Meanings of Bihar Election 2015: Victory of the Local and Popular over the Ignorance of the Others

(Note: This was written immediately after the assembly elections in Bihar in October-November 2015. This was not published anywhere out of laziness and because publishing in magazines/journals also involves many constraints. It is being posted without any alteration. It would be interesting to see how things have moved since then and when the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh would be going to polls very soon.)

The exuberance at the daily labor haat at Kankarbagh the day after Bihar state assembly elections and the reaction of the so-called upper castes at their happiness or the response of some Muslims during elections that this was a fight for their existence when asked about their electoral preference said a lot about who turned the election around for the combine of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad. And there was contribution of women voters from the Other Backward Class (OBC) and Mahadalit castes as well. This was a combination which did the unthinkable in an age when elections are contested through the prism of publicity campaign industry, though the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance (Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Janata Dal (United) or JD (U)-Congress Party) also could not resist the temptation of hiring the same company that worked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during 2014 Parliamentary elections. It was the “mother of all elections” as stated by the construction worker in Patna when he said that this was a “battle between CM and PM”.

For Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad it was a question of survival when they had been marginalized by the “national” organized political forces. It is relevant to mention how they always headed formations, which flourished on personalities rather than cadre network. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was not only about consolidating the march of an aggressive rightward politics in economic as well as socio-cultural sphere but also a necessity to reconstitute the Rajya Sabha or Upper House of Parliament where they were consistently facing tough opposition. At the end, the personality cult of the Prime Minister received a drubbing and more and more internal squabbles would come out when this defeat will be analyzed along with the recent defeats in the local body elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The voices of dissent coming from the senior party leaders will be only the beginning.

Trying to get over the Brahmanical Lineage

The BJP has historically been a brahmanical political force, which in a certain sense also substituted the Congress party in Bihar, which earlier represented the landed savarna population. The only way that they could have won was to bring to their side (which had a sizeable portion of Bhumihars, Brahmins, Rajputs and Kayasthas) a little bit of Mahadalit and OBC vote bank. Their politics historically alienated these sections and the effort to get them in this time was through Lok Janshakti Party or LJP, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party or RLSP and Hindustan Awam Morcha or HAM. They could have added at least some votes to the BJP kitty even though their performance in 2010 assembly elections was not great. LJP had only three MLAs, RLSP and HAM were new entrants to politics.

However, the impression generated by the submissiveness of the three parties to the BJP during seat allocation as well as during campaign on issues of communalism and reservation did not go down well among people. The message that went across through press conferences and statements of leaders belonging to these parties was that of “surrender” to the BJP whether it was distribution of seats or expressing their opinions. One would recall how the BJP dictated terms about number of seats each partner would contest as well as gag orders that were imposed on these partners, which they readily agreed to. Their image of “junior partner” did not add any autonomy to their identity. These factors failed to bring those crucial additional votes from oppressed masses to the partners and hence to BJP. In the process, all of them were decimated.

Laloo-Nitish Wave for a Secular Ethos

If the 2014 general elections were termed as “Modi-wave” then the Bihar election was definitely a “Laloo-Nitish wave” evident in the way Congress piggy-rode to victory in 28 constituencies out of the 40 it contested. The 2014 wave was against the Congress-led regime, as historical amnesia did not let people remember that there were BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regimes in between as well. The continuous ten years of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had given an opportunity to the campaign by Modi-led BJP to project the possibility of a complete turn-around of fortune of every Indian. This campaign found resonance among people due to the rising cost of living, declining income and increasing gap between rich and poor. The 2015 wave in Bihar was against a divisive and arrogantly blasphemous politics of elite, brahmanical political forces trying to hegemonize the oppressed castes. This became apparent in the discourse in favour of reservation that was started by Laloo Yadav when he declared that this election was for Mandal-II and later on the RSS Chief – Mohan Bhagawat – talked against reservation.

