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The Caste-Aways: How Nitish Kumar Gained From Lalu's Rise And Fall

22/07/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar smiles at press conference after the National Democratic Alliance won the majority of seats in the Bihar state elections, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005. Kumar, would-be chief minister of Bihar Tuesday indentifed good governance as his foremost task, according to news agency reports. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Not many people find good things to say about Bihar. Even though most northern and eastern Indian states are economically poor, none is as emblematic of the damage that caste, colonialism, and the ill-conceived industrial policies of governments at the Centre (at least in the early decades of independence) have done to the country. While some things have improved, thanks to the public sector-driven economic progress made in the last one decade by the socialist Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, there is near-unanimity when it comes to popular opinion on Nitish's fellow socialist Lalu Prasad Yadav, who ruled Bihar, directly and indirectly, for 15 years between 1990 and 2005.

Lalu's era is sometimes referred to as "Jungle Raj", anarchy. "Indeed, things were now so bad that the criminals and the politicians of the state were said to be virtually interchangeable," wrote William Dalrymple in his popular 1997 essay The Age of Kali. Outsiders who found themselves in Lalu's Bihar made it a point to contrast its glorious historic legacy -- world's oldest republic, world's oldest university -- with a wretched present.

"Murders and kidnappings were common. It was unsafe to walk the streets of Patna after dark. It was unsafe to drive in many districts even during the day," recalled Ramachandra Guha of Lalu years in his Telegraph column in 2014. "Fifteen years of rule by Lalu Prasad and his family had depleted the state's finances and demoralised the bureaucracy." While some of it might be an exaggeration, my upper-caste parents and relatives who lived in Bihar in the 1990s would readily agree with both the popular commentators.

"Lalu's biggest project was the demolition of upper-caste hegemony, immortalised in his popular slogan 'Bhurabal Hatao!'"

And yet, the Jungle Raj narrative also risks being a serious oversimplification: it often paints lower-caste politicians -- Yadavs especially -- simply as illiterate manipulators who invoke caste identities to acquire power and loot public resources for petty personal gains.

The term has again become relevant since friends-turned-foes Lalu and Nitish, out of a desperation that followed the BJP's extraordinary performance in the 2014 general elections, have come together once more to contest the upcoming state assembly election in October this year. Can the JD(U) star and development man Nitish and RJD chief Lalu--the man behind Jungle Raj -- ever get used to each other's way of functioning?

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Nitish, the 2015 chief ministerial candidate of the JD(U)-RJD coalition (Photo: Abhishek Choudhary)

To make sense of this we need to examine certain old stereotypes. The questions that have in the past been obscured in the din of Jungle Raj tales are: Why did Lalu leave governance in tatters and focus solely on what he called samajik nyay (social justice) for the lower castes? (One could also ask how much better Bihar fared in matters of governance in the years preceding Lalu, when it had mostly upper-caste chief ministers.) Did Lalu not know that sooner or later the majority of voters would get weary of the samajik nyayrhetoric and ask for other things -- better schools and hospitals, less corrupt ration dealers, maybe some petty employment?

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The permanent settlement of land revenue introduced by the British in 1793 had led to the creation of a landlord class in Bihar. Belonging to mostly upper castes, these zamindars exploited the lower castes and were in turn subservient to the colonial government.

After independence, however, the zamindari system was abolished. In his seminal 2013 book Democracy against Development: Lower Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India, anthropologist Jeffrey Witsoe argues that an improving economic status of middle-caste cultivators in the early decades of independence "progressively weakened the patronage relationships binding the small cultivators and bonded labourers to landlords." The Congress, which had so far relied almost completely on the upper castes -- and the patronage they exercised on lower castes -- to deliver votes weakened. The new combination had upper castes, Muslims and Dalits, the last of which Congress attempted to woo through its anti-poverty rhetoric. But this strategy left out the newly rich middle-caste cultivators: "it was this neglected middle that was successfully mobilised by the socialist movement."

"Rather than recruit upper castes he [Lalu] simply let public institutions wither..."

In this sense the Jayaprakash Narayan movement of 1975 laid the foundation for other backward castes (OBC) leadership in Bihar. All four major leaders of the state -- Nitish, Lalu, Sushil Modi (BJP) and Ram Vilas Paswan (LJP) -- are the alumni of the JP movement. Paswan is a Dalit, the others are OBCs.

Lalu's ascent to power in 1990 coincided with the controversy surrounding the Mandal Commission's recommendations which reserved 27% seats for the OBCs in government jobs: Lalu supported the recommendations belligerently, and earned the trust of the lower castes. "The socialist tradition of the Janata Dal became secondary to the party's image as a backward-caste government headed by Lalu," writes Witsoe. In the same year, when the BJP leader L K Advani began a rath yatra from Gujarat in support of the Hindu nationalist movement, he was arrested by Lalu before he could reach Ayodhya: this gesture gained him the trust of Muslims of Bihar. It was exactly this combination of votes from OBCs (Yadavs especially) and Muslims that would help him rule Bihar for the next 15 years.

Lalu's biggest project was the demolition of upper-caste hegemony, immortalised in his popular slogan "Bhurabal Hatao!" Bhurabal stands for the four upper-castes -- Bhumihars, Rajputs, Brahmins and Lalas (Kayasthas). This, Witsoe points out, was in a contrast to the "Garibi Hatao" slogan of Indira Gandhi, showing how "the development discourse of antipoverty schemes and state planning had been replaced with appeals for caste struggle."

"[W]eakened public institutions gave rise to a politician-criminal breed that enjoyed community support and could also raise funds for the party."

One of the reasons why Lalu never focused on governance was that while the lower castes displaced the upper castes in politics, the bureaucracy was still dominated by upper castes: For the year 2002, Witsoe calculated that out of 224 IAS officers from Bihar cadre, an overwhelming 133 officers belonged to the four upper castes. The three largest groups in the OBC category -- Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris--had only seven officers. But when Witsoe looked at the caste composition of Bihar's state assembly, he found out that out of a total of 234 MLAs, 100 belonged to the three OBC categories and 54 belonged to the four upper castes.

The contrast between Yadavs and Kayasthas was extraordinary: there were only four Yadav IAS officers against 54 Kayasthas (and all four had been promoted from the state level administrative service); on the other hand, there were 64 Yadav MLAs against only three Kayasthas. It was slightly ironical, considering both of Bihar's tallest political leaders of the 20th century -- Rajendra Prasad and JP -- were Kayasthas.

Last month I attended a "Kayastha samagam (gathering)" in Patna. Less than 2% of the state's population, this upper-caste community has a disproportionately high representation in bureaucracy and academia. And yet, one of the first speakers at the gathering lamented that the community "no longer has the izzat, honour, in society that it had in the past."

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A "Kayastha Samagam" in Patna in June 2015 (Photo: Abhishek Choudhary)

Lalu gave key administrative roles to the OBCs, Muslims, and the scheduled caste officers. Upper-caste bureaucrats who didn't toe the line were frequently transferred. When unable to recruit lower-caste officers, he chose to leave some of the crucial positions in various departments vacant. Rather than recruit upper castes he simply let public institutions wither: "Lalu's popular anti-development rhetoric only makes sense when considering the role of development resources in reinforcing upper-caste dominance," argues Witsoe. "He systematically weakened upper-caste controlled state institutions and shifted power from upper-caste bureaucrats and police to lower-caste bureaucrats and political networks." Political scientist Milan Vaishnav brilliantly captured how weakened public institutions gave rise to a politician-criminal breed that enjoyed community support and could also raise funds for the party.

But then why didn't other middle and lower castes -- Dalits especially -- benefit from Lalu's rule? Lalu successfully politicised all the lower castes for the first time. His government depended on, as well as had leaders from, the elites among OBCs -- the middle-to-large farmers who were the beneficiaries of the zamindari abolition and the green revolution. For this reason, even basic land reforms, which could have significantly transformed production relations, and ultimately agrarian productivity, never took place. In the end, it was this resentment against Yadavs that led to Lalu's eventual fall in 2005.

"[I]t was only the weakening of upper-caste supremacy during Lalu that made trusting upper-caste bureaucrats palatable for team Nitish."

The NDA government led by Nitish Kumar that came to power later that year was said to be a coalition of extremes: Nitish's supporters were a mix of non-Yadav backward castes (Koeris, Kurmis -Nitish's community -- and a few others) and a section of Dalits and Muslims; the partner BJP, on the other hand, relied mostly on the four Hindu upper castes. Nitish revived the bureaucracy, built roads and bridges, jailed criminals of all hues (including some from his own party).

In retrospect, though, it was 15 years of Lalu's rule, Witsoe argues, that made backing Nitish acceptable for the upper castes. Similarly, it was only the weakening of upper-caste supremacy during Lalu that made trusting upper-caste bureaucrats palatable for team Nitish. All was well until 2013 when Nitish broke his party Janata Dal (United)'s coalition with the BJP over Narendra Modi's ascension as the prime ministerial candidate.

The BJP currently has three low-caste coalition partners in Ram Vilas Paswan, Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi to counter the Lalu-Nitish duo in the assembly elections. In all probability the 2015 elections are going to be a close contest. But, irrespective of whichever coalition wins, a deeper understanding of the extraordinary rise and the inevitable fall of Lalu between 1990 and 2005 would be useful to successive governments in Bihar as well as commentators everywhere.

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