Why Bihar’s Voters Find it Hard to Disentangle ‘Vikas’ from Caste

Is it time for Modi’s ‘parivartan’ or will it be ‘Nitishe’ once more in the 2015 Assembly elections?

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses the media at JD(U) party office in Patna. Credit: PTI Photo

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses the media at JD(U) party office in Patna. Credit: PTI Photo

Jehanabad (Bihar): The state’s pre-eminent intellectual Arvind N. Das called it the “Republic of Bihar”, but bemoaned its lack of a “Bihari” identity. A piece of geography wedded together by sub-nationalism, yet no identity to bind its citizenry together. Academic literature is replete with similar hopelessness, especially as economists trying to understand the state’s entrenched underdevelopment resort to history and path-dependence to explain the predicament of the land and its people. For economists Abhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer, the ruinous effects of the colonial land-tenure system called “Permanent Settlement” and its “zamindari vyavastha” still work like an “institutional overhang”. Not only does this make policy reforms and development a challenging task, but it also promotes conflicts and prevents collective action.

Traditionally, it was in central Bihar – a major part of which went to the polls on October 16 – that these conflictual relationships could be seen in their most horrific and aggravated form. Landlords organised in the form of private caste-based armies, and agricultural labour organised by militant and/or violent left-wing groups such as the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti, the Indian People’s Front, and the Maoist Coordination Centre.

Up until the late 1990s, electoral mobilisation and outcomes played around these structural conflicts. Lalu’s Mandal Raj fought the Ranveer Sena of the upper caste landlords, as much as it co-opted and broke the back of the Maoists. Lalu’s anti-kamandalism – the stopping of the anti-Babri Masjid “rath” – may have won him acclaim  outside, in the Republic of India, but it was his Mandalism which cemented his hold locally in this area known as the “flaming fields” of Bihar

What has changed on the ground that development – vikaas – has become the poll-pitch on which both sides of the political divide are arrayed today for the 2015 state elections? On August 9, Narendra Modi held a massive rally in Gaya – central Bihar’s ‘capital city’ – and promised a “Ganga of development” would flow in Bihar if it opted for “parivartan” i.e. change. He also labeled Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal – which is in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the Congress –  as “Rozana Jungle Raj ka Darr” (the daily fear of jungle rule), playing on popular memories of the state of lawlessness which prevailed during Lalu’s rule until 2005. Of course, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is banking on his reputation as the messiah of good governance. In this region, it seems only Lalu is still talking of old style politics – of the vote bank of Yadavs and their old alliance with the Muslims, who are anti-BJP, whatever ‘development’ be on offer from the BJP.

But how are people responding to these political messages on the ground? Are they talking vikaas or is it the alignment of castes aligned along the “agda-pichda” (forward-backward) axis that maters? A further complication is that Nitish’s tactical caste coalition – traditionally built on sub-dividing the dalits (i.e. the pichdas) into Paswans versus all other Mahadalits  – is no longer in his bag as a captive vote block. Paswans nurse a grievance against Nitish for having been singled out, whereas Jitan Ram Manjhi, the erstwhile JDU Mahadalit leader and former CM, is now an ally of the BJP. Even more, central Bihar’s Makhdumpur is Manjhi’s bastion and his Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) is expected to do well. Another noted OBC leader, Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) is an ally of the BJP and a minister at the Centre. The Koeri caste that he belongs to was also an erstwhile supporter of Nitish, the latter a Kurmi by birth. The unity of Koeris and Kurmis under Nitish’s NDA rule was referred to as the unity of “Lav and Kush” – twins born to Lord Rama. In this election, it is being widely commented that the twins have now separated.

On the ground

In the second round of the ongoing assembly elections on Friday, 32 constituencies in seven central Bihar districts – Kaimur, Arwal, Jehanabad, Gaya, Rohtas and Aurangabad – went to the polls.