Except the Left-governed states, Lalu Prasad’s government in Bihar was the only one which established its secular credentials. He not only had the courage to arrest the then aggressive face of Hindutva—L.K. Advani — on October 23, 1990 in Samastipur when his Toyota rath (chariot) was out to change the political history of the BJP by catapulting it to political power subsequently but he ensured that there won’t be religious rioting in the aftermath of Gujarat genocide. In fact, surveys among Muslims post-Gujarat riots termed Bihar as the safest place in India. Even the Left Front government could not stop Advani when he was going around in Purulia in West Bengal state. It is this secular credential which led to consolidation of the Muslim vote behind Laloo Yadav. And the dangers of a rightwing upsurge were quite imminent as rioting in Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Bihar, the cow debate and murders and an overall hegemonistic ideology of dictating food habits and lifestyles showed.

The rightwing propaganda could not work because of the ineffective presence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre base in the state though they did begin to expand during the Nitish-BJP regime. Nitish Kumar could manage to emerge as a secular figure due to his anti-Modi rhetoric and furthermore due to straining ties with the BJP. The field-visits in some of the constituencies during elections revealed that BJP was trying to rely on a huge bogey of exported campaigners which was not taken positively by the voters as it strengthened the BJP’s image as an outsider. This image, which led to the rhetorical battle of Bihari versus Bahari (insider versus outsider), had left a negative impression and was visually represented in billboards without any image of local leaders or alliance partners. It was replaced only after the second phase of the elections with images of local BJP leaders and alliance partners.

Aggression Backfired

The campaign by Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah appeared too aggressive for the people to digest. This aggression was also akin to the aggression that the oppressed castes and now the Minorities have faced at the hands of the brahmanical forces. A clear message was sent to this effect by Amit Shah, the BJP Chief when he indicated that if BJP comes to power Pakistanis (meaning Muslims, in fact) will be very happy. There were posters circulated by BJP that blamed communities for killing cows.

It needs to be remembered that in a largely rural society like Bihar, the massive chunk of voters, who voted for Laloo Prasad and Nitish Kumar are also embedded in local social relations where the aggression of the upper castes has been historically a matter of contention. Presenting this aggression through campaign added to the polarization that was taking a political/electoral form. A good understanding of how historically social relations have unfolded in the state would have taught the BJP campaigners that brahmanical symbolisms embedded in food habits, lifestyles and even verbal communication forms had been consistently challenged by the likes of Karpoori Thakur, Left as well as post-Mandal forces. Laloo Prasad represented the agenda of social justice through his post-mandal rhetoric and politics as well as of secularism. He could connect more with the masses through his calm and quiet rebuttal of whatever the star campaigners spoke against him. The connection between the masses and the leaders of the Mahagathbandhan was becoming the key element, which would consolidate their electoral base. The opposition was not able to establish this connection and could not gauge the level of matured politicization of the masses leading to this reversal.

The Language of Masses: Who Connects Better

The BJP campaign was about taking rhetoric to its optimum level, as a theatrics that sought to draw masses into a conversation with the speaker. Every time the speaker spoke he also prodded the audience to repeat the same in an effort to transfer that rhetoric to the masses but it did not really happen because the socio-cultural and economic realities which masses inhabit is completely different from what the rhetoric represents.

A new style of public speaking where the audience is asked to repeat so as to give an impression that the masses are speaking the same thing as the speaker is superfluous way of assessing the mood of the masses. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah that way are not only new to the field of rhetoric but also belong to a particular genre, which is incapable of connecting to the masses due to the absence of necessary language and voice modulation, which comes from the local culture. Even when it came to exploiting the mythical notions Lalu Yadav outdid Narendra Modi. This was reflected in the spat that occurred over Modi calling Lalu Shaitan and Lalu responding by calling Modi Brahmapishach. Lalu again emerged victorious because he sent a message entrenched in the social relations by using a nomenclature that is used for the spirit of a dead Brahmin who did evil things in his life or misused his knowledge to harm others. This was in bad taste for those sitting in Delhi but while doing rounds in fields backward caste and Dalit villagers understood the meaning of it. In other cases, for instance, one speaker loudly proclaims how Laloo Prasad would force Bihar to a dark, jungle raj while the other retorts that Laloo Prasad is known as a thief who stole fodder. He responded to many such theatrics without any aggression and with a very serious face when he said pointing to the neck “Narendra Modi, speak normally or your veins will burst”. Masses connected to him in Bihar more than to any other politician. Though Laloo Prasad and Nitish Kumar were calm speakers avoiding any kind of aggressive tenor the former’s aggression became more prominent when he talked of communalism and reservation — two things that masses awaited to hear from their leaders. Aggression on these two issues was seen as positive, as some kind of hope. It is not simply an electoral victory but questions the idea of politics, which bans a convicted leader, but masses send him back with a thumping majority.

