of the United Nations terminology on the Millennium Development Goals, which advocates the dignity of the human person at the centre of development.
The writer is a former Director General of Police in in Northeast India and author of ‘Political Violence and the Police in India’ Sage, 2007 and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge