How Nitish Kumar built new social coalitions during his 15 years in power

From cracks in OBC and Dalit vote share to governance failures, how Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tenure gave way to Nitish.

ByAnand Vardhan
How Nitish Kumar built new social coalitions during his 15 years in power
Shambhavi Thakur
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At the turn of this century, the process of building new or consolidating old social coalitions in Bihar politics was at an inflection point. This was due to immediate as well as cumulative factors for alignment, realignment and even dealignment.

As detailed in Part 1 of this piece, the various forms of social configurations tried by political parties were now being recalibrated due to four key factors.

First, the tilt towards upper-backwards, and particularly the dominance of the Yadavs and the Ashrafs (the upper crust of the state’s Muslim population), had exposed gaps and resentment even within the OBC-Muslim axis of social alliance powering the incumbent Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal. The RJD’s reliance on the M-Y axis was seen as a betrayal of the wider Lohiaite approach of the late 1960s.

Moreover, the non-Yadav caste groups within the vast OBC bloc (accounting for around 51 percent of the state population), as much as those outside it, were viewing the RJD power arrangements as a deceptive departure from the social coalition that the 1970s’ JP movement had helped in expanding. The patronage system — contracts, appointments, transfers, fund allocations — were seen as being hijacked by the powerful Yadav leadership.

Significantly, the Lalu regime’s refusal to push for the application of the Bihar formula — also known as Karpoori Thakur formula of 1978 — in the deliberations over the Mandal quota didn’t go down well with the extremely backward castes, or EBCs. While the Karpoori formula was seen as more sympathetic to the diverse claims and different conditions of the EBCs, among the OBCs, the centrally mandated Mandal quota in Bihar was seen as benefiting the upper backwards only.

The reluctance of the then influential OBC leadership in Bihar to raise this issue was alienating the EBCs. The representation of the EBCs in the Bihar legislature was also low, although Lalu was reelected comfortably for his second term in 1995 and cobbled together a majority in 2000.

Second, the sections of Dalit voters that were no longer the captive electorate for the Congress and the Left parties, including a few extremist fronts, were now getting disillusioned with the Lalu regime too. A large section of non-Paswan Dalit voters had no reason to even support Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party. Hence, the LJP’s support base was confined to the Paswans among the Dalits.

Moreover, it was becoming clear to the Dalits that the psychological gains of Lalu’s anti-upper caste bellicosity could not compensate for the benefits that the dominant Yadav leadership had cornered for the M-Y axis. Additionally, they saw that in the vast agricultural swathes of rural Bihar, the upper backwards like the Yadavs had risen from being their competitors to being the dominant landowners and political masters.

Third, Lalu’s approach of coopting local influential Muslim leaders started pandering to rogue musclemen, like the former RJD MP from Siwan, Mohammad Shahabuddin. Among a growing section of the electorate, this dubious strategy of consolidating secular votes was perceived as minority appeasement.

Fourth, and very significantly, in the post-liberalisation phase when other states were vying for new models of growth, the Lalu-led RJD demonised development as an elitist aspiration, even an upper-caste conspiracy to discredit its rule. As Bihar slipped into a form of functioning anarchy, brought on by the erosion of any semblance of will to enforce law and order, the issues of governance and development became irrelevant for a government smug about its core electoral politics of social empowerment of its base voters.

The obvious governance-deficit created its own opening for weaving an alliance of the sections of the electorate across different social groups which were demanding the reversal of the collapse of law and order, and asking for a correction in the relegation of development to the bottom of the incumbent government’s agenda.

In varying degrees, all these factors went into the broader social coalition that Nitish Kumar tried crafting over a number of years to dislodge the RJD-led government in Patna. While in organisational terms he merged, and eventually controlled, his Samta Party into the Janata Dal (United), the building of a social alliance was work he kept pursuing.

It was easy enough for Nitish to discern the importance of the EBCs in an OBC-led front, since he was one of the conceptual contributors to the Bihar formula. Also, in the late Seventies, Nitish’s writings in Samayik Varta, a Patna-based Hindi fortnightly of contemporary Lohiaite thought, had made it clear that EBCs were going to be an important part of his imagination of OBC socioeconomic empowerment. He was ideologically as well as strategically aware of the post-Mandal surversion of the EBC claims in the RJD-led Yadav dominance of OBC politics of Bihar in the ‘90s.

Lalu had a headstart — with his own caste group of the Yadavs constituting 11 percent of the electorate — before trying to attract Muslim votes (16.8 percent) and other groups for a winning formula. However, Nitish’s own caste group, the Kurmis, had a very small share of the electorate, around three percent. That made the formation of a non-Yadav OBC coalition, with upper backwards like Kurmis, Keoris and EBCs, strategically imperative.

Moreover, even a section of Yadavs, either left out of Lalu’s patronage system or yearning for better governance, was courted by the emerging social coalition. Similarly, the lower section of Muslims (Pasmandas) had a long-standing grievance that the benefits of the M-Y axis were being cornered by the Ashrafs ( Syeds, Pathans, etc) within their community.

Besides this, there was a social constituency that had resulted from the rabid anti-upper caste line in Lalu’s polemics as well as policies, still recalled with his alleged exhortation of the acronym that talked about eliminating upper castes: “BHURA BAAL saaf karo”, referring to the Bhumihar, Rajput, Brahmin and Laala kayasthas in Bihar. Even though Nitish was a lifelong campaigner for the Lohiaite “sainkre saath” formulation of socialist consolidation — OBCs, Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis — he had never resorted to such an abrasive, hostile line against the upper castes. Only a small section of upper caste leaders, primarily those benefiting from the personal patronage or offices in the Lalu regime, showed some support to the RJD.

Along with these constituents, Nitish’s reputation as an able administrator and doer was bolstered by a number of projects in Bihar that he was credited with implementing as railways and agriculture minister in the Vajapayee government at the Centre. This appealed to his across-caste constituency of governance. His alliance with Bihar on his own terms meant that he could leverage the saffron party’s support across upper castes, some sections of OBCs, and even a small section of Dalits. The alliance also meant that he could pose a counter by courting a section of Muslims (particularly the Pasmanda section) without being seen as kowtowing to an appeasement line associated with the RJD.

After twice coming close to the seat of power — in 2000 and the dissolved assembly of February 2005 — the Nitish-led NDA finally clinched power at Patna in November 2005. The broad social coalition he had crafted over the years, and his increasing popularity as a symbol of change in governance, had carried the day for him, though he was aware that the RJD-led combine was still a numerically formidable force and was waiting to make a political comeback. While Nitish focused on the wide range of challenges confronting the state, from governance to law and order, he kept an eye on social engineering to sustain his Lohiaite project as well as a longer innings in power.

In 2005, the representation of EBCs in the Bihar Assembly was at an all-time high of 19, though far away from a group of castes that constituted around 30 percent of state population and comprised around around 130 small caste groups like the Dhanuks, Kumhars, Kahars, Noniyas, Kewats, Nais, Mallahs, Paneris, Telis, Tatmas, to name a few. In envisaging various new welfare programmes of the state government, including Panchayat Raj institutions, the EBCs were identified as one of the key beneficiaries.

Second, it was Nitish’s policy of recognising Mahadalits as a separate social bloc that was seen as his most defined attempt at carving a distinct support base. In 2007, following the recommendations of Bihar State Mahadalit Commission, his government included 18 scheduled castes to this new social conglomerate for the specific targeting of socioeconomic welfare measures. Later, it was extended to 20 scheduled castes, excluding the Paswans (Duasadhs).

However, in 2018, even the Paswans were made part of this umbrella category and hence, for all practical purposes, the distinction between Dalits and Mahadalits disappeared. The Nitish government made the constituents of the Mahadalits prime beneficiaries of specific housing as well as educational programmes, including scholarships, free school uniforms and affordable educational loans for further studies. Within the Dalits (constituting around 16 percent of the state population), the relatively well-placed Paswans made up five percent of the population (the key support base of the LJP). The rest of the castes, constituting the Mahadalits, were now the new social constituency that was seen as a product of Nitish’s social engineering.

Despite an alliance with the BJP, Nitish made efforts to carve a support base among sections of the Muslim population, especially among the Pasmanda Muslims, having lower social and economic status, who had been ignored while Lalu had been cultivating the inflential Ashraf section to consolidate his M-Y axis. He initiated a slew of welfare programmes for Muslims, especially targeted at the Pasmanda section: grant-in-aid for Muslim students, residential training schools for boys and girls, Hazrat Fatima skill development programmes, and the Mukhya Mantri Shram Shakti scheme for minorities.

Along with this, the state’s development, as noted earlier, was itself a social constituency among the electorate and it was being anchored by Nitish invoking “Bihari pride” to extricate the state from its fall from glory.

As I wrote in a previous piece:

“The surfacing of Bihari identity has generally taken two forms in public discourse. The first, obviously, has been recalling the state's glorious past. However, the second form of the invocation of this identity is more contemporary. It can be seen as a response to, even a backlash against, the abusive language and disdainful attitude towards the Bihari migrant workforce in different parts of the country. Moreover, the stereotyping of an average Bihari, and general conditions of poverty and lack of economic development confronting the populace of the state, also contributed to the feeling of cohabiting a region marked by a benighted state of affairs.

It’s in this context that in 1992, scholar Arvind N Das spotted a form of identity emerging. ‘In Bihar too, in a slow and almost intangible way, a collective identity appears to be emerging,” he wrote in his work The Republic of Bihar.

“It’s this form of Bihari identity and the need to restore its dignity that Nitish Kumar talked about in his first statement after leading the NDA to a landslide win in the November 2005 Assembly poll. He expressed the resolve to show the strength and capability — “qubbat” and “samarthya” — of the people of the state. In the early years of the previous decade, Kumar blended his developmental plank with the invocation of larger Bihari interests as he sought to widen the support for a special category status for Bihar — a recognition by the Centre that could entitle the state to far more assistance from the central government.”

While the fusion of the development plank with a cross-section of Bihari identity could still be an abstract task, Nitish was simultaneously counting on his efforts at weaving different constituents of his new social coalition into a support base.

The subsequent Assembly elections in 2010 and 2015 with different allies — the BJP and the RJD, respectively — showed that Nitish had made inroads into the support of the EBCs and certain sections of Mahadalits. However, post-poll survey data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that despite being diminished to a degree in 2010, the M-Y base was still intact for RJD. In 2015, the alliance with the JD(U) ensured that it wasn’t tested vis-à-vis Nitish’s new support base. However, in the Lok Sabha poll, the inroads made by the BJP in the OBC vote (including Yadavs) and a section of Dalits was also evident.

With the JD(U) back in the NDA fold, the recovery of Nitish’s small segments of support within Muslims, however, has had different outcomes in different elections. It also entailed that he recalibrated his ways of handling alliance politics with the BJP-led NDA.

A parallel development accompanying the reimagining of OBC politics during the last 15 years has been the emergence of new leaders representing small sections of upper backwards and EBCs. Within upper backwards, Upendra Kuswaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, seeking a support base among the Koeris, had switched sides between the NDA and the RJD-led Grand Alliance in the last Assembly and Lok Sabha polls before charting its independent course in the ongoing Assembly poll. Within the EBCs, Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party, claiming support base among the Mallahs (Nishads), also switched sides from the Grand Alliance in the last Lok Sabha poll to the NDA in the ongoing poll. Within the Mahadalits, former JD(U) leader Jitan Ram Manjhi — who had a brief stint in the chief minister’s office as a stopgap arrangement — later broke off to form his own Hindustani Awam Morcha which aligned with the Grand Alliance during the Lok Sabha poll but now stands with the NDA.

However, political analysts in the state are sceptical of the reach and strategies of these new parties. Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute, told the Times of India:

“This is because their parties are not products of a movement; so, the credibility of these parties even as a promoter of their own social group is very limited. The seat sharing delay was primarily because these smaller parties were overestimating their political strengths. Sometimes, they also demand more seats, not for contesting, but to sell them for monetary considerations. The mainstream parties, thus, treat them with suspicion; in case they win some seats, they can join the rival side.”

As the alignment and dealignment of social constituents of political contest in Bihar enter a new phase of flux, the variables and constants of building, as well as consolidating, social alliances is the project engaging the serious contenders for power.

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