Caste, land and quotas: A history of the plotting of social coalitions in Bihar till 2005

In its early days in the state, the Congress tried its hand at a ‘coalition of extremes’, but it soon lost its way.

ByAnand Vardhan
Caste, land and quotas: A history of the plotting of social coalitions in Bihar till 2005
Shambhavi Thakur
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Constant experiments in stitching together different social coalitions continue to define the approach of key parties and alliances contesting in the Bihar Assembly election. It’s been three decades since one leader or another steeped in the Lohiaite ferment of the Sixties, and later in the Jayaprakash Narayan churn of the Seventies, has either occupied, or hand-picked to occupy, 1 Anne Marg — the official residence of the state chief minister in west Patna.

Meanwhile, unlike other Hindi heartland states, national parties have only played second fiddle to regional forces, not leading any government in the state in the last 30 years.

Though a range of immediate factors and developments preceding the elections have been important, the task of building social coalitions has been central to the political projects of all serious contenders for power in the state. Nothing illustrates this better than the steep decline of the once mighty Congress in Bihar and the rise of regional fronts like the remnants of the erstwhile Janata parivar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, or the incumbent Janata Dal (United), as well as the growth of its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party — the latter far from going it alone despite its impressive growth.

The different variants of social alignment, realignment and even dealignment in Bihar politics can be traced to the formative years of electoral politics after Independence. This period saw a dominant Congress party relying on an upper castes-Dalits-Muslims alliance, with the catchment area left open for other groups like the lower-backwards too, though the latter weren’t key to its support base. It was an arrangement which could be seen as a “coalition of extremes”, to borrow a phrase from American political scientist Paul Brass.

Under this, while the upper castes — Bhumihars, Rajputs, Brahmins and Kayashtas — found different reasons to continue supporting the party, the Dalits (which included more than 20 sub-castes) and Muslims (the high-placed Ashrafs as well as the low- placed Pasmandas) couldn’t look beyond the Congress fold for the promotion of their interests and continued as captive voters. Working with a first-mover advantage in a largely unchallenged political space and low turnout, the “coalition of extremes” had a smooth run under the popular leadership of Shri Krishna Sinha, the state’s first chief minister, and his distinguished colleague in the state government, Anugrah Narayan Sinha, and Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram at the Centre.

However, the Congress had either grown smug with its electoral unassailability or lost sight of a very significant social group in crafting its social coalition.

According to the 1931 census (the last exercise of collecting caste numbers for various groups), backward castes, which were later identified as other backward castes, or OBCs, constituted about 51 percent of the population. Within the backward castes, one section of social groups enjoying relatively better socioeconomic status were emerging as the upper backwards, due to their increasing hold over rural landholdings. These included the Yadavs, constituting about 11 percent of the state population, and the Kurmis and Koeris, collectively known as the Luv-Kush Samaj and constituting about 7.7 percent of the population.

Driven by an urge to seek political space for the rise in their social and economic standing, the upper backwards were curiously missing from the social configuration in which Congress had envisaged its electoral strategy in Bihar. However, something that happened in the early 1950s meant that sooner or later, this group would emerge as a strong force in Bihar politics.

Since the 1920s, there were strong movements for land reforms in Bihar. This included demands to abolish zamindari, tenancy rights for the tilling peasantry, and minimum wages for agricultural labour. While social movements led by Swami Sahajanand Sarswati, Swami Vidyanand V, Karyanand Sharma and kisan sabhas were organising social support, there were voices within the Congress unit in the state that advocated for land reforms that strengthened the political support for a legislation.

Making way through legal squabbles and the resistance from landed aristocrats within the party and the political class, Bihar became the first state to bring in the Zamindari Abolition Act in 1948. It was piloted by revenue minister KB Sahay and later passed as the Bihar Land Reforms Act in 1950. Thereafter, the constitutional roadblock it encountered in the Supreme Court was overcome by the enactment of the first amendment to the Indian constitution. Even if the implementation of land reforms met various obstacles and remained limited, it had significant implications on the new arithmetic of social power and its political aspirations.

