Friday, April 10, 2009

The die is caste

Social engineering” remains the main theme in Bihar's polity as the 15th Lok Sabha elections in the state beckon.

Bihar's elected representatives have had an important part to play in the national legislature for long. True to its recent legacy of “Mandal politics”, the state promises to deliver yet another verdict that is reliant on the correlation of various caste and community based alliances. The main political parties in the state hope to construct a winning alliance of the right combination of caste and community alliances – in other words, “social engineering”.

The performance of the major parties have depended upon their ability to maintain their respective social bases among various castes. Thus, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad is seen as a Yadav and other backward classes dominated party deriving support also from Muslims. The Loktantrik Janata Party (LJP) led by Ram Vilas Paswan has a primary social base that comprises of dalit communities such as the Paswans and the Dhobis. The Janata Dal (United)'s support base is rooted in the Kurmi and Koeri community, and the Bharatiya Janata Party is seen as the party of the upper castes. There has not been much of a shift in the respective social bases of these parties in the state since the last held assembly elections in 2005. The rise of the aforementioned parties in the state has coincided with the historical decline of the catch-all Congress party, which has been reduced to a near irrelevant force now.

To the further detriment of the Congress party, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Bihar unravelled as the RJD and LJP decided to keep the bulk of Lok Sabha constituencies for themselves resulting in the Congress deciding to go it alone. The ruling National Democratic Alliance of the JD(U) and BJP have also finalised a seat sharing arrangement making the elections in the state a battle between between these two alliances even as the parliamentary left parties in the state have come together to form a cohesive United Left Bloc (ULB).

Considering that the LJP fought separately against both the JD(U) and the RJD in the 2005 elections, the coming together of the LJP and the RJD promises to shore up support for the alliance. If the combined vote share (38.9%) of these parties in 2005 is an indicator, the LJP-RJD alliance seems to be on a better footing compared to the ruling NDA (36.9%).

While the JD(U) has harped upon governance and performance of its chief minister, Nitish Kumar as talking points in the elections, the party realises the primal importance of social engineering and has embarked upon it with gusto. The party in government has addressed concerns of some communities such as backward Muslims to garner their support. At the same time, other communities, such as the Koeris and the Brahmins have had causes of resentment with the way Nitish Kumar has ruled – he is seen to be authoritarian and being too reliant on the bureaucracy. The BJP's support base among the upper castes is quite substantial and it has also managed to garner support in the relatively urban pockets of the state. “Social engineering” thus remains the operational strategy for the NDA alliance as it has fielded candidates based on caste equations, even resulting in the dropping of several sitting members of parliament .

The Muslim-Yadav base of the RJD and the dalit base of the LJP is indeed formidable and this factor is seen to favour the RJD-LJP alliance. Lalu Prasad's party might have lost the assembly elections in 2005 after 15 years of rule, but his support base had endured and so is the case before these elections. The alliance was weakened by the exit of the Congress from the seat sharing strategy, but in any case the traditional support base of the Congress, particularly the Muslims (ever since the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992) have gravitated toward the RJD. After the break up of the Congress' alliance with the RJD – the RJD has put up candidates in the seats that it had offered to Congress, ensuring the further marginalisation of the latter. The RJD and the LJP however assure that they are firmly with the UPA and along with the Samajwadi Party have formed a bloc of parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The fledgling alliance between the parliamentary left parties strives to provide a promising alternative to the identity-based mobilisations of the other main parties in the state. The Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the strongest left outfit in the state -the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)- Liberation have finally found common ground and have formed an United Left Bloc, which fancies its chances in some traditional left strongholds in the state.

Unlike other parties, the left Bloc has tried to mobilise people on the basis of issues such as relief to people affected by the Kosi floods, problems faced by public sector employees and other livelihood related issues in the lowly developed state. While the parties in the Bloc play down expectations for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, they are confident of building an issues-based alternative to the mainstream political parties in the state and are keen on positioning themselves well for the next assembly elections. The performance of this left Bloc would ultimately determine the shift from the primordial identity based politics that has dominated the state.

Draft of editorial written in the Economic & Political Weekly . The final version can be read here

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