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Caste from Confrontation to Consolidation: The Politics of Nitish Kumar in Bihar

Caste from Confrontation to Consolidation: The Politics of Nitish Kumar in Bihar

The history of caste is one of the defining features of politics in Bihar. Without delving deep into historical antecedents, it suffices that colonialism made it politically active. In the 1920s, a formidable caste alliance was forged in the form of ‘Triveni Sangh’ to challenge the dominance of upper castes. This formation had some initial success in the local elections of that time. Since then, the plank of caste regularly surfaces and has been articulated in the form of social justice. Although its aspirations were partially addressed by giving reservations to SCs and STs, its political significance was not recognised until the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations in the 1990s. Full-fledged recognition of caste accorded it a critical significance as all political parties joined the mad race to capture the OBC's vote bank. Still, the glory endured to those parties who had been at the forefront of such demand before and after independence - socialist parties of various hues. Indian politics, after the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, no longer remained merely ritualised parliamentary politics where the elite-dominated its course without being challenged. It was now open for the demos coming from vernacular traditions to overwhelm the realm of politics. It was a radical reversal of traditional elite politics in India- perhaps an inevitable consequence of democratic politics. A calm and tradition-based electoral process no longer remained the same as it (the recommendations) re-energised and invoked the lower caste political consciousness. Caste no longer remained only a social category but suddenly became a potent political identity. It imbued agential power to those on the margins who were mainly passive and patronised despite their overwhelming number in the population.

This social factsheet was altered when Lalu securely assumed the office of Chief Minister by replacing Jagannath Mishra, the then Congress Party Chief Minister. The changed situation inaugurated a new politics of caste assertions in Bihar in which confrontation inevitably followed the course of radical alteration of the nature of political order- the nature of legislative assembly, bureaucracy, party structure, etc. The socially entrenched classes put their might against such changes. But with political power in his hand, Lalu withstood their challenges and brought OBCs (at least the dominant sections, notably his caste- Yadav) into the limelight and firmly placed them in the political order. He reaped the political benefit immensely by making a formidable alliance of his caste with the Muslims that acquired the popular abbreviation M-Y. His three consecutive victories from 1990 to 2005 made him invincible - at least, he had that sense of invincibility. He not only frightened political opponents but also his partymen who refused to accept his dictate. Once sure of his electoral victory, he hardly paid any attention to the governance, allowing the situation to become lawless, bringing Jungle Raj into the state. The ghost of Jungle Raj still haunts his party. It is broadly a phase of caste confrontation.

In this background, Nitish Kumar, a bete noire for Lalu, left the party and thereby parted his company from him. First, he formed his party, and later, with the support of the BJP, he became the chief minister of Bihar in 2005, since then continuing as CM, notwithstanding his frequent changes of parties and alliances.

Now, the saga of new politics begins in Bihar with the political ascendancy of Nitish Kumar. This phase may be termed caste consolidation, a new beginning of synchronous caste politics. Nitish, as an astute politician and his long association with socialist politics, fully realised the utter significance of caste for political power. But he hailed from a caste with minuscule numbers- only 3 percent in the state- that made it impossible to form his caste-based majority. Following the logic of real politics, he fragmented the homogenous OBCs bloc by giving 25 percent reservation to the extremely backward castes (EBCs) from Annexure 1 and constituting a Maha Dalit Commission to fix quota for the lowest of them. In addition to this stratagem, he made fifty percent reservation for women in three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). All these changes yielded positive political gains for him, carving a solid support base with the assured support of EBCs, Maha Dalit, and women. It not only made him politically relevant but also allowed the benefits of reservation to percolate down. As a political strategist, he collaborated with the upper castes, soothing their bruised pride and allowing them some political space in the system. His innovative politics of caste spawned a new era of political representation long denied to the lower rung. That apart, he also overhauled the state administration and boosted its morale, assuring the state officials of political non-interference. Such steps ensured political stability with a recharged bureaucracy, embarking on the governance goal with new zeal and vigour. As a result, Bihar's GDP marched ahead of the national level.

To those who prophecised Nitish's political demise in the 2024 elections, it was incomprehensible to them that the support base he built over the years still endures. The social segments he nurtured strongly aligned with him. The poor women, harassed physically and economically by their alcoholic husbands, were able to save their meager resources after Kumar passed a stringent law to make the state alcohol-free. They continue to support him.

The expansion of political representation to the historically disenfranchised section has brought not only a new political consciousness among them but also new claimants for their mandates comprising both the regional and the national political parties. Their support, however, remains intact in favour of JDU led by Nitish. It implies that inherent social diversity demands decentralisation of power, empowering the different segments of the social collectivity. It underlies that uncritical adherence to the homogenous collectivity makes it hardened, which impedes the trajectory of democracy in responding creatively to ever-changing situations. Thus, the synergy of castes struck by Nitish Kumar ushered in the politics of caste consolidation based on the principles of equal sharing of power- it will open new egalitarian possibilities for castes, especially for the disempowered castes, in the otherwise hierarchical caste society. Possibly, Akhilesh Yadav owes a lot to Nitish Kumar for coining the phrase of PDA (Pichhara, Dalit, Alpsankhyak), which enabled his party to make deep inroads in this election. In consonance with the idea, the narrative of the caste census easily stuck with the voters, reviving the political fortunes of Samajwadi and the Congress parties. The above construal is what not only makes Nitish Kumar politically relevant but it also works as a beacon for future democratic politics in India, particularly for Bihar.

