Review Essay —Post-Mandal Politics in Bihar: Changing Electoral Patterns

By Mohammad Sajjad

In recent decades professionally renowned publication houses have brought out rigorous scholarly studies on Bihar. Political stuff on Bihar is devoured by the Biharis— its diaspora as well as the non-Bihari intelligentsia and literati, included. Bihari electorates—educated or not—are supposed to be quite alert and informed about discussing politics, notwithstanding its economic and educational backwardness. Thus knowledge production on Bihar has got a good consumer and market.

Professor Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS-Lokniti is by now a better known name not only among the academics, journalists, other literati and the politicos, but also far beyond these segments, because of his regular interventions in TV and print media and web-portals.   

Equipped with huge data on election studies collected by the CSDS-Lokniti, Sanjay and his colleagues are better placed to dish out such stuff. With growing and deepening regionalization of Indian politics (particularly since the 1990s, when this trend spread beyond the southern provinces), studies on changing electoral and political dynamics in India’s provinces is indeed a welcome step by the Sage. That Bihar happens to be the first province to have drawn the attention of the series is really heartening. Famous journalist and academic, Arvind Narayan Das (1948-2000) never tired of repeating John Houlton’s remark about Bihar being the heart of India. 

In this book under review, an 18 page long introductory essay puts the study in perspective. Equally helpful is the concluding chapter on the question of development or identity in the elections of 2014 (Lok Sabha) and 2015 (Assembly). The second chapter focussing on the social and economic history and the third one encapsulating electoral history, political processes and emergence of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) familiarise us with the centrality of caste-based graded hierarchy in politics.

So far as the political processes of post-independence Bihar is concerned, finest of the academic studies are by Francine R. Frankel’s essay in an anthology (1989) co-edited by her (Dominance and State Power in India: Decline of a Social Order), Harry W. Blair (whose essays remain scattered largely in academic journals and anthologies, which are much needed to be compiled in a single volume), Arvind N. Das and Atul Kohli’s chapter, “Breakdown in a backward State: Bihar”, in his book, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability (1991). In fact, some essays of Blair and a chapter of Kohli provides a better understanding and empirical/statistical details about the mis-governance and de-development—ruin of Bihar—in the decades preceding immediately before the advent of Lalu in 1990. Lalu’s anti-middle class politics, arrogantly dismissing the issues of roads, electricity, law and order, etc., needed a better elaboration. Parts of Arun Sinha’s biography (2011) of Nitish Kumar deals with it.

On the rise of the upper OBCs and Dalits, meticulous studies by Prasanna Kumar Chaudhury and Shrikant in Hindi language are equally much significant. Let a caveat be added here that motivated Lalu-baiters need to be persuaded to go through those reading lists, if they really wish to clear the haze and mist they remain enveloped with. They tend to misbelieve and also propagate that before Lalu, Bihar was not as badly governed as it did in the 1990s under Lalu-Rabri.    

Sanjay Kumar seems to have made relatively much lesser use of abovementioned studies to explain the pre-1990 state of political, administrative and economic affairs in Bihar. These decades saw much stronger hold of the upper castes in Bihar. Sanjay Kumar however does admit it, though quite passingly: “In pre-1990 Bihar, the upper castes (Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas) dominated not only the social and political space but also the bureaucracy and the judiciary … who dominated the institutions of Bihar and subverted the land reforms … that would have been advantageous to the backward castes and the SC populations” (p. 5). Sanjay leaves out the media.

He does not elaborate upon the fact that the Bihar’s upper caste hegemons went on to ignore public investments and developments in agriculture, irrigation, industry, power production, governance, education, research, infrastructure, etc. They reduced Bihar into an “internal colony”[1]. Sanjay shirks away from giving adequately explicit and elaborate details about the fact that Lalu-Rabri underperformance on governance and development did not compare as much unfavourably with his predecessors, as it is made out to be.

The volume under review concentrates on the 25 years of Bihar politics during 1990-2015, when the fulcrum of the political power rested with the Yadavas (11%) and later Kurmis (7%), with other groups playing largely a second fiddle. He however does not provide a comparative detail pertaining to the economic and educational profiles of the two communities (Yadavas and Kurmis) of OBCs in order to spell out electoral rivalries between the two which manifested in merely about four years of Lalu’s rule. There is merely a short footnote, without citing any evidence (p. 75).  

 The sub-regional classification of Bihar, by the CSDS in election studies as also in this volume, is a little problematic. These sub-regions are Magadh, Mithila, Tirhut, Bhojpur, Seemanchal. It excludes the regions now (after 2000) comprising Jharkhand. What CSDS and the author miss here is the fact that Champaran and Saran speak Bhojpuri just as the Shahabad (Bhojpur, Arrah, Buxar) region. Similarly, only four districts are identified as Seemanchal. These are, Purnea, Ararai, Kishanganj and Katihar, whereas the CSDS would include Supaul, Saharsa and Madhepura also in Seemanchal.

Sanjay identifies Ashraf segment of Muslims to be of foreign origin (p. 12). He ignores the fact that a vast segment of Shaikhs and Pathans, were also the converts from upper caste Hindus as well as many Ajlaf segments of Muslims, more particularly in the census of 1901, entered themselves as Sheikhs. This was something which was noticed by the ethnographers and census bureaucrats such as Henry M. Eliot, W. G. Lacey, and taken up even by B. R. Ambedkar in his book, Pakistan or Partition of India. He took “cultivating Sheikhs” as Ajlaf Muslims, though more in the case of Bengal[2].

Overall, the Ashraf-Ajlaf and Intra-Ajlaf divides (mainly Ansari versus the rest), or absence of it, in Bihar’s electoral politics remains largely ignored or un(der)explored by Sanjay. For the parts of Bihar now comprising Jharkhand, this volume does not offer much details and insights pertaining to the stratifications among the Tribals and other social groups pertaining to their electoral behaviour.

Sanjay touches upon the educational development since independence in Bihar (only in two pages, 21-23). But he ignores the pertinent fact that landed elites cum politicians-legislators opened up high schools and colleges and recruited almost 100% from the respective dominant castes. These employees/clients acted as the vote-catchers cum booth managers or cadres for their patrons. The schools and colleges were then taken over by the government and they became permanently salaried employees of the state. In the name of meritocracy, these very beneficiaries emerged as the fiercest opponents of the reservation for the OBCs in accordance with the recommendations of the Mungerilal Report and B. P. Mandal Report.

Based on the 2006-07 data of the District Information System for Education (DISE), Sanjay Kumar touches upon certain aspects of primary education. Apparently and implicitly appreciating Nitish Kumar, he says:

“[R]ecent policy initiatives and improvements in primary and school enrolment show that Bihar is making progress in improving its education levels. These policies have focussed on lowering the cost of schooling through subsidizing or providing textbooks, uniforms, bicycles and cash transfers for attendance. While these have reduced the costs of schooling in Bihar, much remains to be done to boost schooling infrastructure and improve conditions for both students and teachers” (p. 23).

This remark is based upon a journalistic reporting. A deeper academic scrutiny and field study is required to explore as to the decay of the government funded primary education in the 1990s gave way to sudden rise of the RSS school networks (Shishu Mandirs) in rural and urban Bihar and Jharkhand. This must have contributed to the communalization of Bihar’s social space in a more decisive way. This eventually may have helped the BJP in expanding its support-base. A comprehensive field study by the resource equipped agencies like the CSDS on this aspect is still awaited.

This inadequacy of the volume under review is more starkly visible in the last chapter which deals with the question of development or identity during the elections of 2014-2015. Ever since June 2013 when Nitish Kumar broke away with the BJP, there was a sudden spurt in communal clashes across rural and urban Bihar and a very deep communalization of socio-cultural spaces became much more apparent[3]. There were emergence of organizations such as Gau Pushtikaran Sangathan, and activities such as Shiv Charcha, Kalash Yatra, to reach out to the subaltern women. Visits of the leaders such as Pravin Togadia, Yogi Adityanath in various parts of Bihar became frequent, particularly during 2013-2015. In some of the communal clashes in north Bihar, the Mallah were accused to be aggressors. Across north Bihar, majoritarian right wing organizations such as the Bajrang Dal mushroomed, with significant Mallah presence in these.

In parts of Mallah settlements in north Bihar, there was sudden rise in construction of Hanuman temples. Latent and manifest communal tension and clashes became more resurgent particularly in those localities where Muslim affluence, particularly through the remittance economy from the West Asian Gulf countries had become more visible. In the rural markets, Muslim traders emerged, particularly the kith and kin of those who were/are employed in the Gulf countries, to give a trade competition to the pre-existing Hindu traders.

The elections for the rural and urban local bodies (which came to be held from 2001 onwards) saw a rise in Muslim representation. In 2001, the share of Muslim mukhiyas (elected headmen, Panchayat chiefs) was over 16%[4]. This is almost proportionate with the Muslim population in Bihar. From 2006 onwards, reservation for lower backwards (Ati Pichhrhas) in these local bodies, witnessed the rise of subaltern groups. A majority of Muslims listed as E/MBCs, understandably added to their representations. All these caused discomfitures and scorn among Hindus, initially of the upper castes, but latter it also antagonised/communalised the subaltern Hindus.

In many cases, the Panchayat representatives are/were local toughs/hoodlums/lumpens. Though it was not a Muslim specific case, but it strangely came to be seen as ‘Muslim resurgence’. In some cases, these representatives happened to be kith and kin of Gulf based bread-winners. All these factors began to provide a strange credence to the majoritarian stereotyping against Muslim minorities. This ‘resurgence’ came to be propagated as ‘Muslim menace’ outdoing Hindus.

Neo-rich Muslims asserted their identity through constructing long aspires and domes of huge mosques, and public display of certain pompous religious rituals such as Julus-e-Muhammadi, much expensive Milad on loudspeakers, etc. These displays of identity, most often enactment of competitive intra-Muslim maslaki (sub-sectarian) identities between the Barelvis and Deobandis came to be seen by sections of Hindus as Muslim minority assertion against Hindu majority. Cumulative effect of all these gave way to anti-Muslim hatred and Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP[5].

A comprehensive study of this phenomenon explaining the communalization of Bihar’s social space is needed to be undertaken by the professionally competent and resource equipped research centres like the CSDS. One is not sure if CSDS-Lokniti survey-questionnaire really factors in the growing anti-Muslim hatred. A keen Bihar-watcher and a hihly professional academic like Sanjay Kumar should not have ignored these.            

The component on profile of the major political parties (pp. 24-28) glosses over a crucial aspect. It does not spell out caste-wise support base of each of these major parties. The treatment of the fall of the traditional left (CPI, CPIM, SUCI, etc.) and “rise” of the “revolutionary” Left such as IPF-CPIML (Liberation), and the CPI (Maoist) is also very inadequate[6]. While dealing with the LJP of Ramvilas Paswan, the educational and economic profile of the dominant castes of Dalits— Dusadhs and Chamars—are missing in this volume. Such a profile of Musahars and Dhobis could also be quite helpful.     

Sanjay Kumar claims to have developed his research interest in Bihar elections from the 1995 elections onwards. Importantly, that was the election when Samata Party in alliance with the CPIML (Liberation) had jumped into the fray. The Samata Party came into existence after Lalu’s nominee had lost the Vaishali Lok Sabha bye-election in 1994. This saw an electoral alliance between the two competitive and rival upper castes, Bhumihars and Rajputs. While during the 1970s-1980s, Muzaffarpur remained hostage to gangster-politicians; during 1992-98 a fiercely bloody war between upper and lower caste gangster-politicians continued killing Hemant Shahi (1992), the Shukla brothers (1994) and Brij Bihari (1998). The later symbolised an OBC assertion against upper caste gangster-politicians in Muzaffarpur, after 1990[7]

The Vaishali Lok Sabha bye-election (1994) also witnessed a genesis of the political rise of the Mallah (fishermen) community, now listed as lower OBC (Ati Pichhrha)[8]. Captain Jai Narain Nishad (1930-2018) had secured around 40000 votes as an Independent. Lalu took note of it, and in 1996, Nishad contested as Janata Dal nominee from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha and was elected. Subsequently he switched over to the BJP. Ever since then, Muzaffarpur, otherwise said to be a “cultural and economic capital” of the Bhumihars, came to be “politically dominated” by the Mallahs. The 2014 elections in Bihar saw a rise of Mukesh Sahni, the self-styled ‘Son of Mallah’ who eventually aligned with the BJP. Though, his leadership remained contested by many leaders from within the caste[9]. Sanjay Kumar’s account, otherwise so very rich in data, does not explain the arguable case of the political rise of Mallah. Earlier, Karpuri Thakur (1924-88) in his last days of life had tried to mobilize the Mallah.

Owing to the abovementioned limitations, the volume otherwise immensely rich in data, in some way, fails to give a better idea to help prognosticate about the future trends of electoral politics to be unfolding Bihar.

It analyses the electoral impact of the Fodder Scam but leaves out the details pertaining to the Srijan Scam. Yet, he does spell out the loss of credibility of Nitish in no uncertain terms. The concluding lines of the book pronounce, “Nitish Kumar may have been able to save the chief minister’s chair [in 2017] and may even have ensured its continuation beyond the 2020 election, but the premium he paid for the insurance … was very big”.

There are some minor faults on the part of the proof-checkers. Typo-errors such as ‘wary’ being typed as ‘vary’, and Farzand Ahmad being cited as “Farz &”; and the date of Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 being typed as 1817 in the opening paragraph of the introductory chapter should have not crept into it.

Notwithstanding some limitations, which may also be there because of the overall limitations of election studies in the Indian academia, particularly the aspects like wider and deeper economic and social processes, this volume is immensely useful. It may be hoped that the forthcoming Sage series on other provinces would be more comprehensive than this one. It may also be hoped that a revised and enlarged edition of this volume on Bihar would overcome these omissions.  

Sanjay Kumar, Post-Mandal Politics in Bihar: Changing Electoral Patterns. Sage, New Delhi, 2018. Pages 252 +xxviii. Price INR 995/-ISBN 978-93-528-0585-3.

Sage Series on Politics in Indian States, volume 1, Series Editors: Suhas Palshikar, Rajeshwari Deshpande.

[1] Sachidanand Sinha (1973), Internal Colony: A Study in Regional Exploitation. Sindhu Publication, Delhi.

[2] For details, see my, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014), pp. 292-294.

[3] See three detailed reports by Appu Esthose Suresh in The Indian Express, August 22, 2015.

[4] Shaibal Gupta (2001), “Bihar: New Panchayats and Subaltern Resurgence”, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), 36, 20, July 21. For Uttar Pradesh, see A. K. Verma, “Muslim Resurgence in Urban Local Bodies of Urttar Pradesh, EPW, 47, 40, October 6, 2012.

[5] See some of my writings: “Muslims between the Communal-Secular Divide”, Seminar (678), February 2016; “Why Are Bihar Muslims Frightened”, Parts I & II, Rediff.Com, July 21, 2017; 

[6] Walter Hauser, “Violence, Agrarian Radicalism and Electoral Politics: Reflections on the Indian People’s Front”, Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), 21, 1, 1993, pp. 085-126.

[7] See my “Underscoring Political-Criminal Nexus: Communal Violence in Agarpur”, EPW, September 10, 2016. Also see, Kunal Verma’s six part detailed Hindi blog “Muzaffarpur Underworld Ki Inside Story.  

[8] See my “Caste, Community and Crime: Explaining the Violence in Muzaffarpur”, EPW, January 31, 2015; for historical details, see, Smita Tewari Jassal, “Caste and the Colonial State: Mallahs in the Census”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 35, 3, 2001, pp. 319-354

[9]Amit Bhelari, (2015) “Fishermen Junk ST Quota”, The Telegraph, Patna, September 8, 2015. [Consequently, Mukesh Sahni was ignored by the BJP for his inability to transfer Mallah votes; he ended up launching his Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) in late 2018 and aligned with the RJD in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only to face drubbing].


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