Even as analysts debate the causes for the Mahagathbandhan’s astounding victory in the Bihar elections and explain the BJP’s debacle, they have continued to portray the contest as one of caste versus development.
On the one hand, apologists for the National Democratic Alliance suggest that the social coalition crafted by the Grand Alliance of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress won the day, reflecting the victory of caste politics yet again. Throughout the electoral campaigns, the NDA had sought to appropriate the development plank, warning their constituencies of the return of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s so-called ‘jungle raj’ if the Mahagathbandhan were to come to power. On the other hand, sympathsiers of the Mahagathbandhan claim that the results are a positive reflection on Nitish Kumar’s commitment to development. They point to electrification, schools and improved law and order under Nitish’s 10-year old reign as support for their claims.
If one side insists that caste politics has prevailed, the other interprets the result as a vote for development. What both sides ignore is the extent to which the results reflect the continuing importance of social justice and dignity to India’s oppressed and impoverished communities.
In fact, the Bihar election results reveal that such a dichotomy is patently false. While it has now become a cliché to condemn Lalu Prasad Yadav for presiding over Bihar’s alleged descent into ‘casteist’ lawlessness from 1990 to 2005, his achievements cannot be overlooked. Lalu’s rule instilled a sense of social confidence among the vast majority of the state’s labouring and impoverished people, chiefly of the Backward Castes and Dalits. He shifted primary schools hitherto located in ‘savarna’ neighbourhoods into Dalit and Backward Caste hamlets. Hindu-Muslim riots were rare. He reined in police intervention when Dalit landless labourers occupied properties illegally held by landlords in violation of ceiling acts.
Lalu was less successful in preventing atrocities by the Ranvir Sena and other savarna militias on Dalits and Backward Castes. The violence perpetrated by these militias reflected their reaction to assertions by subaltern groups demanding fairness in social and economic transactions, assertions that were bolstered by Lalu’s ascension in Patna. His political rhetoric underpinning social dignity bolstered the morale of the impoverished mass of rural Bihar in quite considerable, and somewhat unpredictable ways.
Against his critics accusing him of not doing enough for development, Lalu claimed in the early 1990s:
‘Vikas nahin, samman chahiye’ (we want dignity, not development)’
His messages live on in ways he might not have predicted. It is common for researchers to hear – as I did – from impoverished, often Dalit, women in the Bihar countryside:
‘Vikas hua hai, badlaw aaya hai. Abhi hum jamindar ke ankhon mein ankh daal kar barabari se bat kar saktey hain. (Development has taken place. Change has happened. Today, we can look the landlord in the eye and speak as equals)’
Even as he ostensibly ignored development, Lalu’s political symbolism quite considerably improved the development capabilities of Bihar’s rural population. Indeed, he appears to have anticipated nearly a quarter of a century ago the recognition, recently expressed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that the dignity of the human person is fundamental. Seen in this light, the contribution of the RJD’s 15-year rule cannot be undermined. The achievements under Nitish Kumar’s decade-long rule would not have been possible without the foundations laid by Lalu. Bihar’s long-oppressed population began to reconfigure the meaning of development as dignity.
Let us now turn to the NDA’s self-styled development platform. The less said on this count the better. Apart from Amit Shah’s ‘fireworks in Pakistan’ comment, there was Narendra Modi’s irrelevant insinuations that Lalu had betrayed the Yadav community by promoting beef-eating. His unfounded allegation that the Mahagathbandhan sought to ‘snatch’ reservations from Dalits and OBCs to hand them over to Muslims must surely count as the most cynical use of identity politics. The NDA’s final salvo was its advertisement on cows and beef. There was little in the NDA’s campaign that warranted it being labelled as developmental in its orientation, whatever inanities the alliance’s spokespersons might now be spouting. The BJP’s messaging smacked of the most vitriolic symbolisms of identity politics.
In contrast, by insisting that affirmative action policies be widened in scope, Lalu and his allies reminded their audiences that the benefits of development have to be shared across classes and communities. By insisting that the caste component of the socio-economic caste census be made public and used to inform policy, the Mahagathbandhan made a case for just and equitable development. Their insistence reminded us that caste and development are entangled and that it is impossible to speak of development in a caste-blind way. Lalu was the one politician who challenged the legacy and ideology of the RSS pracharaks head-on, without mincing words. The Mahagathbandhan’s commitment to affirmative action will soon alienate their newfound admirers on social media, including the many intellectuals who have disdained the post-Lohiaite social justice movements as heralding destructive identity politics. But analysts must acknowledge that it is the claims of social justice and dignity among Bihar’s impoverished and oppressed people that has halted the BJP juggernaut.
Lalu Prasad Yadav’s own analysis is compelling: “Bihar’s poor, oppressed and Dalit-Backwards have provided a new and agreeable turn to the country’s politics,” he tweeted. It is to this assertion of social justice and dignity that analysts must pay attention while analysing the results of the Bihar elections.
Indrajit Roy is an ESRC Research Fellow at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford