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Bihar: Is caste more important than economic growth these Lok Sabha polls?

Monday, 5 May 2014 - 7:45pm IST | Place: Patna | Agency: dna

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While it is early to write an epitaph for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a visible trend one can gather travelling across the state, is that his arch rival the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav is back with a bang. In the midst of the Modi factor, Lalu has unexpectedly not only turned his own fortunes from scratch, fighting neck-and-neck, but has given hope to his fledgling ally, the Congress, as well. 

But the expected outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls will raise an important question in Bihar: are caste or community more powerful than economic growth and development? Neither the 12% growth rate nor the network of roads to towns and villages or the improved electricity and the law and order situation is coming to Kumar’s rescue, though people remember Lalu’s regime as a “nightmare”.

Dr Sanjay Jha, a senior fellow at the Patna-based think-tank AN Sinha Institute tells dna that despite all good work, the absence of a caste combination is throwing Nitish out of the electoral fray. “The pitfalls of this elections is that political parties, henceforth, will bank more on caste combinations rather to focus on development works,” he said. But Jha is hopeful Nitish will return with vehemence during the assembly elections, as there is no matching regional leader in the RJD and even in the BJP of his mettle. While Modi may be a phenomenon in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, in Bihar there are stronger forces to blunt his edge.

Admitting that the emergence of Lalu in 1989 was a turning point, as he gave voice to the oppressed, Ranjit Nirguni, a member of the zilla parishad (district council) of Samastipur maintained that Lalu had promised to undertake land reforms. But after taking over, he found 230 MLAs out of a total of 324 belonging to landlord communities. “He ended the rule of the upper castes, but then had no vision thereafter,” he said.

Educated in Delhi, Nirguni, belonging to the influential Bhoomihar caste, has returned to his village to do social work. He believes upper castes should take responsibility to break caste barriers and create a sense of dignity amongst other castes, in order to breach identity politics. He had to toil hard in his village Shahzadpur to convince farmers to switch from cultivation of wheat to rearing fish, which was seen a lowly profession held by low caste Mallahs. “We have 9.5 lakh hectares of low lying areas against 3 lakh hectares in Andhra Pradesh. I had to convince them that one begha of land yields them 10 quintals of wheat costing Rs 15,000, but the same land can yield them fish worth Rs 3 lakh bi-annually,” said Nirguni.

Nirguni believes migration is largely not due to economics, but to escape from humiliation and break caste barriers. “Those lower caste people working elsewhere return to our villages during the holidays and look at us in the eye when they speak with us, unlike those lower caste people who live in the villages,” he said.

Social scientist Professor Sachidanand Singh says people in Bihar had given Lalu a chance to lead them, but he first reduced himself to becoming the leader of a caste, and then further confined himself to lead his own family. Though Nitish did provide security and development, there is no end to aspirations. Professor Dharminder Kumar at the Dharbhanga-based Mithila University disagrees that Nitish had focused only on development. He was also the product of a similar social engineering, combining upper caste and backward (other than Yadavs). But his severing of ties with the NDA has distanced the upper castes from him. He was trying to address the minority block, but they have ditched him.

Madhubani-based socialist leader Siya Ram Yadav, who has seen Lalu’s emergence in politics, recalls that in 1989 Sharad Yadav had convinced then deputy prime minister Devi Lal to put stakes on him rather on Dalit leader Ram Sunder Das. “They found Lalu easily manageable, and at a meeting Sharad told Devi Lal they can use Lalu the way they like,” recalls the elderly Yadav, who has held key position in the Janata Party and later in the Janata Dal. From him, the downfall of Nitish lies in his overdependence on bureaucracy rather on political workers.

But Professor Abuzar Kamaluddin, the principal of the Muzaffarpur-based MP Sinha College, believes that overconfidence and disregard to caste sensitivity has let the BJP down in the state. “They will perform, but not to the extent we had expected. In North Bihar, they have not fielded a single Bhoomihar candidate, and had not taken into view the Muslim-Yadav consolidation,” he said. He professor laments that while every community was seeking empowerment and participation, Muslims still were confined in demanding and seeking security for themselves, which was bad for their psyche. “Someone who comes to power needs to address this issue, to allow them to vote like any other community and not out of fear,” concludes the professor.

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