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Karpoori Thakur: A Socialist Leader in the Hindi Belt

Karpoori Thakur’s life and politics symbolised various stages of socialist movement in the Hindi belt of India. Despite belonging to a politically marginalised caste, an MBC, he was able to occupy an important place in the politics of the state where caste is the most decisive factor


Since the last quarter of the 20th century, a number of leaders belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalit social groups have emerged to play a decisive role in the social and political sphere in the Hindi belt (especially Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar). Some of them have also become heads of state governments. In contrast to their counterparts in the south of India, the OBCs in Tamil Nadu, for example, their rise in the Hindi belt has been rather late by origin.

The OBC leaders have been a product of certain sociocultural processes that can be roughly traced to the 1950s. The legacies of three political thinkers – B R Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia and Charan Singh, their life, ideas and political strategies – had cumulatively contributed to their rise (Singh 2014). Such leaders who can be accounted for their contribution to the politics of Hindi belt include Charan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in UP, and Karpoori Thakur, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar.[1] Except Charan Singh, all others were influenced by the ideology of Lohia or sought to inherit the Lohiaite legacy. Two of these leaders – Charan Singh and Karpoori Thakur – played a decisive role in state politics during the lifetime of Lohia but they came to head governments after his death. Though Charan Singh was not a socialist, his views converged with the Lohiaites, especially on the question of reservation for the OBCs and interests of the middle-caste farming communities.

This was especially so after the merger of his party, the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) with the Socialist Party to form the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) in 1974. The BLD was a formidable component of the Janata Party that formed governments in the centre and some states after the Emergency.

This paper seeks to unravel the politics of Karpoori Thakur who was one of the most influential Lohiaite socialist leaders.

He participated in most of the political agitations outside the legislature as a socialist, and remained a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of Bihar since 1952 till his death on 17 February 1988 interrupted only in 1977 when he became a member of the Lok Sabha. He was once the deputy chief minister of Bihar and became chief minister of the state twice – from December 1970 till June 1971, and from June 1977 till April 1979.

He lost only one election, in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls. His politics can be analysed in two parts: as a legislator and minister on the one hand and an activist outside legislature on the other. I shall, however, confine my discussion to certain aspects of his politics related to some policy issues, ie, language, reservation, development, employment and security (his suggestion to arm dalits and the poor against upper-caste violence). An analysis of politics of Karpoori Thakur is imperative for the following reasons.

He introduced some controversial policies – removed English as a compulsory subject in the matriculation examinations when he was the deputy chief minister and education minister of Bihar. He gave priority to unemployed engineers in jobs in the government contracts during his first term as the chief minister. He introduced reservation for the OBCs in the government jobs and educational institutions in the state during his second term as the chief minister of Bihar, and advocated arming the landless Dalits and the poor during the later stages of his political career.[2]

He brought about a reservation policy for the backward classes, which had provisions for a sub-quota for the most backward classes (MBCs). This was all the more important considering the fact that the dominant OBCs like Yadavs who formed the core group of his support, and Charan Singh[3] were against a sub-quota for the MBCs. He himself belonged to a community (caste) that was in the minority and was politically ineffective as a group: the Nai (barber) community. Today there is a regular allusion to Karpoori Thakur’s reservation policy of sub-quota generally known as “Karpoori Thakur Formula” in debates on reservation.[4] He played a major role as a mentor to leaders of Bihar with socialist orientations – Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and several others.

He was considered to be an honest politician of his time. In the words of Paul R. Brass, Karpoori Thakur was one of the three leaders, apart from Lohia and Charan Singh, whom he “loved and admired” because they “see politics as their vocation, pursue clearly stated goals, and do not enrich themselves in the process” (Brass 2011: xxi). With some exceptions (Pathak 2008; Kumari 2003; Brass 1973) and some sketchy insertions in discussions on Bihar politics of the 1970s, we do not have a systematic analysis of Karpoori Thakur’s politics. Besides, the anecdotal allusions about him relegate the substantial contribution of Karpoori Thakur to the politics of Bihar to insignificance.

We initialise a brief analysis of Karpoori Thakur’s political career, followed by a discussion of the policies of his government – on language, reservations (“Karpoori Thakur Formula”) and on employment. We then study his politics – view it in relation to the socialist movement and ideology and critically assess the gap between the development vision of the socialists and formulation of development policies by the governments that they later headed. This is followed by a discussion of the impact of Karpoori Thakur’s legacy on contemporary Bihar politics and conclusions.

The Making of Karpoori Thakur (1921-88)

Karpoori Thakur’s lifespan can be divided into three phases: (a) from his birth in 1921 till 1967; during this phase he participated in the Indian national movement for Independence, students’ and peasant movements, and as a prominent socialist leader articulated the common interests of the underprivileged, (b) from 1967-80 when he got identified as a leader of the backward classes, and (c) from 1980 till his death in 1988 when he became a helpless leader in search of new political support base, as a section of the dominant OBCs challenged his leadership.

Indeed, these phases are indicative of the transformation of Karpoori Thakur from a leader commanding support from almost all caste groups through being a OBC leader in general, to finally a politician in search of a new support base. Karpoori Thakur was born in a poor Nai (barber) family on 24 January 1921, in Pitaujhiya village (rechristened as Karpoori Gram in 1988) in Darbhanga (now Samastipur) district.[5]

Right from his childhood, he took interest in political activities as the national movement motivated a large number of people across age and social groups. His first initiation into the public life was in 1938, when Acharya Narendra Dev came to address the Prantiya Kisan Sammelan (provincial peasants’ conference) at Oieni village, located near Karpoori Thakur’s village. Having noticed a curious student Karpoori Thakur as a participant in the conference, Acharya Narendra Dev invited him to address it. In the due course of time his popularity grew among the masses, especially youth and students. He was incarcerated for his participation in the Quit India Movement and remained in jail from 1942 till 1945 (Pathak 2008). He dropped out of his studies without completing his BA degree. He was also an active member of the All India Students Federation and organised youth activities in his village. He got associated with the Congress Socialist Party while he was in jail, and became the whole-timer of the party after his release from the jail. He remained with the Socialist Party following its exit from the Congress Party in 1948 (Brass 1973: 342-43). He continued to be a committed socialist till his death.


Though Kapoori Thakur’s career as a socialist leader spanned various phases of the socialist movement, it was only after the death of Lohia that he emerged as the tallest leader who mobilised the youth leadership of the backward classes in Bihar. In fact, during the post-Lohia period he, along with Ramanand Tiwari and Bhola Prasad Singh, dominated socia list politics in the state (Brass 1973). The foundation of a strong social base for him among the landed OBCs had already been laid by the 1960s. It is important to note that Samyukta Samajwadi Party’s (SSP) reservation policy had developed for more than a decade beforeit really became an election issue in the 1960s. After the merger of the Bihar State Backward Classes Federation with Lohia’s Samajwadi Party in 1957, and the subsequent adoption of the resolution by Lohia’s supporters in 1959 to secure 60% reservation for OBCs, SCs, STs, religious minorities in the organisations and government jobs, reservation became the main agenda of the socialist politics (Frankel 1989: 88-89). By 1967 Karpoori Thakur campaigned on the plank of reservations to the backward classes and it was the first election when he emerged as a popular backward class leader (Frankel 1989).

“But it was only in the late 1970s that backward classes in Bihar became politically powerful” and “Karpoori Thakur was able to unite them behind a common policy, that of the reservation issue” (Blair 1980: 71). The 1960s was marked by deterioration in the economic conditions of the people and resentment among the people against the ruling Congress governments. The socialist ideology and movement appealed to these classes.

The socialists along with the left forces launched agitations in Hindi belt – UP and Bihar throughout the 1960s (Frankel 1989; Brass 1973 for Bihar; Singh 1992 for western UP).

Having benefited from land reforms, though skewed, by this time a generation of backward classes had entered educational institutions. The Samata Yuvajan Sabha (SYS), the youth wing of the SSP naturally appealed to them. By the late 1960s, some leaders from these social groups – like Nitish Kumar and Lalu

Yadav – had already joined the SYS. Some of them had become popular among the students, especially belonging to the backward classes. Nitish Kumar was the president of Patna College, Lalu Yadav, who had become a powerful orator, later became the president of the Patna Students’ Union. The emergence of Nitish Kumar as a student leader of Patna College in the 1960s is a relevant example here. It was not an easy task for him to get elected as the leader of a college when the students’ union was controlled by three or four student leaders from a few high castes – Bhumihars and Rajputs. He made an alliance of backward classes with other castes and won the election, thus breaking the monopoly of high castes in the students’ union (for a discussion see Sinha 2011: 41-44). These backward class young leaders were important participants in the JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement. In Bihar, as stated earlier, Karpoori Thakur played a pivotal role in consolidating the political strength of these classes. He made them realise the significance of their political potential and as we know, later on they came to play a leading role in the politics of Bihar. A Yadav leader is said to have told a small gathering about Karpoori Thakur’s attempt to unite the OBCs under the same banner.

Leading and Then Losing Support

The question arises as to how was he able to lead the politics or even become chief minister of Bihar despite the fact that he belonged to a politically ineffective minority caste? The principal reasons for this were epochal. Though the dominant backward classes – Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris – had emerged as a formidable social and political force till the 1960s, they did not have a leader from among the dominant backward classes of a stature who could articulate their interests and lead them at state level. Karpoori Thakur was accepted by them as a leader so long as no leader of his stature had emerged among them. This was so till 1980. By this time two important developments had taken place. The reservation policy – aimed to benefit the main backward classes or the agenda of the socialists in Bihar – had become a reality. Second, a generation of political leadership, which had the patronage of Karpoori Thakur in the initial phase of their entry into politics, had emerged among dominant OBCs (Yadavs and Kurmis) as well as among Dalits (Ram Vilas Paswan, for example). No doubt, there were some leaders from their castes even earlier. Unlike this generation of leadership, the earlier ones belonged to the Congress, which did not espouse the interests of the backward classes. The new generation of leadership had an alternative agenda, ie, the issues of the backward classes with a “socialist coating”.

