Bihar’s electoral politics: The caste-class equation (1990-2015)

Forward Press will publish shortly the book ‘Bihar ki Chunavi Rajniti: Jati-Varg ka Samikaran (1990-2015)’, which sheds light on the various facets – caste, religion, poverty, political aspirations – of the politics of post-Mandal Bihar. Time and again, Bihar has determined the direction of national politics

History testifies that Bihar has been at the centre of politics in India for a very long time. Many significant political changes that have taken place in India during the last several decades have had their genesis in Bihar. Not only was Bihar the epicentre of pro- and anti-Mandal agitations in the 1990s, the state was also the epicentre of the anti-Emergency movement of 1975, popularly referred to as the ‘JP Movement’ and led by the great socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan when the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a national emergency. It is important to mention that Bihar played an important role in bringing about political changes even during the British rule. Mahatma Gandhi began his famous Indigo movement – called the Champaran Movement in our history books – in 1917 against the British in Champaran, a district in the northeastern region of the state. The nature of political contest and political representation in North Indian states during the post-Mandal period also had deep roots in Bihar.

In the past, Bihar’s political landscape was largely dominated by the Congress party, like many other states of India. The Congress had an uninterrupted rule in the state for several decades until 1990, with a non-Congress government taking its place for short periods only five times. The nature of electoral politics and political representation in the state witnessed major changes during the post-Mandal period. This period witnessed the rise of regional political parties and regional leaders with a reasonable support base, especially among the voters belonging to the lower social strata – namely, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Dalits, the Adivasis (in undivided Bihar), and the Muslims. The post-Mandal politics in the state marked the beginning of the decline of the Congress. Since the first post-Mandal assembly elections held in the state in 1995, the support base of the Congress has declined – election after election – ultimately reducing the age-old party to a very minor political player in the state.

‘Bihar ki Chunavi Rajniti: Jati-Varg ka Samikaran (1990-2015)’, to be published shortly by Forward Press

The post-Mandal politics in Bihar began as a contest between the established national party, Congress, and Janata Dal, which had newly emerged on the national stage, in the 1990s. It has now turned into an electoral battle between two fragments of Janata Dal – the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)  and the Janata Dal (United) or JD (U) – which have become the dominant regional political parties, with the two national political parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – playing second fiddle as alliance partners. While occasionally forming an alliance with the RJD, the Congress also went alone in a few elections. Moreover, the BJP and JD(U) led by Nitish Kumar have managed to form a durable alliance since the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Other regional parties such as the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP); Left parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML); and a few smaller regional parties contributed to electoral politics during the last three decades. These smaller regional parties normally played very minor roles but at times they have also played significant roles in the state’s electoral politics. In the February 2005 assembly elections, LJP’s refusal to extend support – to any of the bigger parties with a sizeable number of seats in the hung assembly – resulted in the state going to polls again in October 2005, which resulted in a change of guard. Nitish Kumar became the chief minister of Bihar for the second time, after forging an alliance with the BJP.

The nearly three-decade-long post-Mandal politics of Bihar has witnessed several twists and turns, the latest being the change of government in July 2017 when Nitish Kumar, after breaking alliance with the RJD, formed the government in alliance with BJP in less than 24 hours of his resignation. It is important to note that Nitish Kumar contested the 2015 assembly election in alliance with the RJD and Congress, a rather unusual alliance. The two archrivals in Bihar politics, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, came together and formed an electoral alliance, referred to as Mahagathbandhan, with the singular aim of preventing a BJP win in Bihar. The grand alliance (GA) managed to win the 2015 assembly elections by defeating the BJP and its allies LJP and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), and formed the government; however, this government was short-lived. Nitish Kumar decided to break the alliance with the RJD due to the allegation of corruption charges against and CBI raids on his deputy Tejashwi Yadav and other members of the ruling RJD. Nitish Kumar demonstrated his zero tolerance for corruption, but ended up forming the government with the party that he criticized as being communal during his campaign of the 2015 assembly election. If there was something unusual about Nitish Kumar forming a Mahagathbandhan with Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress before elections, it was no less strange than his forming the government with the BJP against whom he managed to win the mandate of the people of Bihar. This book analyses in great detail these twists and turns in the electoral politics of Bihar during the post-Mandal period using empirical evidence from various surveys conducted by a team of research investigators in Bihar.

Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan: Three stars of Mandal politics

Politics of a state is the product of its society and economy. An understanding of the social and economic history of Bihar will help in understanding the changing nature of its electoral politics during the last several decades. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the social  and economic history of Bihar. At the time when Bihar was united, when Jharkhand was also part of the state, the state was divided into three broad regions: North Bihar, Central Bihar, and South Bihar. After the separation of Jharkhand from Bihar, a new geographical classification was worked out on the basis of social, cultural and political differences. The chapter discusses in detail these differences in the five regions, namely, Tirhut, Mithila, Magadh, Bhojpur, and Seemanchal (East). Although these divisions are primarily cultural, they are also used for studying political orientations. Each of the regions exhibits its own unique blend of social and cultural values, with a language and tone different from the others. Caste plays an important role in the politics of the state, and the chapter rightfully pays attention to the various caste dynamics in the social and political spheres. From an upper-caste dominated power structure, the politics in Bihar during the post-Mandal period, which this book is all about, has got transferred to the dominant middle castes, namely, the OBCs in general and the Yadavs in particular. The Yadavs and the Muslims constitute a sizeable portion of the voters in Bihar. The sizeable presence of Muslims in districts such as Katihar, Darbhanga, Purnia, Siwan, and a few others has resulted in political parties looking at the Muslims as their vote bank. The mobilization by some political parties centres around the Muslims. A section in this chapter gives a brief history of the important political parties in Bihar, its electoral history and its leadership.

Even though the focus of the book is to analyse the electoral process and political changes in Bihar during the post-Mandal period, a political history is always important for an understanding of the present. Chapter 2 analyzes the political history of Bihar between 1947 and 1989. This period is also referred to as the Congress period in the Indian electoral history, though there were brief interruptions. For the first time, non-Congress governments were formed in many states including Bihar. A cursory review of the political history of Bihar in the post-Independence period unfolds three distinctive phases. The first phase (1947-1967) is marked by the complete dominance of the Congress party, with upper castes at the apex of the power structure. The second phase (1967-1990) could be designated as a transition period with the gradual decline in dominance of the Congress party as well as of the upper castes and the slowly but steadily emerging influence of the middle castes in the political arena. The third phase (1990 and after) is marked by complete reversal of the first phase, that is, marginalisation of the Congress party and the upper castes in the politics of the state. The chapter analyses in great detail the various phases of the electoral history of the state.

Nitish Kumar becomes chief minister for the second time in 2005 (Photo: Krishnamurari Kishan)

The 1990s marked the beginning of the political domination of regional parties in many states including Bihar. This in a way was also the beginning of OBC politics in Bihar, after V.P. Singh became the prime minister of India following the 1989 Lok Sabha election. After V.P. Singh became prime minister, the state witnessed the first assembly election in 1990. Chapter 3 discusses in detail the process of political mobilization and the political outcome of the 1990 and 1995 assembly elections. The 1990 assembly elections witnessed the formation of a non-Congress government after a long time, with Lalu Prasad Yadav becoming the chief minister of the state for the first time. This victory of the Janata Dal ended the long rule of the Congress in Bihar. Not only did the Congress lose power in the state after being defeated in the 1990 assembly election, but this defeat also marked the beginning of a systematic decline of the Congress. The 1995 assembly election resulted in the further domination of the Janata Dal under Lalu Prasad’s leadership, winning a majority of its own, beyond the expectations of many. With the BJP’s limited support base in the state, systematic decline in the electoral support of the Congress, and Nitish Kumar having left the Janata Dal to form Samata Party, the Janata Dal under the leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav registered a massive victory in the 1995 assembly election. This was the first election in the post-Mandal period that witnessed the electoral contest centred around the OBC vs the OBC.

