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Unlike in the post-Mandal years when the political alliance of the Other Backward Castes (without Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress) was plagued by the ‘problem of plenty’, this time around Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has emerged with no political challenger in the space of OBC politics in the Hindi belt. Despite having political clout of their own, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) (Bihar) and Akhilesh Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (Uttar Pradesh) – who consider Kumar a father figure – have reposed faith in the Janata Dal (United) [JD (U)] supremo for him to lead the electoral battle in 2024.
Now, there is no scenario of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav – the immediate beneficiaries of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report – pulling each other down as they did in 1996. As there was a tussle for supremacy back then, none of them could become the prime minister. Thus, the OBCs from north India squandered a golden opportunity even though the anti-upper caste feeling was strong in the Hindi belt.
The post went to a Vokkaliga leader from Karnataka, H.D. Deve Gowda, whose clout in the party (the then original Janata Dal) was not as strong as that of Lalu Prasad. In his home state too Gowda – who was then the chief minister – was not as popular a figure as Lalu and Mulayam were in their own states. The then undivided Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had 54 and 85 Lok Sabha constituencies respectively against 28 in Karnataka.
When Gowda was forced to resign in April 1997 after 11 months following the Congress party’s decision to withdraw support I.K. Gujral became the prime minister. Gujral was a Khatri Hindu from Jhelum, now in Pakistani Punjab. No doubt, a scholarly figure with vast experience, Gujral had no constituency of his own and was considered close to Lalu. He had contested the Lok Sabha election from Patna in 1991,
which the then chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan had countermanded. Seshan also countermanded the election of Nitish Kumar from Barh, a part of Patna district.
Later, Lalu sent Gujral to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. In 1989, he had won the election from Jalandhar on a Janata Dal ticket. While Lalu Prasad became the president of the then Janata Dal in January 1996, besides being all-powerful chief minister of Bihar, Mulayam Singh was the leader of the Samajwadi Party. Gowda, Gujral and Sharad were all in Janata Dal, which further got divided in subsequent years.
In contrast, in the run-up to the 2024 parliament election, there appears to be no tussle in the OBC rank of non-BJP parties in north India. Thus, Kumar, despite being the leader of a party which has only 45 MLAs and 16 Lok Sabha MPs, has a better chance to emerge as the leading light of the OBCs than the much more powerful Lalu and Mulayam then.
Lalu, Mulayam and Sharad (who is originally from Madhya Pradesh and had contested Lok Sabha elections from MP, UP and Bihar) have almost faded and the second-generation leaders (Tejashwi and Akhilesh) are satisfied with their own states, resulting in a scenario where there is no other political leader to challenge Kumar in the OBC politics in north India.
Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not have a leader of a such stature among its ranks from the OBC community. In the 1990s, the saffron camp had Kalyan Singh, firebrand Uma Bharati and Vinay Katiyar. The first two had even served as the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh respectively. It is because of them that the BJP used to get a substantial amount of non-Yadav backward caste votes even at the height of the Mandal movement.
What works in favour of Nitish Kumar?
But there is another side of the story too. Contrary to the early post-Mandal years, the backward castes are now not so aggressive on the issue of reservation. Over the years the upper castes-backward castes divide has shown some signs of narrowing down.
Yet, if there is an undisputed backward caste face in the opposition camp at the top and there is complete unity among the parties in his name, it is Kumar. Besides, he has a long experience in governance with a relatively better track record. Unlike the immediate post-Mandal years’ leaders, Nitish’s support base – may be small – cuts caste and community lines.
Even in the worst-case scenario, when he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha poll alone, JD (U) got about 15% votes. When he was in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he would hardly get Muslim votes, which form about 17% of Bihar’s population. Their population in Uttar Pradesh is 19.3%.
The present situation is a bit different from the 1990s in another way. Congress was still a player in these two north Indian states, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Today the Grand Old Party is not in a confrontational mode with the JD(U), RJD and Samajwadi Party. In fact, it is now an alliance partner in Bihar and has contested the 2017 UP Assembly poll together with the Samajwadi Party.
Kumar’s efforts to bring together various parties under an umbrella to fight the BJP resembles a similar move made in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. But the previous experiment failed within a year and the Janata Dal got split in November 1990. This was simply because of the presence of more than one leader at the top – Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandrashekar and Devi Lal. V.P. Singh took the help of the Mandal Commission Report in August 1990 (when he implemented it) to survive but he failed as the two others ganged up against him.
Lalu and Mulayam were no doubt chief ministers of two big states even before the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, yet it is a fact that V.P. Singh’s action consolidated their position in their respective states.
History is repeating itself after over three decades, but with a difference. The whole exercise in being undertaken to get rid of the BJP, and not the Congress as in 1989.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.