First, the abolition of zamindari entailed vesting of ownership in tenants, and this meant the stronger emergence of a new class of peasant proprietors. This beneficiary class of kulaks, the relatively prosperous mid-peasantry, largely intersected with the caste groups that consisted of the upper backwards — mainly the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris, even though it benefited the mid-sections of upper caste Bhumihars too, who were anyway making claims to higher positioning in ritual and social hierarchy.

However, it was the ascendancy of the upper backwards, benefiting from reforms because of their status as long-entrenched tenants or superior tenants, which was a more important outcome. At the same time, the initial years following the land reforms legislation also made it clear that the bataidars ( the sharecroppers) and the landless agricultural workers didn’t gain much from the changes.

The landed empowerment of the upper backwards implied that they were now showing a new kind of political eagerness for their share of power in the government. It was a trigger that they needed to carry forward — a kind of political consciousness they had acquired in the 1930s during their association with the Triveni Sangh, a mid-peasant castes forum. As the idea of social alignment in the Congress hadn’t favourably accommodated the upper backwards, the socialist political forces, like the Samyukta Socialist Party led by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, became a vehicle for their mobilisation.

Dr Lohia had envisaged “sainkre saath”, or 60 percent, idea comprising backward castes (upper and lower), Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis to weave together a front for securing state power. In Bihar, the backward castes responded to this call for mobilisation. However, to take on the formidable Congress, the socialist bloc relied on a formation that brought together parties of different ideological persuasions: the Left, centrist as well as the rightist stream.

However, a clear social coalition countering the Congress mould of social engineering still hadn’t taken definite shape, or was delayed by the amalgamation that a counter-Congress force needed. So, rather than a compact social coalition of groups, the glue for the rival front was anti-Congressism. It was evident in the working of the first non-Congress coalition government that Bihar formed in 1967 with the Samyukta Socialist Party being the largest constituent of it.

The chances of Karpoori Thakur, the popular Samyukta Socialist Party leader who belonged to the nai (barber) caste among the lower backwards, were scuttled by factionalism and personal ambitions of its other party leaders like Ramanand Tiwari. It paved the way for Mahamaya Prasad Singh to emerge as the compromise candidate for the post of chief minister. Later, deft political footwork saw BP Mandal, an influential Yadav landlord from Saharsa, instigating a revolt within the Samyukta Socialist Party and becoming Bihar’s first backward caste chief minister.

Mandal, earlier with the Congress, couldn’t outgrow the presence of caste leader Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav within the party. However, his newfound prominence was cut short as the Congress withdrew support to him and replaced him with Dalit leader Bhola Paswan Shastri in the chief minister’s office. The unstable governments forced a fresh election in 1969.

The election brought a new phase of instability and a game of musical chairs, though it also saw the Samyukta Socialist Party leader Karpoori Thakur take advantage of the faction-infested Congress to have a six-month stint as chief minister. 1970 also witnessed a brief stint for the first backward caste chief minister picked by the Congress in Bihar, Daroga Prasad Rai. (Prior to him, Satish Prasad Singh had a very short five-day stint as the Congress's first backward caste chief minister of the state.) Rai’s tenure saw the setting up of the State Backward Classes Commission in 1971 with the aim of identifying the economically and socially disadvantaged sections among the backwards and suggesting reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. Moreover, the death of Jagdeo Prasad, a popular Koeri leader, in a police crackdown in 1974 while he was leading a protest also drew the ire of the backward castes in the state.

The Congress effort to reach out to the backward castes, however, came to an abrupt end with the removal of Rai from the chief minister's office. This decision deepened the alienation of the OBCs from the Congress. This was the point when the political aspirations of the OBCs were looking for a serious organisation to promote their interests.

As Vandita Mishra wrote:

A new consciousness in the peasantry grew alongside the political mobilisation of the OBC in Bihar by the socialists in the 1930s and 1940s. Bihar became the first state to abolish the zamindari system in 1950 and the benefits of the limited redistribution were reaped by those who owned some land, mainly the upper OBCs. An early challenge to Congress domination in Bihar sprang up in the mid-60s in the form of the Triveni Sangh — an alliance of Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris. The ferment created fertile ground for backward caste mobilisations by Lohiaites in the 1960s and for the JP-led anti-Congress movement that acquired the character of a backward caste consolidation against the upper caste-dominated Congress in the 1970s.

