Bihar saw a major shift from national parties to regional politics in the late 20th century. This is the land which saw the turning points against fascist regimes, whether it came in the form of the Champaran Satyagraha against the British or the Bihar movement against Indira’s Emergency.
Bihar is known for its agriculturally rich land, widespread river connectivity, renowned tourist spots and an international porous border which it shares with Nepal. These put it in a position to be an economically prosperous state. However, Bihar is among the underdeveloped states asking for a special status today. The question, however, is: Will a special package solve Bihar’s problems?
Sociologist M.N. Srinivas has in several of his works focused on the need for an integral sociopolitical approach to bring technological development to India. His address went largely unnoticed. India’s political stakeholders and policymakers failed to take into consideration the stakes of diverse regions and communities while crafting developmental schemes. This resulted in a dramatic transition of political capital from the national parties to the regional parties. Behind this was a crude belief among people that their immediate issues contouring specific social patterns can only be addressed by regional parties.
This transition was evident in the southern states after independence, but Bihar still had a Congress wave until the Emergency shook the region. This alienation is credited to the JP movement. The Bihar movement shaped student leaders to be the future of the state.
The rise of leaders like Lalu Yadav, Sushil Modi, Nitish Kumar and Ravi Shankar Prasad created a new dimension in Bihar’s politics. As the student movement ended, the political base had to be refreshed, calculated and generated. Yadavs and Muslims went towards Lalu and Kurmis to Nitish, while Sushil Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad ended up with the upper-caste Hindus.
Lalu experimented with the rigid caste system and succeeded. With this, he also became the first person in independent India to pragmatically understand caste capital. The combination of lower Hindu castes and Muslims fuelled the successive victories of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This doesn’t mean that Lalu didn’t have the support of upper-castes. Dominant Maithil Brahmins like Raghunath Jha emerged as the face of Lalu’s party. This was also largely seen as a tactic to stop the outflow of upper-caste votes to opponents.
Lalu’s regime was an ambivalent phase for the state. Bihar got new institutes, industries and trains. In addition, corruption and bloodbath were also present in new forms. Lalu’s supporters, who were largely unemployed youth, started harassing businessmen. Kidnappers and gangsters were all over Bihar without any constraint. Police became accomplices. This chaos created a sense of fear among the new middle-class.
Notably, this emerging class was largely casteless and it related more to economic stature than caste faith. This section wanted the end of what was being referred to as ‘Jungle Raj’. Lalu was finally voted out of power, but the phenomenon remained intact.
The anti-incumbency principle can’t be minimised in a society like Bihar, which is immensely diverse. It is quite difficult to bundle up opinions in a state where more than five languages are spoken but the population is poorly educated.
Nitish’s election came as an illusionary phase. People were made to believe, through newspapers, that there was an environment of safety. As Nitish was branding his government, coalition partner Bhartiya Janata Party started setting up its ground connect. This was an easy task for the BJP.
The saffron party used the RSS to reach out to people. Most of the BJP entrants were RSS workers. This also enthused swayamsevaks. BJP found its vote base in upper-caste Hindus who were seeking for a party to represent their needs. This vacancy was no more. The BJP-JD(U) balance generated a sense of trust and confidence among upper-caste Hindus.
Bihar is now set to send new members to the 17th Lok Sabha. But the issues and dynamics have evolved. It is no more about strong caste combination. Dalits and OBCs have now found space in the BJP too. Muslims may not be directly supporting the BJP but they have a significant presence in the JD(U). Urban and suburban middle-class voters don’t want Lalu in power. For them, Lalu is a “chara chor” who brought the bad name to Bihar. They might sideline the ‘toppers scam‘ and the ‘shelter home scandal‘ but Lalu is still a big “No”. This strengthens the JD(U)-BJP share and narrows the RJD to the lower castes in rural areas.
Dipankar Gupta, who has studied Indian urbanisation, rightly says that there is a proportionate distribution of castes in several constituencies. Madhepura may be a bastion for Lalu Yadav because of a significant Yadav vote share, but it doesn’t exceed 30% of the total political capital.
The induction of Lalu’s children into politics certainly irked the voters. Fielding a candidate from CPI’s stronghold Begusarai is a testimony to Lalu’s fear that Kanhaiya could take over his sons to become the face of Bihar’s politics.
Bihar’s youth are migrating to other parts of the country in search of better education and job opportunities, while politicians within the periphery are engaged in killing the infrastructure. National narratives are influencing Bihar’s politics today. The identity politics contouring Modi has harmed regional parties. Despite a mahagathbandhan in recent assembly elections, the BJP, riding on the Modi wave, has given a tough fight. The Congress is also working to regain ground.