New electoral dynamics in Bihar

Print edition : July 05, 2019

RJD chief Lalu Prasad addressing an election rally in Gopalganj, Bihar. A file picture. Photo: PTI

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar greeting Muslims on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramzan, in Patna on June 5. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The book under review studies election patterns in the State over the 1990-2015 period but leaves out crucial details on issues such as communalisation and the rise of the Right.

IN recent decades, renowned publications have brought out rigorous scholarly studies on Bihar. Political material on Bihar is eagerly devoured by the people of Bihar, the diaspora and the non-Bihari intelligentsia and literati. The electorate of Bihar—educated or not—is quite alert and informed about politics, notwithstanding its economic and educational backwardness. Thus, knowledge production on Bihar enjoys a considerable readership.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti is by now a well-known name not only among academics, journalists, literati and politicos but far beyond these sections because of his regular appearances on television and articles in print and online media.

Equipped with a huge amount of data on election studies collected by CSDS-Lokniti, Prof. Sanjay Kumar and his colleagues are better placed to dish out such stuff. With growing and deepening regionalisation of Indian politics (particularly since the 1990s, when this trend spread beyond the southern States), studies on the changing electoral and political dynamics in India’s States are indeed a welcome step by Sage. That Bihar happens to be the first State to have drawn the attention of the series is heartening. The journalist and academic Arvind Narayan Das (1948-2000) never tired of repeating John Houlton’s remark about Bihar being the heart of India.

In the book under review, an 18-page introductory essay puts the study in perspective. Equally helpful is the concluding chapter on the question of development or identity in the elections of 2014 (Lok Sabha) and 2015 (Assembly). The second chapter, which focusses on the social and economic history, and the third, encapsulating electoral history, political processes and the emergence of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), familiarise readers with the centrality of caste-based hierarchy in politics.

As far as the political processes of post-Independence Bihar are concerned, the best academic studies are by Francine R. Frankel, in her essay in an anthology (1989) co-edited by her (Dominance and State Power in India: Decline of a Social Order), Harry W. Blair (whose essays remain scattered largely in academic journals and anthologies and badly need to be compiled into a single volume), Arvind N. Das, and Atul Kohli, in the chapter “Breakdown in a backward State: Bihar” in his book Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability (1991).

In fact, some essays of Blair and a chapter by Kohli provide a better understanding and empirical/statistical details about the mi-governance and de-development—ruin of Bihar—in the decades immediately preceding the advent of Lalu Prasad in 1990. Lalu Prasad’s anti-middle-class politics, arrogantly dismissing the issues of roads, electricity, law and order, and so on, needed better elaboration. Parts of Arun Sinha’s biography (2011) of Nitish Kumar deal with it.

On the rise of the upper OBCs and Dalits, meticulous studies in Hindi by Prasanna Kumar Chaudhury and Shrikant are equally significant. Let a caveat be added here that motivated Lalu Prasad-baiters need to be persuaded to go through those reading lists if they really wish to clear the haze they remain in. They tend to misbelieve and also propagate that before Lalu Prasad, Bihar was not as badly governed as it was in the 1990s under him and Rabri Devi.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar seems to have made much less use of the above-mentioned studies to explain the pre-1990 state of political, administrative and economic affairs in Bihar. Those decades saw a much stronger hold of the upper castes in Bihar. Prof. Sanjay Kumar does admit it, though in passing: “In pre-1990 Bihar, the upper castes (Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas) dominated not only the social and political space but also the bureaucracy and the judiciary... who dominated the institutions of Bihar and subverted the land reforms... that would have been advantageous to the backward castes and the SC [Scheduled Caste] populations” (page 5).

He leaves out the media. He does not elaborate upon the fact that Bihar’s upper caste hegemons went on to ignore public investments and developments in agriculture, irrigation, industry, power production, governance, education, research, and infrastructure.

They reduced Bihar to an “internal colony”. Prof. Sanjay Kumar shirks from giving explicit and elaborate details about how underperformance in governance and development during the Lalu-Rabri years did not compare as unfavourably with the predecessors.

The volume under review concentrates on the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, when the fulcrum of political power rested with the Yadavs (11 per cent) and later the Kurmis (7 per cent), with other groups largely playing second fiddle. However, he does not provide details on the economic and educational profiles of the two communities to explain the electoral rivalries between the two, which manifested themselves within just four years of Lalu Prasad’s rule. There is merely a short footnote, without citing any evidence (page 75).

