Caste calculations

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad paying homage to former Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur during the party’s Extremely Backward Castes meeting in Patna on September 20, 2005. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav paying obeisance to Ram Manohar Lohia on his death anniversary in Lucknow, a file picture. The Lohia movement marked the emergence of a plethora of leaders—Karpoori Thakur, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, apart from Madhu Limaye, Kishan Pattnaik, Raj Narain, and George Fernandes among others. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Jitan Ram Manjhi, Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular president, at a press conference in Patna on February 14. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Lalu Prasad is resorting to his social engineering manoeuvres again to corner the NDA.

Historically, the politics of social justice and socialism in India has gone hand in hand with the empowerment and assertion of communities belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) and Dalits. The legendary freedom fighter and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia envisioned this socio-political combination in the 1960s. He advanced the concept on the premise that only the economic, political and social empowerment of the backward and marginalised castes would usher in India’s real independence which guaranteed justice and equality in society. His Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) coined the slogan: “SamSoPa ne baandhi gaanth, Pichhara pave sau mein saath (The SSP is determined to get 60 per cent reservation for the backward castes in all the spheres of life)”. A dexterous theorist and practitioner of his version of socialism, Lohia worked doggedly in the Hindi heartland to implement his vision. He died prematurely at the age of 57 in October 1967.

But in the short span of his life, he brought about a phenomenal change in the Indian political system—nine Indian States, including Bihar, got their first non-Congress governments a little ahead of Lohia’s death. Over the next six decades, Lohia’s experiment and his vision sustained and developed in the Hindi heartland States, acquiring many different forms and nuances. In the process, the Lohia brand of socialist thought and practice was also identified as a backward class movement. The movement marked the emergence of a plethora of leaders—Karpoori Thakur followed by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh apart from Madhu Limaye, Kishan Pattnaik, Raj Narain, George Fernandes and others who modelled their political course on Lohia’s vision.

All of them pursued their own unique political and organisational methods with nuances, but the biggest successes electorally were Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. Although Karpoori Thakur was a pioneer on this electoral path, his two terms as Chief Minister of Bihar in the 1970s were for relatively short spells. The successes of the Yadav duo—Lalu Prasad and Mulayam—and Nitish Kumar happened as a result of carefully and cleverly crafted social alliances that led to rich electoral dividends. Indeed, the dexterous manoeuvring of political exigencies was also an important factor in these successes. However, in Bihar the successful strategies adopted and implemented by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar hinged on the consolidation of large sections of backward castes (both OBC and EBC), which constituted 65 to 70 per cent of the State’s electorate but were on the margins of the power structure. Both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar took forward different methods and tactics of this consolidation strategy. Lalu Prasad did this in the 1990s and Nitish Kumar has done it repeatedly since 2005. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar is steadily becoming yet another landmark in terms of the advancement of this fundamental strategy. Even more interestingly, the leader who crafted the new dimensions of this strategy and is pulling the strings to fine-tune it is not in a position to interact with the public or his electoral supporters and partners as he is in jail following conviction by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court. Lalu Prasad is devising new manoeuvres to once again bring up the consolidation of the forces of social justice and socialism in Bihar.

Central to these manoeuvres, close confidants of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) veteran say, is his realisation that the current political climate in the State is once again conducive to rework the social arithmetic. Understanding this, Lalu Prasad and the RJD, officially led by his wife Rabri Devi and son Tejaswi Yadav, has brought back several estranged EBCs and OBCs to its fold even at the cost of antagonising the Congress. He is on course to recreate the 1990s phenomena by pitting the backward castes against the upper castes. His party has already opposed reservation in jobs to Economically Weaker Sections describing it as the “RSS-BJP’s ploy to end reservation for the backward classes”.

Although he has been lodged in Ranchi jail for over a year now in connection with the fodder scam cases, sections of the political class and observers see the manoeuvres of Lalu Prasad as master strokes. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had in its fold the former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit Musahar caste leader, and Upendra Kushwaha, hailing from the Koiri caste, which is the second largest OBC after the Yadavs in Bihar. But this time Lalu Prasad lured both Jitan Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAMS) and Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) to the Mahagathbandhan’s (Grand Alliance) fold in the run-up to the elections. Besides, he has accommodated Mukesh Sahani’s Vikas-sheel Insan Party (VIP) in the Mahagathbandhan. These OBCs and Mahadalit castes—Mallahs, Koiris and Musahars—which had partly drifted to Nitish Kumar after the latter provided them quota in jobs and political positions have a soft corner for Lalu Prasad. “Lalu ne ham-e izzat and awaz tab diya thaa jab ham-e koi puchhne wala nahin thaa (Lalu had given us honour and voice when there was none to notice us)”, said Ramashankar Nonia from a village in Siwan.