Within a short period after the fall of Karpoori Thakur’s government in 1979, this new generation realised the numerical significance of their castes and challenged the leadership of Karpoori Thakur, who was handicapped due to the minority status of his caste (Sinha 2011: 121-23). The position of Karpoori Thakur can be likened with that of Charan Singh. The latter also belonged to a community, the Jats, which had less of a numerical strength than the other dominant castes such as the Yadavs in UP, even if they were among the dominant groups in western UP. But unlike in the case of Karpoori Thakur, the new generation of the non-Jat dominant OBCs – epitomised by Mulayam Singh Yadav – had not challenged the leadership of Charan Singh. In the post-Charan Singh phase, that dominant position of Jats in the UP politics was challenged by a numerically larger and geographically more spread caste, the Yadavs.[6]

During the 1980s even Charan Singh withdrew support to Karpoori Thakur. Perhaps Charan Singh now realised the importance of the newly emergent leadership among the Yadavs, given the insignificant strength of Karpoori Thakur’s community.

Karpoori Thakur had also become cynical about Charan Singh’s leadership (Frankel 1989: 117). In collusion with the assembly speaker Shiv Chandra Jha, “a senior Congress MLA, who despised Karpoori” (Sinha 2011: 123), the Yadav MLAs who formed half of the Lok Dal MLAs, challenged the leadership of Karpoori Thakur in the Lok Dal. Soon he was replaced by Anup Yadav, who then became the leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly. In due course of time Anup Yadav was replaced by Lalu Yadav, who nicknamed Karpoori Thakur as “kapati” (foxy) Thakur (Sinha 2011: 123). Karpoori Thakur lamented “I would not have faced such humiliation, if I were born a Yadav” (Sinha 2011: 122). Karpoori Thakur also faced challenges from the emergent Dalit socialist leader in Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan.[7] Indeed, these socialist leaders were what Arun Sinha calls Frankensteins of Karpoori Thakur (Sinha 2011: 121). Within three years of being deposed as the leader of the opposition by a Yadav, Karpoori Thakur died.

It would not be untenable to state that though Karpoori Thakur was a committed socialist leader, he was not free from the control of the emergent dominant backward classes like Yadavs and Kurmis. After being challenged by the dominant OBCs and having already alienated the upper caste due to his reservation policy, Karpoori Thakur was left with no formidable social group to bank upon. This perhaps left him in a confused state of mind and in a state of helplessness. His helplessness was indicated from the following statement of Karpoori Thakur, which he issued in the context of Belchi massacre. “I have put the best officers in Bihar to look after the welfare of the agricultural labourers, within the state structure, what else can I do?” (The Times of India, Bombay edition, 18 February 1988). He was perhaps looking for alternative social groups for support – the MBCs, Dalits and the poor. His proposal to arm the poor/dalits placed his position closer to that of the Naxalites.

It is important to note that the mid-1980s – the time of Karpoori Thakur’s suggestion to arm the “harijans” – was also a time when the Naxalites first made their presence felt in Bihar beyond their traditional bastion in Bhojpur district (for details Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1998: 55-61).


It seems that even prior to suggesting the arming of the landless Dalits and poor or having come closer to the position of the Naxalites, Karpoori Thakur felt the need for consolidating his support base among the MBCs. Inaugurating the Bihar

Pradeshik Kaivart[8] Sammelan on 19 June 1983 in Katihar, he emphasised the need for creating consciousness (“jagran”) among them, for setting up an organisation, showcasing their strength and the need for a cultural revolution. He identified two struggles – one for an economic revolution and another for social revolution and the need for struggle at a higher scale. He attributed the availability of right to education to the British rule. Such attribution by Karpoori Thakur seems to be similar to the views held by a large number of Dalit intellectuals. In Thakur’s words: “There are so many people who waged a war against the British. I am one of them. If there was no British government, all would not have got right to education in Hindustan. I can say with authority, Rajputs who were not supposed to get educated, but were supposed to learn yudh vidya (art of war) … Vaishyas whose occupation was commerce and business were not supposed to get educated. Shudras were not supposed to get educated at all. To study was to commit sin for them. Such was our country. That is why social revolution has to be made … If we want to win two types of wars (economic revolution and social revolution), an organisation is needed. Consciousness is needed. I am regularly saying nothing will be achieved by begging – rights will not be achieved, power will not be achieved (by begging). … If you want to achieve, awake. If you want to achieve, get up and move on” (Thakur 2008; translation mine).