The Myth of Jungle Raj

What the BJP did not realize was the level of politicization of masses in Bihar on account of historical factors, unlike the comparatively different nature of politicization in states like Gujarat which Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have been more familiar with. This ignorance allowed them to not only have problems mentioned above but also tell masses things that they were not ready to believe, such as the argument of coming back of the Jungle Raj. Laloo Prasad had already indicated his political in the first pre-election rally of the combined alliance when he said that this was a battle for Mandal II. Laloo Yadav is heading a party where forces like his two brother-in-laws, Pappu Yadav or Shahabuddin are either out of party or do not have the same significance as before. It is not the same RJD as the earlier avatar and masses very well knew that. Along with this absence of criminal elements from the party, what also made the alliance sober was the image of Nitish Kumar as the “Vikas Purush” (Development Man). In fact, Laloo Prasad and Nitish Kumar were able to thwart even this oppositional campaign though their counter-propaganda of development with justice that they stood for.

The Prospects of the New Government

The results of the Bihar elections gave a respite to anybody wanting to check the parochialism and aggression that the contemporary India is experiencing. However, it is not going to be a turn around for the lives of masses in Bihar. If the new government has to prove itself it will have to be on grounds of how well it can further the neoliberal model of development. Mr Kumar has been able to show in past that he could do that. The rhetoric that Mr Prasad used to consolidate his mass base cannot work now. In earlier political avatars he had basic achievements to show to masses — participation of oppressed castes as equals in everyday life. That was achieved when his 15 years of rule gave voice these castes. Now he is confronted with a much more difficult question — that of bringing the fruits of “development” to these masses. Even Mr Kumar could not improve the educational system in the state as the universities remain academically and physically in a state of decay; employment generation and developing agriculture along with expanding manufacturing and service industry will be some major challenges. This challenge is important when construction drives the growth rate and the share of primary sector has been decreasing in economy. Also, any serious effort in any field would drive up the growth rate but that would not necessarily mean that poverty and inequality would be taken care of. The post-electoral developments also cast doubts about how efficiently will the new government perform. It would have been wiser for RJD to have two sons of Lalu Yadav as ministers in the new government rather than making one of them Deputy Chief Minister. They are neither well read nor have any experience in governance or politics. In next five years it will be a challenge for Nitish Kumar to retain his image as Vikas Purush, more so when the hopes generated by the new government will be put to test.

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Left and the Organisational Question

The JNU elections 2016 have done what the mobilisation for Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban did. It has sent a message across the whole spectrum of Right that there are possibile spaces where it cannot have it as easy as it expects. The official intervention through a Sangh-subservient Vice-Chancellor to use of all sorts of state machinery – from Police to Judiciary – could not transform it overnight into a Sangh camp. It might over years nobody knows but the different kind of politics that the campus stood for has been blocked for now. It is the student politics in the campus and its historical lineage that has withstood for now the attack that the campus has faced. However, this does not exonerate the Left in campus of many criticisms that it draws.

This reflection is not about the campus politics as such but only one dimension of the Left politics – its inability to strengthen itself even in times when the state goes into crisis. The way that the Kanhaiya Prakaran (Episode is the nearest translation but does not convey the whole meaning, which has a sense of process inbuilt into it) culminated into a politics wherein AISF (All India Students Federation) did not contest the elections needs more than just a passing reference. The episode has also created new discourses within the so-called Left such as the one concerning the significance of caste among other things. This development from arrest of JNUSU President to the non-contestation of AISF is a mere excuse here to understand the larger issue of the myopic handling of the organisational question within the Left or rebuilding of the Left.

