Bihar's Election Has Shown That When it Comes to Politics, Social Justice Is Here to Stay

Although much work is left to be done, the mahagathbandhan's campaign which focused on social justice alone, has clearly struck a chord.

The following is an overused date (not data) point but is very effective as a symbol of what was happening in 1990 in north India.

Mandal met Kamandal (thus, caste assertion confronted the Hindutva question) on October 24, 1990, as Bihar’s chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav stalled Lal Krishna Advani’s temple ride in Samastipur Circuit House.

The BJP president had started a rath yatra in Veraval near the Somnath temple and had hoped to end it in Ayodhya, making a powerful symbolic and political point. The objective was to inject some temple into politics and push religion dressed as history, ‘asmita’ and ‘garv’ into electoral dynamics.

L.K. Advani during his 1990 rath yatra, flanked by Narendra Modi, who was then an RSS pracharak. Photo: Reuters/Files

‘Other Backward Classes’ or OBCs organised around marginalised castes – which were backward socially, economically and educationally – were engaged in a battle for dignity at that time.

This was after Prime Minister V.P. Singh had dusted up the Mandal Report and decided to implement it, reserving 27% of government jobs for OBCs. The chorus was about reserving government jobs, but the background score was distinctly about social status. In the way that ten years prior to this sequence of events, B.P. Mandal’s Commission had drawn up lists including Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and other OBCs in the net, it had cut into the BJP’s plan to slice India along the vertical line of Hindus versus the rest.

The cry for social status soon became about social justice and politics in north India has never been the same again.

Exactly 30 years on, with a very diminished Nitish Kumar thanking Narendra Modi, Ram Vilas Paswan no more and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s path out of jail appearing uncertain, was this the last Mandal election in Bihar?

First of all, caste as a mobilising unit to secure representation is not about ‘lower’ castes alone.

On the contrary, ‘higher’ caste organisations like the Kayastha Conference of 1887, the Dusadh Mahasabha (1891) and the Bhumihar Brahman Mahasabha (1896) had all sought to protect their own and secure representation. Nor was the Mandal point (1990) the first time that the idea of social justice was overtly inserted into north Indian politics.

The fracture in the Congress hegemony, first clearly visible in the 1967 elections, was about OBCs seeking to exit the party fold and carve out their own space. In the 1970s, the emergence of the socialists too was much about social justice. Rammanohar Lohia’s slogan, ‘Picchde paanve sau mein saath (backward classes must get 60%)’, galvanised a generation. It was about proportionate representation as per their population, though the OBC population was never really measured after the 1931 Census.

Also read: OBCs Haven’t Been Counted Since 1931 Census. In Maharashtra, Demand For Separate Column Grows

Bihar felt the full impact of this movement, with socialist leader Karpoori Thakur in his second stint as chief minister implementing an empowering formula, reserving positions in government service, according social status, making ‘backward’ castes aware of the need to assert their numbers more widely.

Congress and Kisan stalwart Charan Singh spoke up for the middle castes in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh from outside the socialist fold. Across Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – parts of the country that had seen little or nothing by way of social movements for according dignity to those socially discriminated against – politics was and remained the best ‘social movement’ there was to stage these battles and secure wins.

As the storm whipped up by Mandal in north India threw up Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar and gave Ram Vilas Paswan muscle, in a nod to the idea of social justice, the BJP itself was forced to ‘Mandalise’.

Initially stunned by OBC leaders breaking its pipe dream of a vertically integrated scheme under Hindutva, BJP ended up walking the Mandal line by reconfiguring the mosaic in its own way, and giving leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and others pride of place. Though Narendra Modi never invoked his own caste overtly in election campaigns before 2014, his invocation in that election was a nod to the salience of social justice.

Also read: Why It’s Wrong – and Irrelevant – to Question Modi’s Backward Caste Credentials

Tejashwi Yadav was less than one year old when his father, then chief minister, had stopped Advani’s Toyota Rath and got him detained. Tejashwi’s emergence as a 31-year old at the head of the single-largest party in Bihar, where the Congress and Left parties accepted him unquestioningly as the ‘CM-face’ from the very start, spoke of a campaign where all participants knew the dynamics at work.

Bihar elections Tejashwi Yadav

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav addresses an election rally ahead of Bihar Assembly elections, at Hilsa in Nalanda District, Friday, October 23, 2020. Photo: PTI

Tejashwi allowed the social justice platform to acquire more heft and breadth by speaking of economic justice to not only throw the net wider, but allow the slogan to evolve into a more durable one. Emboldened by the Left parties under his umbrella, the call was something with a shelf-life beyond the assembly elections, apart from forcing the incumbent BJP and Nitish to scramble and run a me-too campaign.

Across his 247 rallies, and often more than 15 hours a day in the only chopper that the RJD had, Tejashwi never denied his caste or the framing of his politics for what it was.

Needled continuously if he was leading an ‘M-Y combine’, he would patiently invoke the alphabet saying he had the “full A to Z with me”. On the other side of the divide, seeing clearly what social justice means to Bihar, the BJP did not think it wise to give up on Nitish Kumar in the campaign, saying constantly that he was the NDA’s chief minister candidate.

Nitish Kumar, the oldest of the Mandal leaders to hold office, had also deepened his hold by empowering and creating the Mahadalit category or the Extreme Backward Castes, promising them their due, both in terms of representation and empowerment.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar during the last leg of the campaign for the assembly elections, in Araria district, November 4, 2020. Photo: PTI

There is no getting away from ‘social justice’, which has come to stay in Bihar’s politics.

For all the power of the BJP’s campaign, its unprecedented financial resources, the maximum Facebook ad-spend and 72,000 WhatsApp groups later, RJD remains not only the single-largest party but the only force that came within whispering distance of forming the government in Patna.

Also read: Mood in Nitish Kumar’s Stronghold Could Explain His Focus on Lalu Prasad’s Rule

After 15 years of BJP-Nitish dominance and sushasan, the per-capita income is Rs 31,287 annually or one-third the national average, the literacy rate the third-lowest in the country, economic activity the lowest for such a big state, with manufacturing here just 1.3% of the country’s share. And according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey in 2018-19, well before the pandemic,  unemployment in Bihar was 10.2%, nearly double that of the national average of 5.6%.

The scale of what needs to be done is evident.

State authorities say 23.6 lakh migrants have returned to 32 districts of Bihar during the pandemic and this has only worsened the situation. If here, despite the din raised by the ruling party to invoke boasts over Ayodhya or Article 370, the slogans raised unequivocally by Tejashwi for “padhaai, kamai, dawai, sichai” (education, earning, medicine and irrigation) can keep snapping at the well-heeled, then at least Social Justice 2.5 may well be around the corner.

Social justice has miles to go to get to Social Justice 3.0 and learn from its advanced southern version, in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala, where the push upwards of backward castes, first via social reform movements, led to a demand for more representation and eventually to more direct material benefits for the majority of the population and remarkable human development indices.

The feisty scholar Jeffrey Witsoe’s much discussed book from 2013, Democracy Against Development, has explored the innards of social justice in the state and what the thirst for representation and ‘development’ means, their intersections, accommodations and clashes in Bihar.

It is clear how much of the “silent revolution” is yet to get a voice, and there is much more work to be done.

Seema Chishti is a writer-journalist based in New Delhi.