Politics in Bihar is as multi-layered and intricate as the number of players, big and small, that make and mar fortunes in the legislature and Parliament. The recent kerfuffle over conducting a caste census revealed the fault lines that run deep across Bihar’s polity and the contradictions both within the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the BJP, that helms the NDA. The issue of carrying out a caste census has national ramifications because the demand was flagged primarily by the leaders from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the backward castes that is, of the Hindi heartland who have sought a transparent and accurate head count of the BCS so that the benefits of the statutory reservations in educational institutions and government jobs reach their targeted beneficiaries. The demand is a corollary of the implementation of the path-breaking Mandal Commission recommendations put in place by the former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and was bound to arise sooner than later.
The OBCs presently call the shots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar politics. In UP, the BJP is assiduously tapping a vast expanse of OBC votes to augment the following from the Rajputs and the Baniyas; Brahmins are upset with the Yogi Adityanath regime and might cause an upset. However, if the BJP swings 50 to 60 percent of the OBC votes, it might retain power. That is why the subject of a caste census is significant.
UP and Bihar are neighbours. Generally, their politics does not overlap but since they rank among the most politically conscious states of India, UP is never impervious to trends and developments in Bihar and vice versa. While the Opposition in UP has not been particularly vocal over asking for a caste census—because both the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are busy wooing Brahmins and do not wish to over-emphasise their pro- OBC and pro-Dalit images—in Bihar, all the parties rallied around to raise the issue and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss.
Interestingly, Tejashwi Yadav, the Opposition leader from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) took the initiative but the chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader, Nitish Kumar, willingly joined hands with Tejashwi.As many as 11 parties which included Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awam Morcha and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party from the NDA apart from the JD(U) and the RJD, Congress, Left Front, CPI (M-L) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM from the Opposition called on Modi last week.
The Nitish-Tejashwi bonhomie was clearly the highlight of the event. Nitish commended the young RJD leader for taking the lead. The two walked in together and emerged as a pair, chatting with each other after the call-on, at the end of which the delegation said it hoped for “positive results” from the Centre.
The BJP in Bihar was split on caste lines. Quite a few of its OBC leaders, including Sushil Modi, the former deputy chief minister, pitched for a caste census while those from the upper castes as well as Dalits sounded reluctant. Indeed, initially the BJP was undecided on being part of the state delegation that met Modi. On Sushil Modi’s intervention, Janak Ram, a state minister, joined the rest.
Tucked away in the folds of the larger issue were apparent messages, prime among them being Nitish’s signal to the BJP that was political and personal. The OBCs make up his core base and regardless of whether his government is in a coalition with the BJP and critically dependent on the BJP’s support for survival, there was no way Nitish would have distanced himself from the need for a caste census. However, Nitish is also reportedly upset that one of his MPs, Ram Chandra Prasad Singh, was inducted in the cabinet during the latest expansion. Nitish also wanted Lallan Singh, one of his closest political associates, to become a minister. By a sleight of hand, which will be explained later, he was not obliged.
According to a Patna political observer, RCP Singh—still regarded as one of Nitish’s “eyes and ears”—was “rewarded” for bringing back Nitish to the BJP fold in July 2017 from the “Mahagatbandhan” (MGB) he had cemented with Lalu Prasad Yadav of the RJD and the Congress. The MGB swept the 2015 assembly polls. Thereafter, there was a perception within the JD(U) that RCP Singh was ready to play ball with Modi and Amit Shah, the home minister. A former IAS officer from the UP cadre, RCP Singh was discomfited when Nitish brought in Prashant Kishor, an independent political consultant, to the JD(U) and subsequently appointed him as a vice-president. Kishor didn’t last long in the JD(U) but the episode, said party sources, left a sour taste in RCP Singh’s mouth.
Another trigger that upset the BJP-JD(U) equation was the churn in the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP), headed by the late Ram Vilas Paswan. Following Ram Vilas’s death, his son and political heir, Chirag took over and walked out of the NDA before the Bihar polls to protest Nitish’s leadership. However, a politically ambivalent Chirag endorsed Modi and the BJP, and tangentially helped the BJP’s agenda to undermine Nitish by training his guns solely on him and the JD(U). Chirag worked hard to defeat Nitish’s nominees in many seats. He helped the BJP achieve its objective of getting more seats than Nitish in the assembly.
An enraged Nitish was resolutely set to get even with Chirag. He put Lallan Singh on the job to split the LJSP in Parliament and get five of its six MPs (minus Chirag) over to the JD(U). In the game of one-upmanship, Nitish’s objective was to outnumber the BJP in Parliament; the BJP has 17 MPs from the state, and the JD(U), 16. If Nitish got five of the LJSP MPs, he would have 21 MPs, four more than the BJP.
The BJP sniffed the plot and scuppered it. The Lok Sabha Speaker recognised Pashupati Nath Paras, Ram Vilas’s younger brother, as the elected leader of the LJSP in Parliament instead of Chirag and allotted seats accordingly in the Lower House. The JD(U) could do nothing except watch helplessly.
However, it is premature to even speculate on a shake-up in Bihar. Tejashwi made it clear to his RJD colleagues that he was in no hurry to destabilise the NDA government although his father, Lalu Prasad, reportedly does not wish to pass up an opportunity. Tejashwi has shaped into a mature politician and would not wish to become a pawn in “Paltu Chacha’s” (his moniker for Nitish) hands to help Nitish settle scores with the BJP. What is certain is that the BJP and JD(U) will have to work overtime to dispel the mutual distrust that has built up.