The vibrancy of Indian democracy, as a marvel of sorts, is often commented upon by world leaders — particularly from the West — whenever they come visiting. That wide-eyed complimentary tone, ‘oh-you-are-so-great’, hides the perception of a chaotic Asiatic market fair that the country often resembles. Such encomiums to India and its popular, unwavering allegiance to the democratic path in a turmoil-ridden South Asia come especially when that wide eye is focused entirely on one thing: the promise held out by a burgeoning market that begs to be tamed and tweaked into post-modern transactional norms. When that taming takes an inordinate time (or refuses) to happen, India’s abysmally low social indices are thrown up. That’s when the West’s view of this cacophonous vibrancy, always a touch patronising, reveals itself.
Expected to be one more game-changer, in an epoch filled with game-changers, the Bihar election encapsulates these contrary aspects in more ways than one; as a force of democracy, which creates a realignment of social combinations on the ground, and a debate over the ‘development’ paradigm at the top. That the Prime Minister has chosen to make several trips to the poll-bound State and has actually pitted himself — and his style of doing things — against a Chief Minister and virtually an entire opposition phalanx shows what is at stake. All the ideological stance-taking apart, and whichever side of the divide one is on, there’s no denying that the underlying theme is a contest of ideas on how India should develop. Narendra Modi’s announcement of a massive ‘development’ package worth `1.67 lakh crore for Bihar, if voted to power, was seen as the defining masterstroke in this game by analysts. One that stumped the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav duo into a position where they can only demystify the promise as untenable or humiliating, saying that “he behaved as if he was putting Bihar on auction.”
Whether the Nitish team manages it or not, there’s little doubt that the agenda has been set. To carry forward the auction metaphor, a strong bid has been made, and it dares others to top it. Nitish-Lalu and their grand alliance — a tad shaky team of JD(U), RJD, Congress and a sulking NCP — will have to spend the rest of the campaign calculating the damage the dream sum would do and explaining to the electorate that it’s “yet another election jumla (false promise)’’. For Nitish, this becomes a reactive game now. What they themselves have on offer can only be a humbler secondary text. The primary thrust has to be one of negation of the other. That it has dented the Bihar CM and robbed him of his most potent slogan — of being the man who brought development to Bihar — is the obvious lateral damage. But political strategies and counters — the cut, thrust and parry of slogans — and even the way the people receive their meaning are a surface phenomenon. Like wars, elections can galvanise the inner impulses in society and become an inflection point in their evolution.
This Bihar election may be all about a realignment of social groups and the slow, inevitable breakdown of Mandal politics — while it’s a truism that ‘development’ can exacerbate inequalities, it can also bring about an overall churn by creating new aspirational classes ready to challenge the old caste/social order. It’s a matter of some irony that Nitish’s nemesis, if the elections prove to be so, may lie precisely in the politics of economic growth he championed and symbolised for a decade. If Modi manages to project himself as the next step in that ladder of upward mobility, he could be the lucky recipient of the aspirational vote.
Especially since Nitish is tied down in an alliance with his still semi-feudal friend Lalu — a plum target for the ‘jungle raj’ barb, though he is seen by charitable commentators as the one who first liberated Bihar from its age-old caste chains, a precondition for setting it on its modern path, a new freedom Nitish was an inheritor of and built upon. He also has the dead weight of an emaciated Bihar Congress. However, a dichotomy between what he offers in terms of governance and the friends he keeps is not restricted to Nitish alone. Both Modi and Nitish, at the end of the day, are as much products of the Mandal-Mandir politics of the late ‘80s and ‘90s as they are of the newly-minted evangelists and baptising high priests of Manmohanomics and the ideas it represents. So Modi’s central fund-backed growth agenda — if it persuades the Bihar voters to come on board, as it had during the Lok Sabha elections — could bring back the pre-Mandal social order where upper-caste dominance in governance is a given. To an extent, this was visible in the JD(U)-BJP alliance years, a time when outer prosperity masked ‘afsarshahi’ or bureaucrat raj, with its inevitable caste colours, within.
And to carry the paradox into the Nitish camp, if they prevail, a degree of revival of Yadav dominance is inevitable, since Lalu has a more sizeable committed vote-bank than any of the others. Without discounting, of course, that the young Yadav bloc, with the exposure of working in other states, may find Modi a more fashionable option than old-style caste loyalty to Lalu. The mismatch between the old Yadav vote and that of the more disadvantaged caste groups Nitish harnessed in recent years is part of the irony. Thus, the Bihar election may hinge on which among the two socially-politically affluent caste groups — the old elite castes or the Yadavs — gets to dominate the discourse and persuade the 25 per cent economically backward groups to vote along with them.
But it’s a wide open field. The Mahadalits and EBCs, terms coined and championed by Nitish in the last elections, are wooed by all sides now — Jitender Manjhi, the ‘Mahadalit’ CM of Bihar who fell out with Nitish included. As for the famed M-Y combination, if the BJP is trying to slice through the Yadav vote through deserters from the Nitish-Lalu camp, the Ram Kripals and Pappu Yadavs, Asaduddin Owaisi has been set up to act as a spoiler for the Muslim vote. The Congress, in a counter-offensive, is expected to wean away some elite caste votes from the BJP. In this cauldron of caste mobility and power realignments lies the vibrancy of Indian democracy. Why is Bihar important beyond all this? Because its outcome will reset the course of India’s politics. It will affect the future of NDA legislation. It will have spin-offs in the next round of elections in Punjab, Assam, Kerala, UP and West Bengal. A victory for the BJP will act as a fertiliser for other fields, and affect equations in the Rajya Sabha. A defeat will be like a failed monsoon. The outcome, whatever it is, will impact India.
The author is the Political Editor of The New Indian Express