In Bihar, is class transcending caste?

For students of political change, the Bihar assembly elections are of great significance. The world’s poorest go to vote in the world’s largest democracy, in the first direct elections of this scale after the Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world. Under the formal veneer of campaigning, marked by political rallies and speeches, is a truly substantive and deep political deliberation in Bihar’s villages and towns, with labour primarily re-centering the electoral discourse towards aspects of life and livelihood in unanticipated ways. Labour and its desire for voice and visibility in Bihar signals a shift in the base, and indicates a reshaping of the political arena, following a long period of political continuity and bureaucratic-charismatic leadership in the name of development and welfare.

The change has been truly unanticipated and sudden for a polity hitherto characterised by the caste-based politics of agada-pichada (forward-backward), where Lalu Prasad’s Mandalisation engulfed even the sharpest tenors of Left politics rooted among agrarian labour; and where Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar’s plank of good governance was firmly rooted in a social base of the ati-pichada — the extremely backward classes conglomerate referred to as a cluster of panch-phorana jatis. This contextual rootedness, Kumar’s background as being one among the Jayaprakash Narayan-Karpoori Thakur-inspired socialists, and his personal clean image was embedded in his governance model — it is this that is the central object of questioning in these state elections.

The pursuit of good governance earned Kumar the sobriquet of sushaasan babu and dominated the administrative directions of many states after liberalisation. But he was not alone.

Since the late 1990s, many CMs began to be seen as leading the agenda of vikas (development), and emerging as the chehra (face) associated with delivery of public services and welfare. Chandrababu Naidu was among the earliest such leaders. A favourite of the World Bank and global business, he was referred to as the CEO in the arena of democracy. In northern India — more rural and agrarian — Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s pro-women welfare schemes such as Laadli Lakshmi earned him the title of Mama.

It was Kumar, however, who transformed the landscape north of the Vindhyas in Bihar by merging Mandalised electoral politics with the provision of universal basic services — roads, law and order and schools in his first term, and electricity in his second. Pro-poor and clean management of floods in large areas of Purnea and Saharsa, bordering Nepal and honest efforts at flood-relief earned him the trust of the most vulnerable.

Both the extreme backwards and the Mahadalits put their trust in the Nitish Kumar-led political regime for close to two decades. But they are, today, at the forefront of the silent-but-deep questioning on the ground — this is particularly true of labour, which is seeking to find its voice after having had to flee urban centres during the lockdown.

During conversations in Saran district’s oldest nagar panchayat of Riwilganj, many stories emerged of the hardships faced by labourers as they struggled to return home, many from those who belong to social groups traditionally considered loyal to Nitish Kumar.

There is a high density of population in the region, and no source of local work, leading to palaayan, exodus/migration, said Bhagwan Ji Sharma, a badhai by caste. “We left our soch (thinking) based on jaat-paat and organised round-the-clock meal services for labourers walking back. There was one who was returning from Tamil Nadu who had walked hundreds of kilometres and taken rides on trucks. His feet were in tatters.”

But the resentment is not merely that labourers had to struggle, but that there was political apathy. “Nitishji did not speak up for us, even a Yogi Adityanath organised buses for travel of labour from Uttar Pradesh”, said Dhurinder Manjhi. Ranju, a young Sahni woman from Darbhanga district, was stuck with three children at a Delhi construction site, and barely survived the threats of the building contractor. A labour contractor from Barauni helped her survive and get back, not the administration. Back in her village, Ranju can only rely on her skills of makhana farming in water puddles owned by landlords — she does not own any land.

The refrain is similar in Begusarai. Labourers want to go back to the opportunities available in flourishing sites of neoliberal economic development. But trains are limited. The bus operators charge ₹3,000 for a road journey to Delhi. “At least Nitish Kumar could have helped labour go back by train. There is no fear of the coronavirus in holding election rallies, but when it comes to us, our freedom is curtailed,” argued a group of young men from the Kushwaha community who have studied in public universities in Patna.

In each field site, the discussions transcend caste identities, and even partisan affiliations. The issues are centred on poverty and suffering, of the need for local opportunities, and of the failures of the state to stand by its poor in their hour of need. Unfortunately, generating economic opportunities locally was just not a priority of the sushaasan agenda.

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