Old torches, ready for reuse in Jehanabad. Credit: Carol Mitchell/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Old torches, ready for reuse in Jehanabad. Credit: Carol Mitchell/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

At Jehanabad railway station and then on the road to Shakarpur, I found big hoardings with photographs of only Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – calling out for “Parivartan” and “Badaliye Bihar”. No state leaders figured on the hoardings or posters. Among the few posters that I had spotted in Patna with more faces of BJP leaders, a galaxy of Bihar BJP stalwarts appear in micro-print on the top band – Sushil Modi, Nand Kishor Yadav, C.P. Thakur, Radha Mohan Singh, Mangal Pandey, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Shah Nawaz – are among the faces I can recognise as I aim to look high. But there are more, so one is unable to make out if any of them is a likely first among equals.

Perhaps this is a strategy for keeping local factionalism in check, especially as the BJP in Bihar has too many leaders – each with a long innings of struggle for the party and with a consequent claim to the chief ministership, should the party win. Sushil Modi had been a colleague of Lalu and Nitish in the JP movement; Ravi Shankar Prasad fought the fodder scam case and saw Lalu booked by the courts; Rudy had defeated Rabri in her home-ground, Thakur represents the Bhumihar face of the party and has also been personal physician to JP; Radha Mohan is the BJP’s Rajput face and a leader on the ground; Nand Kishor is a Yadav leader, and so on. Too many chieftains, but what is the view of the foot soldiers? A BJP worker from the neighbouring Kurtha assembly constituency told me on the promise of anonymity – they should have at least put the picture of the veteran Kailashpati Mishra, whose funeral Modi had attended when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. There is annoyance in the local BJP on ticket distribution too, as a large number of seats in the area have gone to NDA allies like Kushwaha’s RLSP and Manjhi’s HAM.

But what do the people make of these new offerings of development, new political combinations, the mega rallies, and the new big leaders? Are they beyond the old rivalries? Is it only the development card this time around? And who is responding to the issues that matters to them?

What the poor want

Credit: azotesdivinos/Flickr

File photo of a group of rural women in Bihar. Credit: azotesdivinos/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I stop and sit down with a group of women labourers on the outskirts of Nihalpura. Where once in the early 1990s I had seen red flags aflutter, and no one moved around after sunset, I notice it is relatively easy to move around even for a woman researcher. Then, I required special field support of people who were “accepted”, now I find even women willing to talk.

What are their issues, I ask: “hamni raiyaan hi maiya, hamni ke kaa, hamni ke kono jaat na hai, kono pooch na” (We are labourers my dear girl, what of us. We have no caste, and no one listens to us or our issues). What they really want, I gather, is that the state should create some common property resources like a panchayat building, where they can sit. As labourers, they can only sit (for leisure) on the ghair mazurwa land. They worry that any day they can lose their right to assemble freely on such property.

The women have no footwear, and their is hair uncombed, untied. It’s the afternoon but one of them has a datuwan in her mouth – a twig working as a toothbrush. I assume she has had no meal until now. Their children roll around in the dust by the side, untouched by Bihar’s schooling revolution. They have no land, and any one who could promise them a land patta is their real leader. They do not reveal their voting preference, until a young boy came running towards us and bared it all: “We are Binds by caste – ati pichadaa – our votes are for Nitish. Hamare account mein paisa nahin mila.” The reference to their empty bank accounts shows the potency of the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign point – Modi had  welched on his promise that every citizen would get Rs 15 lakh once he became Prime Minister because he would bring all of India’s black money back. I sense that the smattering of extremely backward caste groups –referred to as the “paanch-phoranas” (or five different spices used together for cooking vegetables) are like a vote bank for Nitish. I also gathered that the Kurmis are a dominant caste in this village.

Yet further, I stopped on the outskirts of Mahuabigha in the Paswan basti. I was encircled by community leaders who swore by Narendra Modi and the NDA alliance. Ramvilas Paswan is their leader and there is anger against Nitish here – for he left them out, indeed, targeted them in the name of vikaas. Inkar vikaas hamni ke beijjati halai” (his [i.e. Nitish’s] development agenda was in essence our humiliation). Their children were left out from his school benefits programme, but I also gather that Paswan police constables and darogas did not find the postings they wanted. They also charged Nitish with favouring Kurmi police constables and darogaas. Lalu was not a subject for discussion. I also found that unlike amongst the raiyaan Binds, Paswan women do not come out to talk to me. I made special efforts to talk to them inside their “ghar-angnaa”. Reshmi devi, a Paswan woman has seven daughters, five of them unmarried, and was widowed a few years ago. She works in the nearby Sarpat school as a cook – a small job with a cash salary generated at the village level because of Nitish’s vikaas. The daughters wish to study until college, and will be happy to even sit for exams in the Jehanabad College, as they may not be able to attend as regular students. It is Nitish’s school programme that has helped them develop these aspirations.