Delivering the inaugural lecture of the Eklavya Jayanti Samaroh on 14 February 1988, three days before his death, at the Vidhayak Club, Sabha Kaksha, Patna, Karpoori Thakur lamented that the different castes – backwards (pichhde; perhaps he referred to MBCs because by this time he was marginalised by the upper OBCs such as the Yadavs), “harijans”, tribals (adivasis) who have been victims of the caste system collectively are divided among themselves. Discrete caste-based organisations were just for show off, he suggested. He emphasised that there was a need for collective organisation and once this collective became politically viable and visible, only then would justice be done for the excluded groups (Thakur 2008a).

Politics of Symbolism and Social Justice

Following the socialist tradition of politics, Karpoori Thakur’s policies – language policy, reservation policy and employment policy – and suggestions on security to the landless Dalits and poor were couched in the language of populism and social justice. He was both loathed and adored for his policies and suggestions, especially on reservation, language and security.

His reservation policy divided Bihar along caste lines; his suggestion about the security divided the state along caste and class lines, and his language policy, especially, divided the state’s politics on the class and rural-urban axis. Karpoori Thakur seemed to have been in a hurry to introduce these policies. For example, he introduced reservation policy immediately after having become the chief minister of Janata Party government.

This is in contrast to one of his contemporary counterparts – Devaraj Urs of Karnataka. Unlike Karpoori Thakur, Urs introduced the reservation policy for the backward classes during the last two years of his seven years of rule, after having consolidated his position for most of his rule. About the lack of proper preparation on the part of Karpoori Thakur, Devaraj Urs remarked “Karpoori Thakur climbed into the ring before he learned how to box” (quoted in Manor 1980: 207). Why was Karpoori Thakur in a hurry to introduce the reservation policy?

The answer to this is not as simple as the statement of Devaraj Urs. It needs an explanation. Indeed, if we compare the trajectory of political careers of the two leaders, their ideologies, way of life, we can find a plausible explanation to the hurry.

Here is a comparison between the two leaders.[9] Both shared certain common characteristics. First both belonged to the minority castes which did not form a decisive political force, but with differences: Karpoori Thakur belonged to a socially and economically underprivileged caste while Urs belonged to an elite caste. Second, both provided leadership to a new coalition of castes in their respective states – Urs to the non-Vokkaligas and non-Lingayats, the lower OBCs and other marginalised groups, and Karpoori Thakur to all OBCs (lower and upper) and other marginalised groups. Third, both were the product of epochal phenomena such as the movements led by Charan Singh.[10] Both also differed from each other. Devaraj Urs rose and survived largely because of the patronage of Indira Gandhi, he did not emerge from a mass movement. On the other hand, Karpoori Thakur grew out of the Indian national movement and the socialist movement, and was an ally and not a protégé of Charan Singh.[11] Also Devaraj Urs was tainted with the image of a corrupt politician while Karpoori Thakur was regarded to be one of the most honest politicians of the country.

Karpoori Thakur’s hurry in trying to implement his vision can also be explained in the context of the political culture and impatience of the socialists and Charan Singh’s faction within the Janata Party to get the OBC reservation policy implemented.

His language policy can be explained in terms of the anti-English and pro-Hindi agitation of the 1960s in which the socialists had played a leading role. These demands were not specific to Bihar only. These were made in most of the Hindi-speaking regions, especially Bihar and UP. Whenever the socialists and Charan Singh’s supporters assumed power in UP and Bihar, they were quick to implement their agenda, especially language and the OBC reservation. They did so to satisfy their social bases. Though the government in UP headed by Charan Singh did not implement language policy on the lines of Bihar, the Janata Party governments in both states did introduce reservation for the OBCs in the 1970s.[12]

However, it was in Bihar that the reservation policy drew a stronger opposition in comparison to UP. The explanation of the varied responses to the reservations issue in the two states is beyond the scope of this paper. Karpoori Thakur’s employment policy, providing jobs to unemployed engineers during his first stint as the chief minister needs to be seen in the light of political atmosphere of the 1960s in Bihar. As mentioned earlier, during this period, socialists along with other left forces launched mass movements in the Hindi-speaking states, especially in Bihar and UP. Bihar also saw an agitation of unemployed engineers who were demanding assurances from government for the creation of jobs for them. The agitating students also included the members of the SYS such as Nitish Kumar.

Responding to the agitation Karpoori Thakur announced a policy suggesting first preference to be given to the unemployed engineers in bids for government contracts. After a review of this scheme, around 8,000 unemployed engineers got jobs in the irrigation department of the Bihar government (Sinha 2011: 44).