There were many factors behind the inability of the Congress to accommodate the OBCs. Two of the most important ones were the party’s earlier complacency with the “coalition of extremes” formation (upper castes-Dalits-Muslims) and second, the antagonism between the old landed gentry within the Congress and the ascendant upper backwards, who were the principal beneficiaries of the limited land reforms.

The Congress in the 1970s was focused on consolidating its earlier support base which was showing fissures. It was aware of how the landless Dalits, disenchanted with the unfulfilled part of the land reforms, were moving towards the Left parties and even the extremist forces led by Naxal fronts. The party sought to correct the subversion of the Bihar Land Ceiling Act, 1961, with the Ceiling on Land Holdings (Amendment) Act of 1972-73, though the implementation of this Act also faced challenges of stratagems like the benaami zameen that the surplus landholders used.

Along with the unease of taking the upper castes and Dalits together, contradictions were also surfacing with the Muslim support base as in many cases of communal riots, Muslims and Dalits found themselves in the opposing camps of violence against each other. It was important for the Congress to keep the Dalits (constituting around 16 percent of the state population), Muslims (around 16.8 percent of the population) and the upper castes (constituting around 18 percent) to maintain its core base, while hoping to attract a few caste groups among the OBCs.

On the other side of the social coalition spectrum, the post-Emergency Janata Party government, led by Karpoori Thakur, saw an uneasy alliance of parties as well as backwards and upper caste groups which had come together in the wake of the JP movement-led anti-Congress ferment. It had also attracted the sections of Dalits and Muslims who were disillusioned with the Congress.

However, cracks soon appeared and this rupture proved seminal for the course of Bihar politics.

In November 1978, after digging out the Mungeri Lal Commission report of 1976, which the Congress government hadn’t acted upon, and after a revision of his earlier proposal, chief minister Karpoori Thakur announced the “Bihar formula” (also known as Karpoori formula) for OBC reservations in government jobs. The formula for 26 percent reservations applied income ceilings for OBC beneficiaries, reduced OBC quota from 26 to 20, and included three percent reservations for economically backward sections among the upper castes and three percent for women. Within the 20 per cent, eight percent was reserved for the upper backwards among the OBCs, and 12 percent for the lower backwards classified as extremely backward castes (EBCs) like dhobis and nishads.

The announcement triggered protests by upper caste leaders. The JP movement-empowered government was ultimately split wide open between backward-forward lines. Moreover, a perception gained ground that the government had used quota politics to divert attention from its failures on key issues of governance. While this helped the Congress regain its upper caste support base, the massacre of Dalits at Belchhi in Nalanda district in May 1977 by Kurmi landlords, and a spate of a dozen such cases in central and south Bihar in the late ‘70s with a large number of perpetrators belonging to the upper backwards, ensured that Dalits were firmly back in the Congress fold.

Benefiting from the renewed consolidation of its social base and the internal contradictions of the Janata party regime, the Congress had two successive terms (1980-90) with three upper caste chief ministers: Jagannath Mishra, Chandrasekhar Singh and Satyendra Sinha. Indira Gandhi had toned down policies that antagonised the party’s support base among the landed gentry and didn’t do anything aggressive to take land reforms further. Moreover, the Congress was seen procrastinating over the report submitted in 1980 by the Second Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of BP Mandal. The commission, constituted by the Morarji Desai government in 1978, recommended 27 percent reservations for the OBCs in central government jobs and educational institutions.

Along with the need to unite beyond their internal rivalries, the OBC leadership in Bihar found an issue to organise as a force against the Congress government. The attitude of the Congress government during the Bhagalpur riots had also antagonised sections of Muslim voters, while the Ram temple movement added sections of voters across castes to the fold of the BJP, the successor of the Jan Sangh. This was well aided by the anti-graft agitation that was politically organised under the aegis of the Vishwanath Pratap Singh-led Janata Dal at the Centre.

A cumulative beneficiary of all these trends was Lalu Prasad Yadav, who outsmarted Dalit leader Ram Sunder Das in the Janata Dal legislature party to emerge as the chief minister. In the initial phase, he counted on the support of even the BJP, as much as VP Singh’s government did at the Centre. Again, the adhesive of anti-Congressism preceded long-term social alliances.