The situation in which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar finds himself vis-a-vis these communities is important in this context. Of late, Nitish Kumar has been the target of the ire of EBC and Mahadalit castes on account of the implementation of total prohibition in Bihar and soft pedalling of issues with regard to farm distress and Dalits’ rebellion against the BJP in various parts of the country. The police have lodged cases against over a lakh people, mostly OBCs and Dalits, in connection with prohibition in Bihar. Traditionally, the Pasi is a toddy tapper caste and Musahars live on brewing local liquor.

Lalu Prasad’s strategy

It was as part of Lalu Prasad’s strategy to pit the backward castes against the upper castes that the RJD national general secretary Manoj Jha virtually shocked the Congress cadres when he announced on March 22 in Patna that south Bihar’s Aurangabad seat went to the Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAMS. Embarrassment was writ large on the face of Bihar Congress chief Madan Mohan Jha, who was in attendance among other representatives of the Grand Alliance comprising the RJD, the Congress, the RLSP and the VIP at the official press conference. A red-faced Madan Mohan turned to Manoj Jha to persuade the latter to “defer” the announcement on Aurangabad. But he did not budge.

Sections of Congress leaders continue to talk about Lalu Prasad’s “audacity” in giving the Aurangabad seat—known as the Chittorgarh of Bihar because of the dominance of the Rajputs from the pre-Independence era—to the share of Jitan Ram Manjhi’s party, but the fact remains that this move has virtually unleashed a torrent of support from the EBCs and Mahadalits for the Mahagathbandhan, especially the RJD. Nikhil Kumar, former Kerala Governor, whose grandfather Anugrah Narayan Sinha was Bihar’s first Deputy Chief Minister and whose father, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, was a Chief Minister, won the seat in the 2004 elections and was a “natural” claimant to the ticket for the seat from the “family’s bastion”. Moreover, the Sinhas symbolised the Rajputs’ might all over the State.

But top sources in the Mahagathbandhan revealed that more than Jitan Manjhi, Lalu Prasad had insisted on Aurangabad being part of Manjhi’s share to drive home the “message” that the Grand Alliance under his stewardship was all for OBCs, EBCs and numerous other Dalit castes even at the cost of “antagonising” the Congress. In fact, Lalu Prasad’s insistence on the Aurangabad seat unveils the RJD supremo’s strategy to reconquer the non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs and Dalits who have constituted his support base all through the 1990s.

“Lalu Prasad is a natural, an unadulterated champion of the marginalised castes. He has made no compromise at the cost of marginalised sections’ interests. On the other hand, Nitish is a cunning and calculative guy. He is sitting in the lap of the BJP, a known Manuvadi and communal party, and is still trying to create the perception that his party is committed to the marginalised castes. How can you keep a tiger and a goat together?”, said Shivanand Tiwary, national vice president of the RJD.

The Aurangabad seat is just an example of Lalu Prasad putting in place the strategy to reconquer the marginalised castes. The Congress had, initially, insisted on 15 seats out of 40 in Bihar and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi had talked about “playing on front foot” in the State at his Jan Akanksha rally in Patna on February 3. Exploiting Lalu Prasad’s incarceration in Ranchi jail for over a year now, the Congress initially refused to budge from its demand of 15 seats. But informed sources revealed that Lalu Prasad’s clear message from jail that “let the Congress settle for eight or nine seats or get out of Mahagathbandhan” eventually broke the impasse.

The grapevine has it that the Congress wanted the smaller parties to be content with one or two seats. But once the Congress blinked, Lalu Prasad’s interlocutors left five seats for the RLSP of Upendra Kushwaha and three seats each for the HAMS of Jitan Ram Manjhi and the VIP of Mukesh Sahni. By sparing reasonably good number of seats to the RLSP, the HAMS and the VIP, Lalu Prasad has put in place an effective strategy to bring back the Koiris—the second largest OBC caste after the Yadavs—the Mallahs (fishermen) and the Mahadalits into the Mahagathbandhan’s fold.

Predictably, the Rajputs are displeased with the OBCs and EBCs in Aurangabad. The car carrying Upendra Prasad of the Dangi caste, a sub-caste of the Koiris, fielded by the HAMS as a Mahagathbandhan nominee, was hit by a speeding vehicle from the wrong side on March 31 on NH-139. Upendra Prasad was injured and admitted to an Aurangabad hospital. His supporters described the incident as a “plot by feudal lords to kill Upendra”. Nikhil Kumar’s supporters—mainly Rajputs—are up in arms, indulging in arson and violence on Aurangabad and Patna streets, ever since the Mahagathbandhan pitted Upendra Prasad against Sushil Singh—the NDA candidate. Such a situation suits Lalu’s brand of politics. The Mahagathbandhan is banking on the combined might of Yadavs, Muslims, Dangis, Mahadalits and other OBCs and EBCs against that of Rajputs, largely rooting for Sushil Singh, a Rajput. If Upendra Prasad wins this seat, it will be a history of sorts. Aurangabad has invariably sent a Rajput to the Lok Sabha ever since the 1952 elections. Notably, Lalu Prasad’s “faith” in the unity of the backward castes to regain his lost base has, in fact, kept the Left out of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar. Out of his 20 seats, Lalu Prasad has spared the solitary Arra seat for the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, but the Left is not part of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar.