Hiatus between Vision and Deeds

Perhaps there was no development agenda set by the socialist-led governments in India. Indeed, there was a gap between the socialist vision of development and policies of governments in which they played a leading role, for example in the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) and the Janata Party governments in UP and Bihar. This gap was due to the nature of socialist politics in the country. Since the 1970s the socialists formed a significant constituent of Charan Singh-led political party BLD. They also became members of the Janata Party along with Charan Singh. In fact, the politics of the socialists as well as that of their associates like Charan Singh stemmed from opposition to policies and politics of the Congress. Theirs was an adversarial politics. Though they opposed the development policies and politics of the Congress, they did not offer an alternative policy of development when they came to power. The programme of the first SVD government (including those in Bihar) largely included identity and symbolic issues. Though the programme included economic issues as well, these largely concerned the non-landless/non-agricultural labourers (Brass 1984: 108).[13]

Since they were critical of the welfare and poverty alleviation policies of the Congress Party, the socialists did not have moral justification to follow similar policies. However, the socialists’ views converged with those of Charan Singh on reservation and some other issues, despite several differences between them.[14]

The leaders of the BLD constituent (BKD and Socialists) of the Janata Party, socialists and Charan Singh gave priority to the reservation for the OBCs over the issue of development. The introduction of the reservation policy for the OBCs by Karpoori Thakur government in Bihar and Ram Naresh Yadav government in UP needs to be viewed in this perspective. The reservation policy in the states ruled by the Janata Party including Bihar during the regime of Karpoori Thakur was introduced in the light of the election manifesto of the Janata Party at the centre. It was indeed its replica in the state.

By the mid-1970s, the clout of the backward classes/peasant castes became so decisive in Indian states, especially in the Hindi belt, that no constituent of the Janata Party, including the conservative Jana Sangh which was largely identified with the high castes or the Congress for Democracy (CFD) led by the prominent Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram, wished to ignore them.

The initial unanimity among the national leaders of the different constituents of the Janata Party had camouflaged the differences on the need to introduce reservation for the OBCs. In Bihar, though local leaders of the high castes (Jana Sangh section of the Janata Party) were critical of Karpoori Thakur’s reservation policy, they did not oppose it as their national leadership supported the move. However, in due course when differences developed at the national level especially among Charan Singh/Socialists and Jana Sangh leaders, these had repercussions for the survival of the Karpoori Thakur-led government in Bihar. The conflict between Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram at the national level also found reflection in Bihar – between Karpoori Thakur-led OBCs and Jagjivan Ram-led Dalits. This united high castes and Dalits against the OBCs or against the Karpoori Thakur-led government. The large number of violent incidents involving the OBCs and Dalits epitomised by the Belchi incident in 1977 further embittered their relations. This resulted in the fall of the Karpoori Thakur-led government and the installation of Ram Sunder Das as chief minister following the passage of a no-confidence motion against it in 1979. A government led by an OBC leader was replaced by one led by a Dalit leader (Blair 1980).

In view of the fact that sub-quota sought to dilute the possibility of monopoly of the dominant OBCs/Yadavs in appropriating the reservation benefits and Charan Singh’s views against giving reservation to the MBCs, how was the Karpoori Thakur formula accepted? Due to his stature as a socialist leader, he was also able to get the sub-quota for the MBCs and poor among the high castes included in the reservation policy in Bihar. In this endeavour he was supported by the high-caste leaders, who did not want the reservation benefits to be monopolised by the upper backward classes. P. N. Mukherji, a member of the Karpoori Thakur’s “think tank” said that the sub-quota was included due to the intervention of Jayaprakash Narayan. JP’s intervention followed after Mukherji as a member of the “think tank” had expressed disagreements on the original reservation draft. Indeed, Mukherji prefers to call the reservations policy as the “JP-Karpoori Thakur Formula” rather than the “Karpoori Thakur formula”.[15] However, in the perception of several OBCs and Dalits of Bihar, JP was opposed to the reservation policy for the OBCs. Some even argue that JP was instrumental in instigating the movement against the implementation of reservation policy by Karpoori Thakur government.[16]


Karpoori Thakur’s Impact on Contemporary Bihar Politics

Karpoori Thakur’s policy perspective could be summed up in the slogans which he coined – “azadi aur roti” (freedom and bread), social justice and quality of life (Kumar 2013). These were inclusive slogans symbolising development and dignity/self-respect. It is important to note that despite having coined the slogan that sought to give both development and dignity to the subaltern classes, as discussed earlier, Karpoori Thakur himself was not able to implement any development scheme.

In that sense Lalu Yadav carried forward the legacy of Karpoori Thakur. Lalu Yadav’s slogan Vikas Nahi Samman Chahiye (“we need dignity, not development”) corroborates this (Jha and Pushpendra 2012).

Academic S. N. Malakar, who belongs to one of the MBCs of Bihar and had participated in the agitation supporting Karpoori Thakur’s reservation policy in the 1970s as a student activist belonging to the All India Students Federation (AISF) contends that the subaltern classes of Bihar – MBCs, Dalits and upper OBCs had already gained confidence during the time of the Janata Party government. Lalu Yadav carried forward that legacy and became a symbol of the confidence and dignity of the subaltern classes for the first six or seven of the 15 years of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rule in Bihar but the MBCs and Dalits got disenchanted and lost confidence in him for the remaining period.[17] It seems that the charges of corruption and nepotism, and his style of working have camouflaged the contribution of Lalu Yadav towards instilling a sense of confidence, recognition and self-respect among the subaltern classes of Bihar. Perhaps implementation of policies related to dignity/self-respect and development was a matter of priority in specific context of time. Once dignity/self-respect was achieved for the backward classes and castes, development was to follow. The government led by Nitish Kumar of the Janata

