Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a `1.25 lakh crore package for the development of election-bound Bihar is a political masterstroke. Announcing it at Arrah, he promised to bring about a ‘sea change’ in Bihar’s social landscape, fast-tracking development projects, upgrading skills of youth and creating employment. This indicates a subtle shift in the BJP’s electoral strategy in the run-up to the state Assembly elections. Team Modi is seeking to alter the political narrative in Bihar’s caste-ridden society, heightening the party’s development pitch in an outreach to the state’s aspirational voter beyond caste lines.
Modi’s package, covering sectors like farmers’ welfare, education, skill development, health, electricity, rural roads, highways, railways, airports, digital Bihar, petroleum and tourism has denied Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar a key plank and tried to reach out to a wider audience.
This was Modi’s third visit to Bihar and BJP supporters as well as opponents were expecting some announcement before the declaration of the election schedule by the Election Commission. But the astronomical sum beyond state BJP leaders’ wildest expectations and left the party’s rivals stunned. Expectedly, JD(U) and Rashtriya Janata Dal chiefs Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad reacted with disdain. The way Modi announced the package made it look like an auction of Bihar was being held and bids being made—this was Nitish’s cryptic reaction. Lalu dubbed it “another political jumla for people of Bihar by Jumla Babu”.
The political significance of the Bihar elections for the BJP is apparent from the fact that Modi held rallies in Arrah and Saharsa hours after his return from a hectic two-day visit to the UAE. By speaking at length on issues of pride and prejudice, Modi has set the stage for a running battle with the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine, which proposes a Swabhimaan rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on August 29. Modi will return to Bihar in the communally-sensitive Bhagalpur town on September 1 to continue his diatribe against the combine.
However, it remains to be seen if the development plan will be able to override the role of caste in Bihar’s electoral politics as it did in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Though caste divisions are an entrenched feature of the social structure of the state and they determine access of the people to resources, the association of caste has been changing.
Because of strong socialist and communist movements in the state, caste was not a dominant factor in politics till the late ’80s, and leaders like Acharya Kripalani, Ashok Mehta, Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes successfully contested polls in Bihar despite being outsiders. It emerged as a decisive factor during the ’80s and early ’90s during the social justice movements against the upper caste-dominated Congress through backward caste mobilisations that catapulted Lalu Prasad to power. Lalu’s ouster by the JD(U)-BJP coalition was the beginning of the change, cracking up the backward caste consolidation. During the Assembly elections of 2005 and 2010, the JD(U)-BJP coalition qualitatively changed the political discourse of Bihar by making development-related issues more prominent.
Bihar’s experience shows caste and development can coexist and even thrive together. The NDA coalition of JD(U) and BJP worked hard to bring most of the non-Yadav castes into their fold and built the ‘coalition of extremes’. Caste had gone below the surface as the coalition matured. This became apparent as soon as Nitish broke the coalition in 2013 and the BJP led by Modi swept the 2014 polls.
Most political parties in Bihar have realised that the Lalu era strategy of bonding with some caste groups and pitting them against others isn’t going to work in the changed circumstances. An interesting feature of the current electioneering is that all parties are competing to woo voters across caste barriers and trying to bring issues of development and governance to the centre stage of the political discourse.
Gaur is a former Allahabad University professor and women rights activist