Social justice will remain relevant

THE people of Bihar have delivered a crushing verdict against the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress ruling coalition. The result is unusual for five reasons. First, the vote got sharply polarised just eight months after the last elections.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Fri 25 Nov 2005, 12:08 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:23 PM

Such changes normally take years. Second, the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party has won a convincing victory, claiming 60 per cent of Assembly seats. This hasn’t happened in Bihar (or Uttar Pradesh) for a quarter-century. The RJD’s greatest-ever victory (167/324 seats) in 1995 pales beside this.

Third, contrary to normal trends involving a high rate of polling, the JD(U) sweep comes on a remarkably low voter turnout —46 per cent, or 17 percentage-points less than the past 15 years’ average. The turnout was depressed by overzealous Election Commission official KJ Rao, who had a dampening effect on OBC, Dalit and Muslim voters.

Fourth, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party shrank because he refused to support either the RJD- or JD(U)-led alliance in forming a government in February/March. Seventyfour per cent of those polled in a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey blamed Paswan for this. Four-fifths of all voters (including 63 per cent of LJP supporters) criticised him for insisting that a Muslim should become Chief Minister. This was seen as blatantly opportunistic.

Finally, Governor Buta Singh turned many uncommitted voters against the RJD-Congress. He was seen as partisan in rejecting the JD(U)-BJP’s claim to form a government and recommending President’s rule. This was confirmed by a Supreme Court judgment. Singh’s sons also interfered with the running of government.

The United Progressive Alliance committed a blunder in not giving Nitish Kumar a chance to form a government in February/March. He may not have gathered the necessary numbers. But he shouldn’t have been precluded. His government would have been shaky, dysfunctional and potentially unviable. The UPA took a shortcut-and paid for it. Democratic decency pays more in politics than Machiavellian tactics.

What social dynamics underlie the Bihar mandate? What do the results signify for Gangetic heartland politics? The verdict is a forceful mandate for ending the 15 year-long rule of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ms Rabri Devi. The electorate’s growing disappointment with what has been pejoratively called Lalu-Rabri Raj has caused erosion of the RJD’s vote share from 33 per cent in 2000 to 25 in February, and 23.2 per cent now.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the RJD has never depended upon the Muslim-Yadav (M-Y) vote alone. It was a broad coalition of the poor, which always attracted sizable Dalit and MBC (most backward classes) votes. These have eroded, as did even its M-Y base. This time, the greatest erosion probably happened in the RJD’s MBC votes and those of backward Muslims.

A survey in March showed only the Yadavs wanted the RJD back in government. Sixty-four per cent of all voters didn’t, nor did 85 per cent of Kurmis, 63 per cent of Dalits, and 56 per cent of Muslims. Only 13 per cent felt that Lalu-Rabri Raj was good. Thirty-five per cent felt it was “bad all the way” and 37 per cent said it began well, but deteriorated.

The Bihar government became the worst-rated regime among 11 recently polled states. Lalu-Rabri Raj symbolised mis-governance and collapse of public services. The development agenda-which 60 per cent of Biharis identify as most important, compared to 24 per cent in Haryana-took a beating. Corruption became rampant. Public finances worsened. Disorder spread. Lalu’s greatest attraction for the poor lay in giving them ‘a voice’, or dignity and empowerment. Here he concentrated the best features of the politics of “social justice” which dominates Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He was a great mass-mobiliser. But he never translated “social justice” slogans into policies. By early 2005, defeat stared him in the face. The Congress, with its limited upper caste-based strength, couldn’t reverse this.

Nitish Kumar’s campaign won over significant numbers of MBCs-especially Sahus, Telis, Kewats, Mallahs, etc-and Muslims. He led what might be called a coalition of extremes, its core based on the Kurmis and the upper castes. The Bihar result is emphatically not a victory of the BJP. The party’s ideology wasn’t a factor in the election. The battle was fought along caste and regional lines.

What triumphed was the very same politics that Lalu represents, under another leader. Kumar is as deeply rooted in subaltern self-respect politics as Yadav. This derives from the dual phenomenon of OBC and Dalit self-assertion. The result will disappoint those who loathed Lalu precisely because he represented “populist” politics. Nitish Kumar belongs to the same current as Lalu - the Lohia/Karpoori Thakur Socialists. They are both Mandal’s children.

Kumar has a purely expedient relationship with the BJP. He’s not communal although he was, deplorably, near-silent over the Gujarat carnage. The NDA would be gravely mistaken to regard the Bihar results as signifying its revival. There are no electoral battles around the corner that it can win. The NDA doesn’t count in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, Nitish Kumar’s triumph will marginalise George Fernandes within the JD(U). If the NDA flounders, and the BJP’s crisis worsens, as is likely, Kumar could well look to forming a Third force front.

The results are a setback for the UPA, although not a grave one. Its national-level stability isn’t in danger. The Left will back it after the recent reconciliation of differences over Iran. However, the Congress cannot revive itself in Bihar/UP unless it relates to OBC-Dalit self-assertion, in particular the self-assertion of MBCs, a leaderless but restive constituency.

The Congress’ best chance to grow in the Gangetic heartland lies in basing itself on marginalised groups and reviving Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor model of 1967-71. This demands that it change its economic and social policies and stop banking on upper caste-dominated multi-class coalitions. It’s unclear that the Congress is willing to change. If it doesn’t, it could again go into decline.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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