Dal (United)-JD(U) did prioritise self-respect (social justice) along with development, in line with Karpoori Thakur’s slogan “azadi aur roti”. Therefore, the politics of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar needs to be seen as a continuous process that originated in the politics of Karpoori Thakur. Both of them appropriated Thakur’s legacy in the light of their political requirements. In fact, Nitish Kumar sought to address the problems of those castes that are more deprived among the Dalits known as Mahadalits.[18] He even attempted to placate the MBCs who felt neglected during the regimes of Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi.[19] He also introduced a strong and unique agenda for development, which soon placed Bihar as one among the fast developing states in the country (Singh and Stern 2013).

Delivering a lecture in the conference of the MBCs organised by the Janata Dal(U) on 2 September 2005 in Patna, Nitish Kumar acknowledged the impact of Karpoori Thakur’s legacy on his reservation policy: “Just like Karpoori Thakur worked towards reservation for the Most Backward Classes within the quota meant for the backward classes in the (government) jobs, the most backward classes among the backward classes should get reservation in the panchayat raj institutions. They should get separate reservation. Besides, the Constitution should be amended in order to give them political reservation (Rajnaitik Adhikar), just like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have it. We demand this. The reservation should be given in proportion to the population (of castes/MBCs)” (Kumar 2008, translation mine).

Alluding to a speech which he made one year earlier he said, “We were observing the Jayanti Kapoori Ji (Karpoori Thakur’s anniversary) in the Ravindra Bhawan. It was being discussed that the Annexures I and II[20] be merged. We declared then and there itself that no power can snatch away the rights which were given to us by Karpoori Thakur. And this became the root cause of our differences with Lalu Yadav” (Kumar 2008, translation mine).

Therefore, it would not be wrong to state that both Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar carried forward Karpoori Thakur’s legacy. Although both Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar inherited the same legacy – the JP movement and patronage of Karpoori Thakur – the distinction in their political personas could be visible even when Karpoori Thakur introduced reservation for the OBCs in 1978. Even as the OBCs and their leadership had generally rallied behind Karpoori Thakur in support of his policy, Nitish Kumar charted a different course (Sinha 2011).

Indeed, the reservation policy in Bihar divided the socialist movement on the caste lines – between the OBCs and high caste on the one hand, and within the OBCs on the other. In this divide Lalu Yadav was on Karpoori Thakur’s side, and Nitish Kumar was with the other camp identified with the high caste socialists.

Nitish Kumar actually followed a conciliatory stance: while he supported reservation for the OBCs, he also advocated it for the poor among the high castes. Nitish Kumar’s politics, especially his ability to form an alliance of the non-Yadav OBCs and high castes cannot be insulated from the legacy that he has inherited.

Arun Sinha’s sympathetic biography of Nitish Kumar overlooks the linkage of his policies to the politics of Karpoori Thakur and Lalu Yadav (Sinha 2011). Nitish Kumar’s stance on reservation endeared him to the high castes. In the post-Lalu period of politics of Bihar it enabled Nitish Kumar to form a coalition of non-Yadav OBCs, MBCs, mahadalits and high castes. Resentment against the Lalu/Rabri regimes, a bête noire of the high castes, and its identification with the Yadavs provided a context to anti-Lalu coalition of castes.


Karpoori Thakur’s life and politics symbolised various stages of socialist movement in the Hindi belt of India. Despite belonging to a politically marginalised caste, an MBC, he was able to occupy an important place in the politics of the state where caste is the most decisive factor. It was so because of his commitment to socialist politics as well as epochal factors. In relation to the latter, he was able to lead subaltern classes across castes for most part of his political career. However, in the latter years, his position was challenged by a section of the dominant OBCs, especially the Yadavs within the socialist rank.

After the fall of the Karpoori Thakur-led Janata Party government in Bihar, this section marginalised him in the politics of the state. This led Karpoori Thakur to look for alternative social bases among the MBCs and Dalits and brought his position closer to that of the Naxalites, especially relating to arming the poor and Dalits. His governments’ policies – language, employment and reservation – were devised in the light of the nature of socialist politics during the late 1950s-1970s in India.

These were also responses to the rise of the OBCs and rural communities. But his suggestion to arm the Dalits and poor later on indicated his own vulnerability in politics of the state.

The later spread of the socialist leaders into different parties, some of them Karpoori Thakur’s protégés, does not end the continuation of his legacy. The process of empowerment of subaltern groups initiated by him still continues. His notion of empowerment that included self-respect/dignity and development could be implemented in a sequence – dignity/self- respect to be followed by development. Even Karpoori Thakur focused on the first and neglected the latter. This was again due to the gap in the socialists’ vision of development and the policy perspectives of their governments headed by Karpoori Thakur.

The agenda of these governments included symbolic and identity issues, but not development. Lalu Yadav carried forward this legacy. Charges of corruption and nepotism have camouflaged the contribution of Lalu Yadav to the consolidation and continuation of a sense of confidence and dignity/self-respect among the OBCs and Dalits. Nitish Kumar carried forward Karpoori Thakur’s legacy in more broader manner: he provided dignity/self-respect with development to the people of Bihar.


[1] It is necessary to clarify that the emergent alternative leadership belongs to both OBCs and Dalits. Though there are social and economic contradictions among these social groups, there is also some convergence. OBC and Dalit leaders have become political on occasions due to instrumental political reasons. The alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP led by Mayawati in 1993-95 in UP is an example of such a convergence that led to a political alliance.

[2]His language and reservation policies evoked sharp reaction in the state. Students who passed the matriculation examination with third division (without English) were derisively called “passed with Karpoori division”. This policy was reversed by the Congress government in 1980 (Jha and Pushpendra 2012, fn 9).

His reservation policy led to the violent reactions both from its supporters and opponents. This resulted in fall of his government following the passage of the non-confidence motion.

[3]Expressing his objection to subdivision of the reservation quota for the MBCs, Charan Singh wrote:

My critics may say, when you propose reservation in the government service for the cultivators (halwahon), why are you silent on carpenters, weavers, etc? This criticism is ridiculous (hasyapad) – In reality the kisan is the symbol of society (samaj ka pratik), not the people related to the above-mentioned occupations. (Charan Singh’s Private Papers, Instalment II, File no 244, available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi; Translation mine).

[4]The reservation policy of Karpoori Thakur government had the following features: in addition to the 24% reservation quota in the government jobs which already existed for the SCs and STs, it added 26% quota for the “backward classes”. The backward classes were divided into “Annexure I” which would have 12% reservation of the posts, and “Annexure II” which would have 8% reservation – 3% for women of any group, and 3% for the “economically backward” classes (Blair 1980: 64). As this policy was introduced by Karpoori Thakur government, it generally came to be alluded as “Karpoori Thakur Formula” signifying the division of the reservation into different and unequal sections of the backward classes.

[5]Based on Pathak (2008) and Brass (1973).

[6]The marginalisation of Jats in post-Charan Singh era led to the heightening of the demand for a separate of Harit Pradesh. See for details Singh (2001).

[7]The spat between the two was widely reported in the contemporary newspapers.

[8]Kaivart is a community belonging to the MBCs in Bihar.

[9]Aspects on Devaraj Urs in this comparison are drawn on (Manor 1980; Kohli 1987).

[10]See the impact of the epochal political and social factors on the rise of Charan Singh in Singh (2001).

[11]It is important to note that Karpoori Thakur retained his independent identity and did not join the splinter groups of the SSP (Samyukta Socialist Party). He even did not join Lohia when the latter went out of this party (Brass 1973: 342-43).

[12]While Karpoori Thakur-led Janata Party government provided for the sub-quota for the extremely/most backward classes in Bihar, the government led by the same party in UP abolished the distinction between the MBCs and the upper backward classes in contravention to the recommendations of the Most Backward Classes in the state (Hasan 1998:145).

[13]Paul R. Brass classifi ed this programme into five points: (1) concessions to different groups – students, teachers, governments employees, supporters of Urdu; (2) ratification of misdeeds done by Congress, issues like release of political prisoners, judicial enquiry into corruption charges against the Congress ministers; (3) withdrawal of unpopular measures and taxes – grain procurement orders, previous increase in taxation, the land revenue; (4) provisions for various agricultural benefits, and (5) promises to provide efficient administration, control price and corruption (Brass 1984: 108). We can see that these were basically non-developmental issues.

[14]Differences and similarities between the two were as follows. The similarities between them included support for reservation to the backward classes (including farmers), support to the rural industries/cottage industries, decentralisation. The dissimilarities included priority given to the issues of the backward class farmers by Charan Singh, on reservation for backward classes and opposition to English and support to Hindi by the socialists over other issues, support to the politics of agitation by the socialists and opposition to it by Charan Singh. Indeed, the most striking differences between them were related to the need to indulge in the politics of mobilisation/protest and movement.

[15]Personal interview with P. N. Mukherji, 16 July 2013, New Delhi.

[16]Based on discussion with persons belonging to the OBCs and Dalits from Bihar.

[17]Personal interview with S. N. Malakar, 23 September 2013, New Delhi.

[18]The Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) government constituted the Mahadalit Commission in 2007 in order to identify the castes within the SCs which have been left behind in the process of development; to study their social and economic conditions, and to suggest measures to uplift their conditions. The commissions identified 21 mahadalit castes or “extremely weaker castes” among the scheduled castes of Bihar (http://www.mahadalitvikasmission.org/BMVM2/accessed on 17 September 2013).

