CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


Bihar's Political Ennui Can Only be Overcome by the Left


Indian politics stands on a precipice. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has failed on all fronts. Despite its failure, it dares to smother democracy by not allowing debates in Parliament, suspends elected parliamentarians and restricts all possible means of debate and discussion.  

Yet, this should not be read as the violent gasps of a dying entity. The BJP still retains a considerable presence in Indian politics, courtesy its control over media, successful communalisation of “civil society” and a total failure of the Opposition, especially the bourgeois-liberal. The Left has stood up to the challenge more steadfastly than the former. Current trends from West Bengal, administrative success in Kerala and a strong peasant movement under the All India Kisan Sabha and other Left peasant organisations are pointers towards a resurgence of the Left.  

In this context, the Assembly election scheduled for October-November in Bihar is pregnant with opportunities for the Left. The election is poised to be a contest between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Opposition's Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance. The Left has decided to go with the latter, principally out of commitment to secularism and uncompromising anti-BJP stance.  

But this time, anti-BJPism does not seem to be the best way forward. The upcoming election is the last to be predicated upon Mandalism (caste-based reservations). A rapidly shrinking public sector and selling off of public utilities has drastically reduced employment-generating possibilities of reservations. The BJP would not be foolish enough to touch reservations in view of a backlash, and will be content selling the public utilities.  

Second, stalwarts of Mandalism are awaiting their political and physical extinction. For, state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is going to hang his boots after these elections and the health of his predecessor, Lalu Prasad Yadav, is in decline. The BJP is cunningly aware that after Nitish, there is no other leader that could match his charisma in the Janata Dal (United) and posit himself/herself to be electorally palatable to the Biharis. It is estimated that there will be a huge exodus of rent-seeking MPs and MLAs to BJP at best, and worse there would be a full merger of JD(U) into BJP.

What happened to Sharad Yadav on his protestations against JD(U)'s about-turn from the alliance (erstwhile Mahagathbandhan) serves well as an example. And a similar ship jumping would be seen in a post-Lalu Yadav Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), whose upward mobile "Yadav" and other leaders might want to merge with BJP. The ability of BJP to affect this is testified by its wrecking of the formidable Mulayam Singh Yadav family in Uttar Pradesh, wherein Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam's younger brother, sabotaged the electoral prospects of the party from within.

The Yadavs forming 16% of the state's population no more remain a lot blindly loyal to Lalu Prasad. In Madhepura, there is an adage, 'Rome Pope ka, Madhepura Gope ka' (Like Rome is Pope's, Madhepura belongs to the Yadavs). In the last Lok Sabha elections, a low-profile JD(U) leader, Dinesh Chandra Yadav, defeated the heavyweight candidate Sharad Yadav by a margin of more than four lakh votes. Similarly, in Pataliputra, another high Yadav population constituency, Lalu's fielding of his daughter, Misa Bharti, irked long-time associate Ram Kripal Yadav, leading to his departure to BJP and the final wresting of the seat by him.

This again points towards the fungibility of the secular votes and secular candidates. Again in Ujiyarpur, Upendra Kushwaha lost by a margin of 2.77 lakh votes. Despite the presence of a strong Kushwaha population, the Yadavs voted en masse for the BJP-JDU alliance, contributing to the latter's victory. Although the Pulwama 'terror' attack overdetermined the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, especially in the Hindi belt, there is more to such reversals in voting patterns of castes.

According to the 2019 post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti, 55% Yadavs voted for RJD-Congress coalition as opposed to 21% for the NDA. This trend is bound to increase in the latter's favour. There are deeper forces at work whose unravelling is necessitated by fresh research and new politics around it.  

The Muslims, who form around 16.87% of the state's population have been solidly behind RJD after the Bhagalpur riots of 1989. The late Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), albeit a minor party, had at once enjoyed solid support base among the Muslims. LJP's best performance came in 2005 Assembly elections wherein it received 12.6% of the total votes and won 29 seats. And when both RJD and JD(U) BJP alliance fell short of a majority, Paswan made his support conditional on the appointment of a Muslim Chief Minister. Both RJD and JD(U) rejected the condition and in the re-elections held in October, LJP won just 10 seats. With the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to note that Ram Vilas was making a reasonable demand which would have soothed Muslim political sentiments because of the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the simmering communalism under the recently-defeated NDA rule.  

