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Mandal Raj Returns: Will Caste Politics Write Lalu And Nitish’s Political Obituaries?

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By Jai Prakash Ojha

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s espousal of the need to review reservation policy has opened Pandora’s Box with RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav terming the coming Bihar Assembly Elections as a fight between upper and backward castes. Not to be undone, Nitish sought to further the caste divide in a socially volatile state by emphasizing at a public rally that if BJP led NDA comes to power in Bihar, the possibility of reservation being scrapped can’t be ruled out. Realizing the sensitivity of the issue, BJP distanced itself from the RSS chief’s views and sought to assuage frayed tempers by expressing its undiluted support for reservation.

lalu yadav nitish kumar

The electoral battle between the NDA and the JDU-RJD-Congress grand alliance is being keenly watched as being the mother of all elections that may decide the future contours of national polity. Can it be termed as a contest between ‘Mandal 11’ and ‘Kamandal 11’ as Lalu would like us to believe? Can the resurrection of Mandal fire the imagination of the masses as it did in the early nineties and stop the Hindutva juggernaut from rolling over the state where socialism was born, and which successfully withstood the Hindutva wave in the 1990s? Will Lalu and Nitish be able to halt the writing of their political obituaries in their last-ditch struggle for political relevance?

Has The Law Of Diminishing Returns Set In Mandal?

Mandal succeeded because OBCs constituted around 50 percent of the state population, and the underlying feeling of cohesiveness and solidarity among the various caste groups within OBC block turned it into a formidable electoral block. But now, chinks have developed within OBC ranks due to unequal benefits and unequal political representation of various backward castes and sub-castes. Despite the concept of creamy layer as enunciated by the apex judiciary, for anyone living in Bihar as I am, it is clear that dominant OBC castes like Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris have cornered all the reservation benefits, acquired land, and moved up the socio-economic ladder leaving their less fortunate brethren and EBCs (Extreme Backward Castes) high and dry. Internal differentiation and dissensions have led to EBCs gradually breaking away from the upper OBCs and resenting their political dominance.

More than two decades of Mandal rule have failed to straighten the internal cleavages between the OBCs, EBCs and the Dalits making a mockery of the social justice plank. There is a clamour among the left out backward groups to have their share of the pie and already, there are calls for sub-classification and sub-reservation for these groups within the overall ceiling of OBC reservation. The social deepening of the democratic process has already made the 25 percent strong EBC population conscious of their political bargaining power and it would be no surprise if EBCs were to emerge as the dark horse in deciding the outcome of Bihar elections.

The aggregate potential of Mandal has weakened, and the individual numerically dominant castes have become central to electoral strategy. The post-Mandal years have seen the proliferation of caste parties that have all morphed into interest groups contemplating maximum benefits for their core caste groups. Blatant divisive parochial caste politics is being camouflaged under the garb of social justice. The earlier focus was on forging macro identity like OBC but now, the political parties are fiddling with micro-identities like individual castes within OBC block. Don’t forget that in this game of identity, there are wheels within wheels which have made the task of political management of caste groups more fluid. Today, parties like RLSP, LJP, and HAM within the NDA camp, are at best one or two caste parties, but they have enough ammunition to destroy the game plan of the grand alliance in Bihar. Moreover, Lalu’s family justice has been hard to digest for some of his fellow caste leaders, and BJP has not hesitated to wade into troubled waters by giving tickets to 22 persons from the Yadav caste.

How The BJP Stands In Bihar Today

BJP of 2015 is a lot different from BJP of 1990 when it was predominantly a Brahmin – business community dominated party. The parties that rode their electoral luck riding on Mandal wave may be in dire straits at present but Mandal, as a concept, has won. Can you imagine that OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and Vinay Katiyar would emerge as the mascots of Hindutva and some of the best performing BJP chief ministers would be from the OBC castes? The BJP played the caste card dovetailing it with development and governance to perfection and catapulted a member from the OBC community, Modi to the post of PM in the recently concluded 2014 LS elections. Today, the party is emboldened enough to lay claim to the legacies of socialist icons like Lohia and Karpoori Thakur as it feels that the maximum number of OBC MPs are from it, much to the chagrin of grand alliance. OBC leaders have been given due place in the party organization and most of the top leaders in the state like Sushil Modi, Prem Kumar and Nawal Kishore Yadav are from backward castes, not to mention leaders who have left RJD to join BJP. The astounding political success of BJP in 2014 LS elections in Bihar and UP would not have been possible without a strong support from the OBC/EBC communities. Hence, it seems Mandal politics will hardly cut any ice with the electorate.

How The Tables Have Turned

The heydays of Mandal under Lalu saw the unprecedented consolidation of the forces of social justice be it the Dalits, the OBCs, the EBCs and the minorities. But today, the two stalwarts of Dalit politics – Manjhi and Ram Vilas Paswan—are with the NDA. The ultra-Dalit politics of Manjhi has created a separate Dalit constituency and if the current trends continue, the social justice plank may shrink, drawing Dalits away from the backward leadership as it happened in UP. The EBCs languished under Lalu rule which become synonymous with a particular dominant OBC caste, leaving them disenchanted and open to a possible reconfiguration of caste equations. The dominant OBC castes are no less exploitative than the upper castes when it comes to dealing with the Dalits and EBCs. Whether it’s Bihar or UP, Ambedkar has been pitted against Lohia. The rural hinterlands of the state witness intense caste rivalries between the Dalits and the backward.

Post-1990, as in the rest of the country, Bihar has seen a fair growth in the level of urbanization, literacy, and middle-class numbers. Issues like governance and development are more important, and there is a fear of Bihar lapsing into jungle raj once the grand alliance comes to power among the electorate. More than half of Bihar’s population was born after 1990, and hence, it is not glued to any historical ideology or Mandal baggage. The youth wants opportunities rather than dole outs. Politics of identity, symbolism and patronage have hardly any meaning for them. The caste factor works best in rural settings but with the rapid strides made in communication technologies, Internet, and mobile telephony, the villages have undergone a sea of change in attitude and voting patterns. The penetration of mass media, electronic media, and print media has enlightened the masses on public issues and made them aware of their democratic rights. Media, urbanization, Internet and inter-convergence communication technologies and galloping middle-class numbers have worked to the detriment of the practice of identity politics.

Society in Bihar has changed. It’s high time, the vocabulary of the Mandalites change. It’s high time the people of the state are presented with a vision commensurate with the 21st century rather than a vision centered on caste. The grand alliance is harping on caste arithmetic oblivious to the fact that caste groupings are never static, and more than the arithmetic, it’s the chemistry that matters. It remains to be seen whether the core caste groups of Nitish and Lalu can come together to take on a resurgent BJP after a decade of mutual hostility.

‘Bihar Elections With Ojha’ is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of the Bihar 2015 elections.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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