The joker in the pack: The politics of the Bihar-Verdict

No matter who wins, Bihar would be a loser. Social justice faces a roll-back .’Secular’ politics exposed. Governance a non-issue
This is what thinker-politician Yogendra Yadav had tweeted on September 9.

He, like many others, was not for the Bharatiya Janata Party but was unhappy with Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar for having forged an alliance with Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress. That the move robbed Nitish Kumar and, in turn, Bihar of the possibility of an alternative politics, was – and still is – the view of many like him.

Yogendra Yadav repeated it after the results were out. He represents a view point which treats elections as processes through which people choose their administrators, which is ready to give Nitish Kumar another chance but wants Lalu Prasad and the Congress to disappear from the political scene.

Socialist mantras

It is not a new view. Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist leader, thought that a new politics could not emerge without making Congress irrelevant. To eliminate the Congress in, Lohia and his political heirs were ready to embrace the Jan Sangh, then the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh. History tells us that it is this coalition of the socialists with the Jan Sangh that was responsible for strengthening the RSS and weakening the socialist movement.

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, who are both products of the anti-Emergency movement, still claim to be followers of Ram Manohar Lohia. Of the two, Nitish Kumar practiced the Lohia style politics of courting the RSS to wipe out the Congress and held this view even in 2013 when he broke away with the BJP. He argued that it was important to have a large coalition against the Congress that was seen as inclusive. For this to happen, he wanted his ally of 18 years, the BJP not to give its leadership to Narendra Modi, an avowed anti-minority figure. It is worth recalling that Kumar had made it a condition in the previous assembly elections that he would not allow Modi to campaign in Bihar.

‘Development’ politics

The RSS and the BJP thought otherwise. They were proven right. They ran, under Modi’s leadership, one of the most divisive and deceptive campaigns for the Lok Sabha in 2014 and managed to create   a “Developmental Hindu” voter. Muslims were sent a very clear message: political decisions in India could be taken without their participation.

Everyone looked happy. After all, it was development that had won. It was a non-political development, pundits gleefully told us. But was not the same being said about Nitish Kumar for the last eight years? Why did the people of Bihar then choose the development of the Modi-fied BJP and reject Nitish? Remember, he was then fighting alone.

Nitish Kumar, who had relegated politics to the background in 18 years of his alliance with the BJP in the name of development, was rudely shaken. He had been persuaded by the myth created around his persona that development could in itself become an alternative politics. His resounding defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha at the hands of his old ally forced him to correct his “anti-politics” development.

Bringing politics back

Politics thus returned to the political discourse of Bihar. Early signs of it could be seen when the Congress – and one must say it here, a Congress-led by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi – persuaded and convinced Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad to sit together and talk elections. Congress had announced its support to Nitish after the departure of the BJP from the government in 2013. Lalu Prasad had also extended his support to the minority government of Nitish. It was their political judgment.

All this might have dismayed the eternal seekers of an alternative politics. For them, it was sad to see Nitish Kumar being forced to sit in the company of the bad boys of Indian politics. But he took this call.

Kumar was undoubtedly the developmental face of the alliance. But the company of Lalu Prasad and Congress made it a battle between secularism and majoritarianism.

‘Bunch of thoughts’

One has to read the speeches of Nitish Kumar to see how infrequently he uttered the much-maligned word secularism. But it was fascinating to see Lalu Yadav moving around with RSS leader MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts in his campaign.

In yet another first for Indian elections, a book and an ideology became an issue. Lalu read from it to his people and kept talking about the RSS. He trashed the idea of the BJP as an autonomous political party with a mind of its own. He kept repeating that it was the RSS that formed the world-view of the BJP. He explained to his audience, quoting from Golwalkar that it was Brahminical hegemony that formed the ideological base of communalism. The fight for social justice cannot be divorced from the fight for secularism. His rallies became the primary classes of Indian secularism. He was performing a Nehruvian duty, a long forgotten practice. It was only Nehru, even among his contemporary Congressmen, who used to warn the electorate about the dangers of majoritarianism in his election campaign.

It was not a side-show, not merely a comic interlude to the otherwise tense electoral drama of Bihar. It annoyed Modi so much that he had to acknowledge the debate and ask why was Lalu talking about a 70-year-old book. It was, after all, written by a non-BJP man. “If that is the case, why do you not disown it?” Lalu asked him and his party. “Burn it, burn it, if you can”, he dared them in his own rustic style.

One must say that the secular aggression of Lalu Prasad and the Congress Party rattled the BJP and their developmental guise slipped. They started making, what we call, “mistakes”.

It was courageous of Rahul Gandhi to have talked about the Dadri killing because the mother and the son had been warned by the seasoned Congressmen that  it might show them as being pro-Muslim which would alienate Hindus from their party. But they took the risk.

Caste in the campaign

It was not merely the statement of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat calling for a review of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions for people from marginal communities that helped Lalu to talk caste. Let us go back to 2013. Just after the BJP-JD(U) alliance broke, Sushil Modi issued a statement that it was the BJP that would give India its first extremely backward caste prime minister. Modi and the BJP used the caste card to the hilt. It did help Modi and his party in the 2014 elections. This hijacking of the social justice platform by the RSS also made persons like Nitish sit up and take note.

It was important to talk caste in the campaign. To show that it was a category that cut across religions. And here too, Modi was trapped. When he said that Lalu and Nitish were conspiring to snatch away reservations from the Scheduled Castes and Extremely Backward Classes and give it to Muslims, he stood thoroughly exposed. The political mind of Bihar could easily catch the lie, for it remembers the Pasmanda Mahaj, a political movement led by Muslims, a unique Bihari intervention in the discussion on reservation or social justice. It argues that caste is a social phenomenon which is not unique to Hindu religion. You find it in Indian Islam and Christianity too, it argues, and that is why the Dalits of these religions should also get state-protection. The people of Bihar who have debated it for the last two decades were amused by the crude attempt by the prime minister of the country to terrorise the Hindu Dalits and backward classes.

Let us not reduce this electoral victory to  a mandate by the people of Bihar for Nitish Kumar’s “developmental platform”. It will do us good to go back to the press meet of the victorious Lalu and Nitish on the weekend. Lalu Prasad thanked the poor, the extremely backward,the backward, the minorities and the poor and progressive sections of the forward castes for this victory. This careful disaggregation of the politically neutral or universal category of Biharis by a person who is treated as a joker by the sophisticated urban lot is again a reminder that there are divisions in the Bihari or Indian society, there are conflicting interests, there is a fight for resources, and there are different ideas about organisation of a collective life.  You cannot but choose your side. And that becomes your politics.

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