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Bihar Polls: PM Modi's 'Caste vs Development' Battle Cry Is Misleading

07/11/2015 5:35 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
SAIFAI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 21: Prime minister Narendera Modi, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, SP national president Mulayam Singh Yadav and UP Governor Ram Naik showering flower petals during the pre-wedding ceremony of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav's grandnephew Tej Pratap Yadav on February 21, 2015 in Saifai, India. Mr. Tej Pratap is marrying Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav's youngest daughter. (Photo by Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Even as the battle for Bihar enters it's final phase, the media and political commentators have continued to portray the contest as one of caste versus development. On the one hand, the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has appropriated the development plank, warning their constituencies of the return of Jungle Raj if the Mahagathbandhan were to come to power. On the other hand, Lalu Prasad queered the pitch for the Mahagathbandhan by describing the elections as a battle between the Backwards and the Forwards.

If the NDA politicians are hard-pressed to convince Bihari voters that the political alignment of their State with Delhi would enhance development, the leaders of the Mahagathbandhan promise their audiences that they will usher in Mandal Raj Part Two. The differences between the political rhetoric of the opposing political parties are easily conflated as a contest between the issue-based politics of the NDA and the identity-based politics of the Mahagathbandhan.

Such a dichotomy is patently false. While it has now become a cliché to condemn Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav for presiding over Bihar's supposed descent into lawlessness, his achievements cannot be overlooked. A report co-authored by Aravind Panagriya, currently the Chairperson of the Planning Commission, reveals that poverty headcounts in rural Bihar declined. The report presents data using two measures of poverty headcounts.

According to the Lakdawala measure, which measures poverty rates on the basis of the Uniform Recall Period, poverty rate in rural Bihar fell from 58% in 1993-4 to 42% in 2004-5 (Table B1). As per the Tendulkar measure, which measures poverty on the basis of the Mixed Recall Period, poverty rate in rural Bihar declined from 62.3% to 55.7% (Table B7)

Mr. Yadav's reign instilled a sense of social confidence among the State's vast majority of labouring and impoverished populations, chiefly of the Backward Castes and the Dalits. He shifted primary schools hitherto located in Savarna neighbourhoods into hamlets of Dalits and Backward Castes. Hindu-Muslim riots were rare. He reined in police intervention when Dalit landless labourers occupied properties illegally held by landlords in violation of ceiling acts.

Mr. Yadav was less successful in preventing atrocities by the Ranavir Sena and other Savarna militas on Dalits and Backward Castes. The violence perpetrated by these militias reflected their reaction to assertions by subaltern groups demanding fairness in social and economic transactions, assertions that were bolstered by Mr. Yadav's ascension in Patna. His political rhetoric underpinning social dignity bolstered the morale of the impoverished mass of rural Bihar in quite considerable, and somewhat unpredictable ways.

Against his critics accusing him of not doing enough for development, Mr. Yadav claimed

'Vikas nahin samman chahiye' (we want dignity, not development)

His messages live on in ways he might not predicted. It is common for researchers to hear from impoverished, often Dalit, women in the Bihar countryside:

Vikas hua hai, badlaw aaya hai. Abhi hum jamindar ke ankhon mein ankh daal kar

baat kar barabari se saktey hain.

[Development has taken place. Change has happened. Today, we can look the

landlord in the eye and speak as equals]

Even as he ostensibly eschewed development, Mr. Yadav's political symbolisms quite considerably improved the development capabilities of Bihar's rural population.While endorsing the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the United Nations in September this year, world leaders recognised that the dignity of the human person is fundamental.

Seen in this light, the contribution of Mr. Yadav's fifteen-year rule cannot be undermined. The achievements under Mr. Nitish Kumar's decade-long rule would not have been possible without the foundations laid by Mr. Yadav.

Let us now turn to the NDA's self-styled development platform. The less said on this count the better. Even as the State was recovering from Mr. Amit Shah's 'fireworks in Pakistan' comment, came Mr. Modi's irrelevant insinuations that Mr. Yadav has betrayed the Yadav community by promoting beef-eating.

His unfounded allegation that the Mahagathbandhan sought to 'snatch' reservations from Dalits and OBCs to hand them over to Muslims must surely county as the most cynical manifestation of identity politics. The NDA's latest salvo is the advertisement denigrating the liberties upheld by such leaders as Mr Yadav, the Chief Ministerial candidate Mr. Kumar and their Congress ally Mr. Sidaramaiah. There is little in the NDA's campaign that warrants it being labelled as developmental in its orientation.

In contrast, by insisting that affirmative action policies be widened in scope, Mr Yadav and his allies remind their audiences that the benefits of development have to be shared across classes and communities. By insisting that the caste component of the socio-economic caste census be made public and be used to inform policy, the Mahagathbandhan makes a case for just and equitable development. The NDA's campaign on the other hand smacks of the most vitriolic symbolisms of identity politics. In this context, the portrayals in the media and by political commentators of the two campaigns is surreal at best and farcical at worst.

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