Sub-regional classification

The sub-regional classification of Bihar by the CSDS in election studies as also in this volume is slightly problematic. These sub-regions are Magadh, Mithila, Tirhut, Bhojpur and Seemanchal. It excludes the regions now (after 2000) comprising Jharkhand. What the CSDS and the author miss here is the fact that Champaran and Saran speak Bhojpuri just as the Shahabad (Bhojpur, Arrah, Buxar) region. Similarly, only four districts are identified as Seemanchal. These are Purnea, Ararai, Kishanganj and Katihar, whereas the CSDS would include Supaul, Saharsa and Madhepura too in Seemanchal.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar identifies the Ashraf segment of Muslims to be of foreign origin (page 12). He ignores the fact that a vast segment of Sheikhs and Pathans were also converts from upper caste Hindus; also, many Ajlaf segments of Muslims, more particularly in the Census of 1901, entered themselves as Sheikhs. This was something that was noticed by ethnographers and census bureaucrats such as Henry M. Eliot and W.G. Lacey and taken up by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in his book Pakistan or Partition of India. He took “cultivating Sheikhs” as Ajlaf Muslims, although more in the case of Bengal than elsewhere.

Overall, the Ashraf-Ajlaf and intra-Ajlaf divides (mainly Ansari versus the rest), or their absence, in Bihar’s electoral politics remain largely ignored or un(der)explored by Prof. Sanjay Kumar. For the parts of Bihar now comprising Jharkhand, this volume does not offer much details and insights regarding the stratifications among tribal people and other social groups pertaining to their electoral behaviour.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar touches upon educational development in Bihar since Independence (in pages 21-23). But he ignores the fact that landed elites-cum-politicians-legislators opened up high schools and colleges and recruited almost 100 per cent from the respective dominant castes. These employees/clients acted as vote-catchers-cum-booth managers or cadres for their patrons. The schools and colleges were then taken over by the government and they became permanent salaried government employees.

In the name of meritocracy, these very beneficiaries emerged as the fiercest opponents of reservation for OBCs in accordance with the recommendations of the Mungerilal Commission Report and the B.P. Mandal Report.

On the basis of the 2006-07 data of the District Information System for Education (DISE), Prof. Sanjay Kumar touches upon certain aspects of primary education. Apparently and implicitly appreciating Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, he says thus in this remark based on journalistic reporting:

“[R]ecent policy initiatives and improvements in primary and school enrolment show that Bihar is making progress in improving its education levels. These policies have focussed on lowering the cost of schooling through subsidising or providing textbooks, uniforms, bicycles and cash transfers for attendance. While these have reduced the costs of schooling in Bihar, much remains to be done to boost schooling infrastructure and improve conditions for both students and teachers” (page 23).

A deeper academic scrutiny and field study is required to explore the decay of government-funded primary education in the 1990s, which led to the rise of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh school networks (Shishu Mandirs) in rural and urban Bihar and Jharkhand.

These networks might have contributed to the communalisation of Bihar’s social space in a more decisive way and may have eventually helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in expanding its support base. A comprehensive field study by resource-rich agencies such as the CSDS on this aspect is awaited.

The inadequacy of the volume under review is more starkly visible in the last chapter, which deals with the question of development or identity during the elections of 2014 and 2015. Ever since June 2013, when Nitish Kumar broke away from the National Democratic Alliance, there was a sudden spurt in communal clashes across Bihar, and deep communalisation of socio-cultural spaces became much more apparent. Organisations such as the Gau Pushtikaran Sangathan emerged and activities such as Shiv charcha and kalash yatra were undertaken to reach out to subaltern women. Visits of leaders such as Pravin Togadia and Yogi Adityanath to various parts of Bihar became frequent, particularly during the 2013-15 period. In some of the communal clashes in north Bihar, the Mallah, a fishermen community now listed as lower OBC (Ati Pichhrha), were accused of being the aggressors. Across north Bihar, majoritarian right-wing organisations such as the Bajrang Dal mushroomed, with significant Mallah presence in these.

Communal tension

In parts of Mallah settlements in north Bihar, there was a sudden rise in the construction of Hanuman temples. Latent and manifest communal tension and clashes became more resurgent, particularly in those localities where Muslim affluence, through the remittance economy from West Asian countries, had become more visible. In the rural markets, Muslim traders emerged, particularly the kith and kin of those employed in West Asian countries, to give competition to the existing Hindu traders.

Elections for the rural and urban local bodies (which came to be held from 2001 onwards) saw a rise in Muslim representation. In 2001, the share of Muslim mukhiyas (elected headmen, panchayat chiefs) was over 16 per cent. This is almost proportionate to the Muslim population in the State. From 2006 onwards, reservation for lower backwards (Ati Pichhrhas) in these local bodies led to the rise of subaltern groups. A majority of Muslims listed as EBCs (Extremely Backward Castes) or MBCs (Most Backward Castes) understandably added to their representation. All these caused discomfiture among Hindus, initially the upper castes and later the subaltern Hindus.