Authors: G.N Trivedi, Former Professor, University of Delhi & Manish Kumar, Doctoral Scholar at School of Development Studies, TISS-Mumbai

Caste from Confrontation to Consolidation: The Politics of Nitish Kumar in Bihar

Caste from Confrontation to Consolidation: The Politics of Nitish Kumar in Bihar

The history of caste is one of the defining features of politics in Bihar. Without delving deep into historical antecedents, it suffices that colonialism made it politically active. In the 1920s, a formidable caste alliance was forged in the form of ‘Triveni Sangh’ to challenge the dominance of upper castes. This formation had some initial success in the local elections of that time. Since then, the plank of caste regularly surfaces and has been articulated in the form of social justice. Although its aspirations were partially addressed by giving reservations to SCs and STs, its political significance was not recognised until the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations in the 1990s. Full-fledged recognition of caste accorded it a critical significance as all political parties joined the mad race to capture the OBC's vote bank. Still, the glory endured to those parties who had been at the forefront of such demand before and after independence - socialist parties of various hues. Indian politics, after the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, no longer remained merely ritualised parliamentary politics where the elite-dominated its course without being challenged. It was now open for the demos coming from vernacular traditions to overwhelm the realm of politics. It was a radical reversal of traditional elite politics in India- perhaps an inevitable consequence of democratic politics. A calm and tradition-based electoral process no longer remained the same as it (the recommendations) re-energised and invoked the lower caste political consciousness. Caste no longer remained only a social category but suddenly became a potent political identity. It imbued agential power to those on the margins who were mainly passive and patronised despite their overwhelming number in the population.

This social factsheet was altered when Lalu securely assumed the office of Chief Minister by replacing Jagannath Mishra, the then Congress Party Chief Minister. The changed situation inaugurated a new politics of caste assertions in Bihar in which confrontation inevitably followed the course of radical alteration of the nature of political order- the nature of legislative assembly, bureaucracy, party structure, etc. The socially entrenched classes put their might against such changes. But with political power in his hand, Lalu withstood their challenges and brought OBCs (at least the dominant sections, notably his caste- Yadav) into the limelight and firmly placed them in the political order. He reaped the political benefit immensely by making a formidable alliance of his caste with the Muslims that acquired the popular abbreviation M-Y. His three consecutive victories from 1990 to 2005 made him invincible - at least, he had that sense of invincibility. He not only frightened political opponents but also his partymen who refused to accept his dictate. Once sure of his electoral victory, he hardly paid any attention to the governance, allowing the situation to become lawless, bringing Jungle Raj into the state. The ghost of Jungle Raj still haunts his party. It is broadly a phase of caste confrontation.

In this background, Nitish Kumar, a bete noire for Lalu, left the party and thereby parted his company from him. First, he formed his party, and later, with the support of the BJP, he became the chief minister of Bihar in 2005, since then continuing as CM, notwithstanding his frequent changes of parties and alliances.

Now, the saga of new politics begins in Bihar with the political ascendancy of Nitish Kumar. This phase may be termed caste consolidation, a new beginning of synchronous caste politics. Nitish, as an astute politician and his long association with socialist politics, fully realised the utter significance of caste for political power. But he hailed from a caste with minuscule numbers- only 3 percent in the state- that made it impossible to form his caste-based majority. Following the logic of real politics, he fragmented the homogenous OBCs bloc by giving 25 percent reservation to the extremely backward castes (EBCs) from Annexure 1 and constituting a Maha Dalit Commission to fix quota for the lowest of them. In addition to this stratagem, he made fifty percent reservation for women in three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). All these changes yielded positive political gains for him, carving a solid support base with the assured support of EBCs, Maha Dalit, and women. It not only made him politically relevant but also allowed the benefits of reservation to percolate down. As a political strategist, he collaborated with the upper castes, soothing their bruised pride and allowing them some political space in the system. His innovative politics of caste spawned a new era of political representation long denied to the lower rung. That apart, he also overhauled the state administration and boosted its morale, assuring the state officials of political non-interference. Such steps ensured political stability with a recharged bureaucracy, embarking on the governance goal with new zeal and vigour. As a result, Bihar's GDP marched ahead of the national level.

To those who prophecised Nitish's political demise in the 2024 elections, it was incomprehensible to them that the support base he built over the years still endures. The social segments he nurtured strongly aligned with him. The poor women, harassed physically and economically by their alcoholic husbands, were able to save their meager resources after Kumar passed a stringent law to make the state alcohol-free. They continue to support him.

The expansion of political representation to the historically disenfranchised section has brought not only a new political consciousness among them but also new claimants for their mandates comprising both the regional and the national political parties. Their support, however, remains intact in favour of JDU led by Nitish. It implies that inherent social diversity demands decentralisation of power, empowering the different segments of the social collectivity. It underlies that uncritical adherence to the homogenous collectivity makes it hardened, which impedes the trajectory of democracy in responding creatively to ever-changing situations. Thus, the synergy of castes struck by Nitish Kumar ushered in the politics of caste consolidation based on the principles of equal sharing of power- it will open new egalitarian possibilities for castes, especially for the disempowered castes, in the otherwise hierarchical caste society. Possibly, Akhilesh Yadav owes a lot to Nitish Kumar for coining the phrase of PDA (Pichhara, Dalit, Alpsankhyak), which enabled his party to make deep inroads in this election. In consonance with the idea, the narrative of the caste census easily stuck with the voters, reviving the political fortunes of Samajwadi and the Congress parties. The above construal is what not only makes Nitish Kumar politically relevant but it also works as a beacon for future democratic politics in India, particularly for Bihar.

Authors: G.N Trivedi, Former Professor, University of Delhi & Manish Kumar, Doctoral Scholar at School of Development Studies, TISS-Mumbai

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