Rumours and whatsapp discussions had already informed me about the decision of All India Students Federation to not contest the JNUSU elections. The newspaper report had further  clarified it. The Left Unity in JNU is sans AISF. Reasons are not to be debated – whether it was the lack of organisational ability to put up a candidate or it was the committment of AISF towards Left Unity and it did not want to contest alone when the two other partners tried to treat it as a junior partner. These things are immaterial to the discussion here.

And I am not writing to debate whether they have the ability or not or how far can their ability go as an organisation. I am merely using it as an excuse to raise a larger organisational question because the 2016 saw emergence of a leader who travelled the length and breadth of country and was seen as having the potential to add something to the ‘democratic’ political process.

When Facebook posts about how large audience attended his meetings in Pune or Patna were being posted I asked a student leader a basic intellectual question – when you flaunt these pictures and events do you also see a possibility of your organisational expansion with it? Or how does his travels help your organisation? I didn’t get an answer and I expected none because I had a hunch that using such possible moments as the one thrown up by JNU kind of incidence has never been on the agenda of the Left organisations or they have been incapable of taking it further. The arrest of Kanhaiya had provided sufficient meat to the Left to get this politics of Right out among the masses through a well though out organisational exercise routed through its organisational structure as the Right did across the country using the same incident. This could have been possible where the AISF/CPI claimed to have organisation or where they did not have they could have used it to start the process of organisation building there.

When the situation gives the organisation an opportunity wherein the leader acquires a popular mass appeal (and this has been the case many a times) it generates a lot of energy and momentum even within the non-existent units of the organisation. This can be visible in the way local units are compelled to respond to the tirades against the leader for being anti-national in this case for instance. The cadre prepares defence to the charges and in this process begins to devote time to the organisation which s/he had stopped doing.  The other possibility can be seen in the way the units become proactive and organise programmes to felicitate the leader or listen to him. This also becomes an opportunity to reflect on  the ideas and politics of the organisation.

When the Right-wing government, for all its miscalculations that it has been doing, wanted to make an entry into JNU to destroy the ‘different’ kind of history and politics that the institution has represented in the heart of the national capital it generated a huge reaction to the acts of aggression by the state. While a BJP spokesperson immediately remarked that ‘let these people feel the might of the state’. Now when I retrospect he must be faltering for explanations despite his eloquence on television channels. He along with all his fraternal raucous voices would be compelled to rethink their political strategy because within a period of five years it would be difficult to completely transform the nature of the politics in JNU. It cannot be made into the Delhi University kind of students politics (where money and muscle power is the predominant requirement to participate in elections) despite a subservient administration and all sorts of propaganda. The aftermath of the arrest of student activists led to an unprecedented mobilisation on streets of Delhi as well as within the campus. It led to many developments which shall be discussed separately. My concern here is look at how the JNUSU President acquired  an image of a star politician who would travel to different parts of the country to speak. One could see the reaction of people around when he would attend meetings or travel. In the same way as a people had a sense of awe when big politicians moved around with police protection he also experienced the same, obviously, for no fault of his own. Different people from different places in the country narrated how this image was created.

Communist Party of India (CPI) as well as its students wing tried to use this status of the former JNUSU President inviting him to their meetings as a speaker. As we all know CPI has been on downward slide early 1990s electorally as well as organisationally. Its mass organisations have weakened and its seats in Parliament and assemblies of states have declined. In such a situation it hardly has leaders who would have a standing of their own – intellectually as well as in any charismatic sense. Kanhaiya seemed to fill that void – of a JNU student and a charismatic leader. The over dependence on him also created an image of this leader which became much bigger that the organisation itself, whether the party realised it or not is a different question. This further happened because of organisational inability to deal with this larger than life youth leader.

What happened in this process was that his role in organisation was not redefined (as it should have been done) and the use of his image to strengthen the organisation also did not happen. Sometimes it also seemed whether his understanding of different contemporary as well as historical issues were in line with the politics that the party stood for. The answer to questions like how much has the organisation become stronger in aftermath of this whole episode within JNU and how far has AISF gained organisationally nationally from this whole episode would help one understand how can Left chart a different path than the bourgeois organisations while dealing with situations that has been created in recent past.