In many cases, the panchayat representatives are/were local toughs/hoodlums/lumpens. Although they were not Muslim-specific, they strangely came to be seen as representing “Muslim resurgence”. In some cases, these representatives happened to be related to people working in West Asia. All these factors began to provide credence to the stereotyping of Muslim minorities by the majority community. This “resurgence” came to be propagated as a “Muslim menace” to Hindus.

Neo-rich Muslims asserted their identity by constructing mosques with tall spires and huge domes and by public display of religious rituals such as Julus-e-Muhammadi and Milad celebrations. These displays of identity, most often an enactment of competitive intra-Muslim maslaki (sub-sectarian) identities between the Barelvis and the Deobandis, came to be seen by sections of Hindus as Muslim minority assertion against Hindus. The cumulative effect of all these was a buildup of an anti-Muslim feeling and Hindu consolidation.

Anti-Muslim feeling

A comprehensive study of this phenomenon explaining the communalisation of Bihar’s social space must be undertaken by professionally competent and resource-rich organisations such as the CSDS. One is not sure if the CSDS-Lokniti survey questionnaire factors in the growing anti-Muslim feeling. A keen Bihar-watcher and highly professional academic like Prof. Sanjay Kumar should not have ignored these.

The section profiling major political parties (pages 24-28) glosses over a crucial aspect: it does not spell out the caste-wise support base of each of the major parties. The treatment of the fall of the traditional Left (the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Socialist Unity Centre of India, etc.,) and the “rise” of the “revolutionary” Left such as the Indian People’s Front-Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and the CPI (Maoist) is also highly inadequate. While dealing with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, the educational and economic profile of the dominant castes among Dalits, the Dusadhs and the Chamars, are missing in this volume. Similarly, a profile of Musahars and Dhobis could also be quite helpful.

Prof. Sanjay Kumar claims to have developed his research interest in Bihar elections from the 1995 election onwards. Importantly, that was the election when the Samata Party in alliance with the CPI (ML) Liberation jumped into the fray. The Samata Party came into existence after Lalu Prasad’s nominee lost the Vaishali Lok Sabha byelection in 1994. This saw an electoral alliance between the two competitive and rival upper castes, the Bhumihars and the Rajputs.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, Muzaffarpur remained hostage to gangster-politicians; during 1992-98, a fiercely bloody war between upper and lower caste gangster-politicians continued, killing Hemant Shahi (1992), the Shukla brothers (1994) and Brij Bihari (1998). The latter symbolised an OBC assertion against upper caste gangster-politicians in Muzaffarpur after 1990.

The Vaishali Lok Sabha byelection of 1994 also witnessed the political rise of the Mallah community. Captain Jai Narain Nishad (1930-2018) secured around 40,000 votes as an independent. Lalu Prasad took note of it, and in 1996 Nishad contested as the Janata Dal nominee from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat and won. Subsequently, he switched to the BJP. Ever since, Muzaffarpur, otherwise said to be a “cultural and economic capital” of the Bhumihars, came to be “politically dominated” by the Mallahs.

The 2014 election in Bihar saw the rise of Mukesh Sahni, the self-styled “Son of Mallah”, who eventually aligned with the BJP. However, his leadership remained contested by many leaders from within the caste. Prof. Sanjay Kumar’s account, otherwise very rich in data, does not explain the arguable case of the political rise of the Mallahs. Former Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur (1924-88) had, in his final days, tried to mobilise the Mallahs.

Owing to these limitations, the volume, otherwise rich in data, fails to enable a prognosis of the future trends of electoral politics in Bihar. The book analyses the electoral impact of the fodder scam but leaves out the details pertaining to the Srijan scam. Yet, the author does mention the loss of credibility of Nitish Kumar in no uncertain terms. He concludes by saying: “Nitish Kumar may have been able to save the Chief Minister’s chair [in 2017] and may even have ensured its continuation beyond the 2020 election, but the premium he paid for the insurance... was very big.”

There are some minor typos and factual errors. Despite the shortcomings, which may also be because of the overall limitations of election studies in Indian academia, particularly aspects such as wider and deeper economic and social processes, this volume is immensely useful. One hopes that the forthcoming Sage books on other States are more comprehensive than this one. One also hopes that a revised and enlarged edition of this volume on Bihar corrects the omissions.