Chapter 4 traces a long period in Bihar’s political history – beginning from the 1995 assembly election and going up to the 1999 general election. It examines various political upheavals that took place during that period. From Lalu Prasad Yadav’s singular dominance during the 1990 and 1995 assembly elections to the swift rise in the BJP’s electoral presence, the chapter analyses significant events in the state’s politics and posits them against the backdrop of the changing nature of political mandate at the Centre. The rise of regional parties and the clout of backward castes are weighed against a declining Congress authority, and an in-depth analysis of both phenomena is done to understand its possible mechanics. Furthermore, the relation of caste and religious identities vis-à-vis political parties is analysed with the help of rich evidence collected by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) team through surveys to examine the dynamic nature of political alliances and the effects they have on political parties. Questions of voters’ behaviour and motivations take centre stage as the chapter reflects on the nebulous nature of Bihar’s politics, where change remains the only constant and the relationship between a voter, a party, and a leader is subject to a complex, multi-layered society.

Chapter 5 primarily deals with the political scenario in Bihar post 1999 Lok Sabha elections. While the BJP-JD(U) combine won convincingly in these elections, by the time of the assembly elections in the state, there was damaging infighting that benefited the RJD-Congress alliance, which registered a thumping victory. Thus, the chapter seeks to analyse the proverbial reversal of fortunes and tries to posit possible reasons for the same. In addition, it also delves into possible reasons for the surprising wins registered by the RJD in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Given the substantial lack of developmental achievements under the Lalu-Rabri regime, the continued support of the poor backward classes to the RJD seems to be a paradox of sorts, but the chapter analyses it through the lens of identity and social justice to argue that in spite of the poor developmental record of Lalu’s government, his charismatic image as the “messiah of the poor” went a long way in ensuring his victory.

Jannayak Karpoori Thakur addresses a gathering

This chapter also deals with the bifurcation of the undivided state into Bihar and Jharkhand and examines its effect on the electoral politics of the state. Finally, the chapter ends with the 2005 victory of the BJP-JD(U) alliance in the assembly election and the temporary halt of the Lalu juggernaut. In examining its victory, the chapter also seeks to resist any oversimplifications on the nature of voter behaviour to argue that it was a complex mixture of various caste, developmental, and economic factors that made both the rise of Nitish Kumar and the subsequent decline of Lalu Prasad Yadav possible.

Chapter 6 focuses on the 2005 assembly elections, and examines in minute detail the voting patterns and coalition politics that drove these momentous elections. For most observers of politics in the state, these elections marked the beginning of a new era for not just the politics in Bihar but also the social and economic life here. Nitish Kumar’s rallying slogan, “Nutan Bihar”, firmly established his name among stalwart leaders, not just of the state but also of the country. In the coming years, the story of an impoverished Bihar racked with inefficiency, corruption, and crime would undergo significant changes, which could be credited in large part to the rainbow coalition that Kumar sought to create.

The chapter offers evidence of the nuanced manner in which the dynamics of social justice were incorporated in the state action, ranging from the creation of the Mahadalit Commission to the thrust on female empowerment and the resultant political gains. While examining caste-based mobilisation in the state, the chapter consciously disparages any overarching macro theories about voter behaviour of individual caste groups to make a case for the vitality and volatility that typifies voting patterns. For instance, while it is generally accepted that Muslims have remained staunch supporters of the RJD, Chapter 5, through careful analysis of the CSDS data generated from election studies in the state, argues that the relationship of the Muslim community with the RJD, too, has undergone significant changes between the 1995 and the 2005 elections. In doing so, the ostensible aim of the chapter is to constantly underline the importance of understanding the dynamism that characterises the political life of a state. Ina addition, the chapter also focuses on landmark reforms introduced by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and interrogates possible repercussions that these reforms could have had on the level of voter turnout and the defeat of certain political parties (RJD) to the benefit of others (BJP-JD(U)). Both these aspects manage to give a cohesive picture of a period of visible reforms within the state and firmly establish Nitish Kumar as the face of changing politics of a new Bihar.