Lalu Prasad could have at least offered deputy chief ministership to a Muslim or would have decided to man the office on a rotating basis, especially as there was no dearth of senior Muslim incumbents. It would have shot the RJD leader';s version of secularism through the rooftop of Indian politics. And it would have given him and his supporters a brighter halo compared with the now bygone track record of stopping LK Advani's ignoble Rath Yatra and a clean slate on the question of any formal or informal alliance with BJP at the Centre or state. This was not to happen.

Lalu Prasad's blood oath to make every member of his family an active politician came in between. And Paswan found in the BJP the means of political survival, not promised by his main caste constituency, the dusadhs, who are the second-largest group under the Scheduled Caste category, accounting for about 30% of the total 16% SC population, following the chamars, who constitute 31.3%.  

The entry of Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen or AIMIM in Bihar is no surprise. This surrogate crusader of Muslim interests has confirmed a long-held impression that he is nothing but the B team of BJP. Owaisi, unlike Badruddin Ajmal of Assam (AIDUF) and Muslim League in Kerala, is never known to work solidly against BJP. Recently, Ajmal aligned with the Congress to defeat BJP in Assam. With his eloquence, Owaisi has made a mark for himself in Parliament but never allowed the benefit of his eloquence to accrue to any secular political parties, even when there was a direct fight against BJP. The last Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar elections are cases in point.  

In Bihar, AIMIM's candidate polled a decent 27% of the total votes from Kishanganj, finishing third. He was further emboldened by the victory in the Kishanganj Assembly by-elections held in 2019 in which AIMIM candidate Qamrul Hoda secured 41.46% of the total votes polled. With the formation of the United Democratic Secular Alliance, Owaisi is being dubbed as the "spoiler of secular votes", which on a casual reading he is, but there is something even more sinister to his appearance on the political scene.   

AIMIM's arrival is part of BJP's long-term plan to create the political "other" in a post-Mandal Bihar. As things stand, the departure of Lalu Yadav would leave Muslims in a precarious situation. The Muslim-Yadav combine, which hitherto served as the broadest moat against the saffron tide, is bound to be breached. And Congress is in no position to harken Muslims in its supposedly secular fold. Congress would miserably fall short of the winnability factor, crucial to gain the political confidence of the minorities.  

In this situation, gravitation towards the incendiary speeches of the Owaisi brothers, especially the younger one, is well within the realm of the possible. BJP would be quick to seize this opportunity and make AIMIM the new "scarecrow" of Bihar politics against which all Hindus should unite under its own leaky umbrella. Such a strategy is poised to serve its purpose.  

For instance, secular criminals such as Shahabuddin would become "Muslim criminals". His reign of terror in Siwan, which made the Left lose its charismatic comrade, Chandrashekhar Prasad, fondly called Chandu, would be re-written as a tragic repeat of proto-Mughal ruthlessness aided and abetted by a secular government.  

For any rational minority-based political party or politician, it is impossible to counter majoritarianism on its own. It would be just like a Hindu party in Pakistan denouncing all parties and criticising the basis of the state-Islam. It would be politically suicidal. Fancy why Owaisi is doing this when it is more than apparent that his party could never have a national or for that matter a regional presence. Like our politics, his is not class politics but sectarian politics with a feudal heritage.

The death by suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the political consolidation around it in Bihar points towards such a possibility. The ignominy was unbearable, yet the way the then sitting DGP of Bihar police, Gupteshwar Pandey, reacted along with other incumbent Union ministers from Bihar such as RK Singh, shows how low BJP could possibly stoop. One wonders what would have happened had Sushant Singh Rajput's girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, been a Muslim.

The BJP is also jacked up to destroy the gains of caste assertion of the backward classes/castes afforded by the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Nothing could be more saddening that this is being aided by the inglorious leadership of Schedule Castes, the ex-untouchables. The latter account for 16% of the total population with 93.3% residing in rural areas. The vast majority of them, 67%, are bereft of cultivable land for subsistence. They have not benefited from any land reforms initiated in the state. The abolition of zamindari brought benefits to the middle peasantry and protected tenants, but not landless labourers, overwhelmingly consisting of the SCs.  

It is the yadavs, koeris and kurmis (upward backward castes) who gained most from these reforms, which emboldened them to demand a larger share in political power. Sociologist Anand Chakravarti in his 2018 study of SCs in Muktidih, a village in South-West Bihar, Is this Azaadi? - Everyday Lives of Dalit Agricultural Labourers in a Bihar Village, brings to bear their abject poverty. Despite the village being situated on fertile canal-irrigated land, the SCs constituting almost 30% of the population, owned almost no land. The tragedy becomes manifold because of a severe lack of nutrition, thanks to a deeply corrupt public distribution system, something as innocuous as dal (lentil) still remained a luxury!