Sway over the backward castes

In many ways, these manoeuvres bring back the political images of the early 1990s, which saw the emergence of Lalu Prasad as the Chief Minister of Bihar. Armed with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1991 by the V. P. Singh government and equipped with the rare charisma to connect with the marginalised sections, Lalu Prasad had then become the first Bihar leader to have complete sway over the backward castes in the State. Alienated from the Congress after the infamous Bhagalpur riots in 1989, Muslims too—who constitute about 16 per cent of the State’s electorate—joined ranks with Lalu Prasad, making him a political superpower in Bihar. Lalu Prasad’s clout with the backward classes and minorities manifested itself for the first time in the 1991 Lok Sabha election when his Janata Dal won 48 out of the 54 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar.

Lalu Prasad’s emergence on Bihar’s firmament coincided with the resurgence of the L.K. Advani-led BJP on the plank of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. And thus began the protracted tussle between Lalu Prasad and the BJP, which largely represented the interests of upper castes smarting from the loss of power to the backward castes mobilised under Lalu Prasad’s stewardship. The upper castes had drifted from the Congress, joining the BJP-sponsored “war” for building the Ram temple at Ayodhya, to dethrone Lalu Prasad, who had belligerently pitted the backward castes and Muslims against the resurgent Sangh Parivar from 1991 onwards. Lalu Prasad followed up on his 1991 victory with a stellar electoral performance in the 1995 Assembly elections, consolidating a sizeable segment of the Most Backward Castes (MBC) to his powerful OBC-Muslim combine. He achieved reasonably handsome victories in the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2000 Assembly elections.

However, in 1994, Nitish Kumar—a Kurmi caste leader, ambitious to replace Lalu Prasad in power—broke ranks with Lalu Prasad and contested the 1995 Assembly elections, but his Samata Party cut a sorry figure, getting reduced to seven seats out of 324 in the State. But the BJP saw in Nitish Kumar a backward caste leader who could break into Lalu Prasad’s sway. Nitish Kumar, too, responded by forging an alliance with the saffron party in the 1996 elections. The Samata Party-BJP combine won 15 Lok Sabha seats out of 54 in 1996. The result pointed to the fact that backward castes like Kurmis and some others had joined Nitish Kumar, giving the first sign that Lalu Prasad’s consolidated support base built on the bricks of the Mandal Commission report had been penetrated. Nitish Kumar did to Lalu Prasad what Ram Sunder Das had done to Karpoori Thakur. A socialist, Das joined with the then entrenched forces to replace Karpoori Thakur in 1978. What helped Nitish Kumar was the marginalisation of the EBCs under Lalu Prasad—a Yadav whose caste got prominence in the power structure.

Nitish Kumar eventually replaced Rabri Devi as Chief Minister with the BJP’s support in 2005, and the first thing he did was to segregate most of the non-Yadav backward castes and ensure special quota to them in jobs and the Panchayati raj system. Nitish Kumar’s experiment worked well as the Janata Dal (United)-BJP combine won 205 Assembly seats, reducing Lalu Prasad’s RJD to 25 seats in the 243-member Assembly in Bihar in 2010. However, when Nitish Kumar broke away from the BJP fold in 2013, his JD(U) suffered a massive defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He got barely 16 per cent of the votes and his JD(U) won only two Lok Sabha seats. The RJD got four seats. Its candidates got second position in most of the Lok Sabha seats.

Now, the products of the same school of politics, both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, realised that the BJP-led NDA had won 33 out of 40 seats in Bihar more because of the division in the backward class votes rather than the so-called “wave” in favour of Narendra Modi and joined hands by burying their 20-year-long rivalry. The result was stupendous as the Mahagathbandhan that comprised the RJD, the JD(U) and the Congress roundly defeated the NDA by winning 178 seats out of 243 in the State in 2015—a year after the NDA won 33 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. However, Nitish Kumar went back to the BJP fold in 2017 citing the corruption cases against Lalu Prasad and other members of his family.

Public reactions in the period following this have shown that people view Nitish Kumar’s position sceptically. The Chief Minister has been facing some of the worst challenges to his credibility. The public narrative also points out, repeatedly, that Nitish Kumar had broken ranks from the BJP on the issue of communalism and dictatorship but has rejoined it when it has got more bellicose with its Hindutva agenda.

Thus, in a nutshell, as Lalu Prasad, one of the grand historical successes of the backward caste consolidation experiment, is getting back to the social engineering path with new schemes, Nitish Kumar seems well on the way of relinquishing his stature and record on this political ground.

Nalin Verma is an independent journalist and media educator.