If the 2009 Lok Sabha elections were a powerful blow to the dominance of the RJD and its leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, then the 2010 assembly election was a cause of further embarrassment. Both the voter share and the number of seats declined sharply, causing many observers to believe that the people had finally and summarily rejected Lalu Prasad Yadav’s politics of social justice and had put their faith in the model of development presented by Nitish Kumar. By making close observations of these claims in Chapter 7, an effort has been made to understand the efficacy of such an argument. Reflecting on the diverse social and political culture in the different regions of Bihar, the chapter argues for heterogeneity of reasons that exist for the popular verdict in favour of Nitish Kumar (and against Lalu Prasad Yadav). Analysing the statistics and survey reports as well as the final voting figures, the chapter seeks to throw more light on what possible factors could have made the 2010 elections so resolutely one-sided. Debates around development, caste and caste-based mobilization are each given relevant attention as the chapter examines the connection between caste identity, aspirational politics and electoral politics.

The last chapter (Chapter 8) of the book analyses the quick turnaround that Bihar politics had witnessed within a couple of years. It analyzes the political events starting with the BJP’s alliance with the LJP and the RLSP registering a massive victory in 2014, the same alliance getting badly routed during the assembly election held next year in 2015, to the latest turnaround of Nitish Kumar switching alliance from the RJD back again to the BJP. The first section of the chapter analyzes the Lok Sabha election of 2014, which was unique in various respects. First, it marked the end of the decades-long alliance between the JD(U) and the BJP; second, the public mandate received by the BJP was the clearest mandate given to any political party at the national level during the past several decades; and finally, it brought unlikely alliance partners together to claim victory in Bihar. Breaking away from their successful partnership with Nitish, the BJP joined hands with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, which made the alliance the unchallenged victor from Bihar, winning 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats of the state. The results of the 2014 Lok Sabha election were popularly referred to as victory of politics of development over caste alliance. This chapter reopens the debate between caste and development, also mentioned in the previous chapter, but this time in favour of the BJP and against the success story of Nitish’s transformative policies. Attributing the BJP’s win to a number of factors such as anti-incumbency against the Congress and the promise of transformative, fast-paced development by the BJP, the chapter argues that while traditional caste loyalties changed, it is in no way a reflection of the absolute rejection of caste in favour of development.

The second section of the chapter deals with another landmark election – that of Bihar Assembly in 2015 – that managed to stall the BJP juggernaut for the first time and provided hope to a faltering opposition. The Mahagathbandhan or the GA, the chapter posits, was successful due to a multiplicity of factors, most of which managed to give the gathbandhan a substantive edge over the BJP. Caste again played a crucial role, but the chapter also seeks to understand voter appraisal of the government’s 10 years of positive reforms. In doing so, the chapter tries to challenge the false binary in development or caste identity, to reflect on ways in which they inform, affect, and reshape one another to make politics in the state very dynamic and versatile. It would be an injustice to the reader if the latest turnaround of politics is not mentioned in the book, so the last section of the last chapter analyses in some detail the events that resulted in the breaking of the alliance between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav over the issue of charges of corruption against Tejashwi Yadav, Nitish Kumar’s deputy and leader of the RJD. The analysis ends with a hint at the future possibilities about electoral politics in Bihar in general and more so about the future of Nitish Kumar and his image, his popularity in particular. The question remains: Will Nitish Kumar be able to gain electorally from his new political move in alliance with new partners, or has he managed to burn his fingers while offering Yagya (Havan) to prove his zero tolerance for corruption?

Transcription: Susmita; copy-editing: Anil


Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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