Fraudulent private ration shops and arbitrary entry of higher castes in the poverty line list in lieu of the SCs has further exacerbated matters for the latter. Yet 76% of the SCs ended up voting for the NDA in the last elections. The efforts of the United Progressive Alliance or UPA to mobilise them around the issues of rural distress, price rise, and rampant unemployment failed.  

Over three-fourths of the rural voters admitted to having availed no benefit whatsoever from the Prime Minister's flagship schemes like Ayushman Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Atal Pension Scheme. The deceptive Ujjwala Yojana scheme benefited only 32% i.e. a third of the voters. Despite this, the approval ratings stood at 75% and 76% for Central and state governments, respectively.  

The political ennui which has set in Bihar could only be overcome by the Left, which has been at the forefront of dalit assertion, called for radical land reforms and raised its voice against the rampant corruption plaguing public administration at all levels. It is high time that it should proffer itself as the alternative to the rapidly faltering Mandal predicates.

Playing around with caste arithmetic to win against the Hindutva juggernaut has two fundamental problems. First, it pushes the class question under the carpet once and forever. Such is the centripetal strength of this strategy that maintenance of the status quo becomes an end itself. No wonder Lalu Yadav commented with terse brusqueness on the possibility of land reforms by saying "balancewa bigad jayega"! (the balance will be tilted)

Second, caste leaders have not been known to affect a democratic transition of leadership within their parties. Almost all caste-based political parties degenerate into family fiefdoms or individual cults. The Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati is a case in point. This leads to an ultimate degeneration of emancipatory politics as popular participation of the socially backward castes is no more ensured at the level of social movements geared towards the annihilation of castes or related themes. Instead, gatherings at obnoxious birthday bashes, gala festivals and idol-making became the norm. And these merrymaking events often become a bloody affair. For instance, in 2009, Mayawati was embroiled in allegations around the murder of public works department engineer Manoj Kumar Gupta, who was brutally lynched in Auraiya by a BSP MLA, for failing to fulfil the demand for contributions to Mayawati's birthday fund.

Neither are tokenisms of dalit representation at high ministerial offices substitutes for policies and their right implementation by the largely inept bureaucracy. Even Congress propped dalit mascots -- Damodaram Sanjivayya was chosen as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (1960-62) when Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was forced to resign.  

The Left parties should come together and form a Left Democratic Front and contest on not more than 50 to 60 seats. They must concentrate on their current and erstwhile strongholds while at the same time appeal to the general masses of Bihar to go ensure the defeat of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. This would keep intact the unblemished track record of the Left's anti-BJP politics in the eyes of the downtrodden and the minorities.

At the same time, a new political configuration would emerge which could be taken forward by the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and many other anonymous cadres of other Left parties. The Begusarai contest between Kanhaiya Kumar and the rabidly communal, Giriraj Singh ended in a loss but the campaign itself was a break from the mundane in Bihar. Youth cutting across all castes and creeds participated in roadshows and campaigned vigorously for the Left.  

The current crisis is unparalleled in Bihar. More than three million migrant workers were forced to return home (Bihar) in the most ruthless condition. These are generally deactivated political subjects as they end up doing menial jobs in far-away cities for a pittance leaving behind a near broken home. This time they have the potential to become solid political ballast for the Left if the latter approaches them to redress their grievances. Richer states like Punjab are availing their services at three times their earlier wages by fetching them from the remotest villages in Bihar in private buses.  

The distraught migrant workers are both flummoxed and furious at this sudden increase in their worth. The Left parties could take many creative measures to ensure their political participation. It can pitch the idea of unionising these workers to better their bargaining power vis-a-vis their employers in other states. The general lot of workers would come together to form such a union before leaving Bihar which would then be subject to political supervision by the state branch of that union. This would increase the camaraderie between the workers of different states.

Another significant demand that the Left should make on the government is to provide job and income opportunities to this section within Bihar. Since all consecutive governments have dismally failed to provide so, this demand would appeal the most to the rural poor.  

The current crisis conjuncture should be utilised by the Left to give a new hope to the wretched and destitute of Bihar. We should ask ourselves two questions-If not we then who? If not now, then when?  

The author is a student at the Department of World History, University of Cambridge. The views are personal.  

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