Yet this was not something new. Even at the beginning of his political career, Lalu had needed the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s support to win the president's post in the Patna University Students Union poll of 1973. His approach to support from the saffron party changed only when he was comfortably placed in power, and that was in the later stages of the Ayodhya kar sewa movement. It was a political moment when he realised how consolidation of Muslim support by strongly opposing the saffron party strengthen his Muslim-OBC support bas.

However, armed with an 11 percent support base of Yadavs among the OBCs and hoping to consolidate 16.8 percent voters from the Muslim community using the anxieties of the Ayodhya movement, Lalu took a definitely rabid anti-upper caste line. Apart from aggressive rhetoric against upper castes, he revised the Karpoori formula in 1992 to do away with any quota for the economically deprived among the upper castes.

The withdrawal of the three percent marked for the economically backward among upper castes led to a redistribution. Under Lalu’s revised formula, within the 26 percent quota, OBCs would get 10 percent instead of eight, EBCs 14 percent instead of 12, and women two percent instead of three. In 1993, a similar readjustment was applied in the state’s Panchayati Raj institutions.

Observers of the shifts in Bihar’s political scene, like journalist Arun Sinha, have pointed out that while Lalu was aware that quotas could only bring jobs to a few thousands, he used the revised formula as a psychological machine to consolidate the OBC-Muslim support base where reservations weren’t an “employment scheme”, but an “empowerment scheme”.

However, Lalu’s opposition to applying the Karpoori formula to the Mandal Commission’s recommendations did not go down well with sections of the OBC leadership in the state, especially the EBCs. Lalu did not support the demand for a quota within a quota, something that defined the Karpoori formula. His political reasoning was, perhaps, the strengthening of the upper backwards-Muslim coalition that Lalu was eyeing to craft for his long-term sustenance as well as to scuttle any chances of challengers among EBCs.

As Arun Sinha wrote:

Implementation of the Mandal recommendations in Bihar superseding the Karpoori formula was going to mean that the small and much poorer EBCs would have to compete with the much advanced BCs for government jobs within the overall 27 percent quota and be inevitable losers. This was a bonanza Lalu wanted to give the upper backwards who were powering his OBC-Muslim coalition.

This line Lalu adopted on Mandal caused fissures among the OBC leadership, a significant section of which was led by Nitish Kumar. In his early days of Lohiaite political action, and as one of the young leaders of the JP movement, Nitish had authored a document for the Yuva Janata, then the youth wing of the Janata Party. Nitish, despite belonging to the Kurmi caste of the upper backwards, was much more alive to the problems and claims of the EBCs. His proposal for a quota within a quota had found its place in the Karpoori formula.

Along with Lalu’s insistence of doing away with the Karpoori formula in implementing the Mandal report, the Yadavisation of governance and party organisation during his rule made it clear that his OBC-Muslim coalition was actually a Yadav-Muslim social alliance — something that was later coined as the famed “M-Y axis” of Bihar’s electoral politics. Law and order and matters of governance were heavy casualties in Lalu’s pursuit of consolidating this social alliance and it resulted in open patronage of crime syndicates.

The general bellicosity in Lalu’s polemics against the upper castes did appeal to certain sections of the Dalit electorate, and its catchment area extended even to accommodate a few upper caste Rajput leaders like Jagatanand Singh, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Kanti Singh. However, its overall impact was a general alienation of non-Yadav sections of the OBC electorate, and a deep antagonism within upper caste voters.

While the Janata Dal split many times to give rise to parties like the Lalu-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (formed in 1997 after Lalu’s alleged involvement in the fodder scam); the Nitish Kumar-led Samta Party (1994), which later merged into the Janata Dal (United) in 2003; and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (2000). These parties crafted or gained support from different social coalitions. While the RJD rarely went beyond its M-Y support base with a sprinkling of Dalit and very limited upper caste support in some constituencies, the growth of the LJP was limited to the relatively well-off Pasi caste (around five percent of the state electorate) within the Dalits, and a few pockets of upper caste support in certain constituencies.

The important project of engineering a new social coalition was left to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and its working alliance with the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance. Before coming to power in November 2005, and in the next 15 years in office (13 of which were with NDA), Nitish brought a new frame for social alliances across different caste groups. Moreover, he even identified the governance- deficit in Lalu’s regime as an opportunity to craft a different form of social coalitions too.

This is part one of a two-part series.

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