[19]Nitish Kumar’s strategy towards the MBCs was four-pronged: he increased quota for them up to 20% in the reservation after the formation of Jharkhand state out of Bihar; gave reservation to the MBCs in the seats in municipalities and

panchayats, 50% of which were meant for women; his party, the Janata Dal (United) sought to give more tickets to MBCs than other parties did in the Lok Sabah and assembly elections and helped them to win elections. As most of the Muslims are MBCs, his focus on the MBCs has also given them a sense of confidence (Personal interview with Prof S N Malakar, 23 September 2013, New Delhi).

[20]These annexures provided separate quotas for the MBCs and the dominant OBCs in the Karpoori Thakur Formula.


Blair, Harry W (1980): “Rising Kulaks and Backward Classes in Bihar: Social Change in the Late 1970s”, Economic & Political Weekly, 15(2), January, pp 64-74.

Brass, P R (1973): “Radical Parties of the Left in Bihar: A Comparison of the SSP and CPI” in Paul R Brass and Marcus F Franda (ed.), Radical Politics in South Asia (Cambridge: The MIT Press), 324-87.

– (1984): Caste, Faction and Party in Indian Politics, Vol 1, Faction and Party (Delhi: Chanakya Publications).

– (2011): An India Politics Life: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1937 to 1961 (New Delhi: Sage Publications).

Frankel, Francine R (1989): “Caste, Land and Dominance in Bihar: Breakdown of the Brahminical Social Order“ in Frankel, R Frankel and M S A Rao (ed.), Dominance and State Power in Modern India: Decline of a Social Order (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 46-131.

Hasan, Zoya (1998): Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements & Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Jha, Manish K and Pushpendra (2012): “Governing Caste and Managing Conflict in Bihar, 1990-2011”, Policies and Practices 48, March, Published by Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, http:/www.mcgr.ac.in accessed on 6 June 2013.

Kohli, Atul (1987): The State and Poverty in India: The Politics of Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Kumar, Awanish (2013): “Nitish Kumar’s Honourable Exit: A Brief History of Caste Politics”, Economic & Political Weekly, 48(28), 13 July, 15-17.

Kumar, Nitish (2008): Bhashan delivered at Janata Dal (U) Dwara Ayojit Atyan Pichhda Varg Sammelan, at Srikrishan Memorial Hall, Patna, 2 September 2005, published in Uday Kant Chowdhary (ed.) (Patna: Ati Pichhda Darpan, Prakashak: Bihar Rajya Atyant Pichhda Varg Sangh).

Kumari, Dr Ranjana (2003): Karpoori Thakur: Neta Virodhi Dal Ke Roop Me, Sansadiay Bhumika (New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan).

Manor, James (1980): “Pragmatic Progressives in Regional Politics: The Case of Devaraj Urs”, Economic & Political Weekly, Annual No, 15 (5/7), 18 February, 201-13.

Mendelsohn, Oliver and Marika Vicziany (1998): The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Pathak, Narendra (2008): Karpoori Thakur Aur Samajwad (Delhi: Medha Books).

Sen, Amartya (2002): Development as Freedom (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Singh, Jagpal (1992): Capitalism and Dependence: Agrarian Politics in Western Uttar Pradesh 1951-91 (New Delhi: Manohar).

– (2001): “Politics of Harit Pradesh: The Case of Western UP as a Separate State”, Economic & Political Weekly, 33(31), 4 August, 2962-67.

– (2014): “Legacies of Dr B R Ambedkar and His Contemporaries in Uttar Pradesh: A Comparison of Ambedkar, Charan Singh and Lohia” in Bishwamoy Pati (ed.), Invoking Ambedkar: Contributions, Receptions, Legacies (Delhi: Primus Books), pp 93-106.

Singh, N K and Nicholas Stern (2013): The New Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Development (Noida: Harper Collins).

Sinha, Arun (2011): Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar (Delhi: Penguin/Viking New).

Thakur, Karpoori (2008): “Udghatan Bhashan: Bihar Pradeshik Kaivart Sammelan”, 19 June 1983, Maheshwar Academy, Katihar, published in Uday Kant Chowdhary (ed.) Patna: Ati Pichhda Darpan (Bihar Rajya Atyant Pichhda Varg Sangh).

– (2008a): “Udghatan Bhashan: Eklavya Jayanti Samaroh”, 14 February 1988, Vidhayak Kaksh, Sabha Kakha, Patna, published in Uday Kant Chowdhary (ed.) Patna: Ati Pichhda Darpan (Bihar Rajya Atyant Pichhda Varg Sangh).

This article is appeared in the 17 January 2015 issue of the Economic & Political Weekly

(Economic and Political weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 3, 17 Jan, 2015)

About The Author

Jagpal Singh

Professor Jagpal Singh teaches at the School of Social Sciences, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Previously, he has taught at Delhi University's Dayal Singh College and at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. He has a PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. His research has focused on politics and development, politics of identity, politics of recognition and rural politics. The courses he has offered include Government and Politics in India, State Politics in India, Social Movement and Politics in India, India: Politics and Development and India: State and Society.

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