Fluid tactics of caste alignments

I was in the thick of these discussions when the local RLSP candidate, Praveen Kumar passed by. His car stopped when he saw me talking to the Paswan families. “Sab theek chal raha hai madam, aage abhi Noama jaana hai. Wahaan bahut bada Bhumihaar basti hai”. (Its all fine here madam, but I am rushing to Noama where there is a very big Bhumihar basti). Praveen is the favoured candidate of Upendra Kushwaha, whereas the locals had wanted an LJP candidate, Gopal Sharma. He is also a Bhumihaar, but a Bhumihaar LJP candidate would have been under the control of the Dusadhs, or so the logic went. The Paswans said Praveen Kumar was a weak candidate, a ‘majboori’ (obligation).

Stlll further, near Sarpat school, a group of Yadav women were sitting idle under the mango trees. Lalu Prasad was their only choice. “Sab kuch uhe dehlan, school, kapda”. For them it was the RJD leader who, they said, had given them everything, including schools, and uniforms. Nitish does not matter to them.

Woman in mustard field, Bihar. Credit: Jack Wickes/Flickr CC BY-ND.20

Woman in mustard field, Bihar. Credit: Jack Wickes/Flickr CC BY-ND.20

I moved further down to Pokhma, another big basti of Bhumihaars. I may have been referred to here as “maiya” and “bacchi” (ie daughter), but was not let inside the ghar-aangan. Politics was discussed with me outside domestic precincts, on the platform of the Surya Mandir and only by men in dhoti-lungi, showing off their janeu – symbol of their ‘twice-born’ status – strapped across their shoulder. This election for them was their “badlaa” (revenge) for the Senaari massacre of 1999, when Yadavs killed nearly 40 young ones in this village. Their real enemy is Lalu, who they accuse of instigating the massacre and it is for this that they have settled on backing a Kushwaha, Ashok Verma, in neighbouring Kurtha.

Across Jehanabad, what I found was that many people were talking of a bunch of Assembly constituencies together – tactical alliances of the sort where Tekari will be won by a Bhumihar on a ticket from Manjhi’s HAM party, and Kushwaha’s candidate will be backed in Jehanabad, and Ashok Verma a Koeri (Kushwaha) will be backed by Bhumihaars in Kurtha.

Vikas still counts

This is the new “Verma-Sharma” (Kushwaha- Bhumihaar) combination, I was told. As we wound up our political discussions, I moved on to discuss vikas on the side. The janeu-sporting Bhumihar oldies admit that Nitish gave them a decade of peace – “one of us would keep awake all night, guarding the household asleep inside. Nobody could cross Jehana after 4 pm. That changed when he came.” They also point to the standing crops in the field. This would not have been possible but for the uninterrupted supply of electricity in the area. This is a drought year in the state, yet the paddy crops were doing well, I noticed. Those who  see Lalu as their enemy number one – and will not vote for the Mahagathbandhan – are also not very angry with Nitish, I observed..

A group of young men had been trailing me on their motorcycles soon after I stopped in Nihalpura. They didn’t want to talk about their caste or these elections. What they wanted was that the college in Jehanabad become one of good quality. Jobs are the real issue – “We have none here. And no one is talking about it,” said one of the young men.

‘Jehana’ has changed a lot since I first saw it through the lenses of Arvind N. Das in the early 1990s. The young here no longer want a red revolution.  College and jobs – that is the aspiration Nitish Kumar has helped them to nurture. But beyond this they see a road to nowhere.

Manish Priyam is a senior scholar and India Lead, London School of Economics – ESRC Research on Explaining Electoral Change in Urban and Rural India