This time Gandhi has died
And the heart is now relieved
Hope is rekindled
That people will now think
What after leaderism?
– Taranand Biyogi in Maithili poem
Magadha was one of 16 Mahajanpadas of ancient India where Aryan tribes learned to farm, fight and settle down under the protection of a sovereign. To keep unruly nomads tied to their own land and cattle, and to ensure that they would not appropriate the property of others, a group of warriors, priests and accountants often managed these small confederacies. It was from the bricks of the Mahajanpada confederacies that the Mauryan Empire (321-185 BC) was built and then evolved into the largest political entity of its time, anywhere in the world. Present-day Bihar bears no resemblance to that Mauryan magnificence, but none of its rulers, even in democratic India, have been able to resist the temptation of becoming the next Priyadarshi (dear to behold) after Ashoka the Great.
Elected leaders lack unlimited tenure and legitimate authority (given that they have to renew their mandate periodically) to establish durable mechanisms for controlling the masses. Coercive of the state have their limits. It is not easy to simultaneously reconcile the ambition of being powerful and remaining popular. Populism helps establish a sense of desirability, and simultaneously creates an illusion of unlimited authority. It helps a politician become a Priyadarshi – at least for the duration of elections.
Nitish Kumar hit the headlines recently by sending a cheque for INR 50 million back to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The amount had earlier been donated to the CM’s relief fund for the rehabilitation of victims of the August 2008 Kosi breach. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a coalition partner of Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, and Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi is a BJP leader. Nitish Kumar has not yet shown the courage to break up his government’s alliance with the communal BJP. The pretext that Nitish Kumar used to snub Modi appears insincere – he alleged that a photograph in which he was holding Modi’s hand was published in Patna newspapers without his consent. He even cancelled a dinner in the honour of visiting BJP dignitaries. His critics assert that the move was meant to kill two birds with one stone: it would help the JD (U) retain its Muslim support base, while also assisting its coalition partner, the BJP, consolidate its hardcore-Hindu vote-bank.
In Gujarat, Modi is credited with having ‘tamed’ Muslims in his state, and is a favourite of the business class over in Bombay that wants stability above all else. Nitish Kumar too is thus trying to ‘do a Gujarat’ in Bihar – their bases might be different, but last year the economic growth rates of both states were almost on par. Unlike in Gujarat, however, Muslims in Bihar cannot be frightened into submission. The challenge for the coalition between the JD (U) and BJP, then, is to maintain their electoral support while transforming the most economically backward state in India into a capitalist haven. If the experiment gains momentum, a resurgence of Naxalism in Bihar is a foregone conclusion. Social injustice and economic growth do not mix well, after all, unless backed by brutal violence from both state and non-state actors.
Ever since the linguistic re-organisation of states in 1956, the Indian National Congress had maintained its stranglehold over Bihar by cultivating an unsteady alliance of castes in which Bhumihars and Brahmins ruled, Muslims stood witness, and Dalits had to make do with whatever came their way. Such an equation ruled out any kind of land reform, as most zamindars were essentially Nehru-Gandhi satraps. Since feudalism and mercantilism are suspicious of each other, businesses moved out of the state as fast as they could. Loot of the treasury became the fuel of the political engine. The ‘Total Revolution’ call of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) during the 1970s was as much against Congress misrule in Patna as it was Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian streak.
An ardent Gandhian and a reformed Marxist, JP thought that the Naxalites ended up strengthening the hand of the military-mercantile complex by default – he believed that rulers in New Delhi were backed by the military, hence his call to the soldiers to ignore illegitimate orders. Perhaps he feared identity politics less, and attracted youngsters of marginalised castes and Dalits who felt that they had the energy to change society through peaceful means. From Karpoori Thakur (1924-88) to Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar, almost all prominent leaders of anti-Congress politics, other than the Naxalites, have been JP acolytes and participants of Total Revolution. After the fall of Indira Gandhi’s brief Emergency rule, the first thing the Karpoori Thakur government in Patna did was to dismantle the caste structure that the Congress had built up to keep the state in its grips. Expressions such as ‘Backward Castes’ and ‘Other Backward Castes’ gained respectability, and the balance of power in Bihar would never be the same again. However, when the old order falls and a new regime is yet to take its place, the politics of expediency inevitably raises its head.
Conflicts between the Ranvir Sena, the private militia put together by Bihar’s landlords, and Dalits organised by leftwing groups alarmed Indira Gandhi so much that she dispatched Manmohan Singh, then member-secretary of the Planning Commission, to suggest ways of tackling the incipient insurgency. The good economist that he is, Singh suggested a developmental state as the panacea to solve the problem of armed conflicts, with the beneficiaries of this solution strengthening the Congress support base. Former acolytes of JP had other ideas, however, and thus the udan-khatola (helicopter) populism of Lalu Prasad Yadav was born.
Propagandists of the coalition between the JD (U) and BJP love to portray Nitish Kumar as bikash purush, some kind of ‘new, improved’ version of Chandrababu Naidu – who, let us not forget, fell with a thump despite the unflinching support of free-market fundamentalists in Andhra Pradesh and New Delhi. However, development for a land-locked state, alternately challenged by drought and floods, requires something other than investment in gigantic infrastructure projects. Nitish Kumar is confused, so he has fallen back upon tried-and-tested caste calculations for political control.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal government of Lalu Prasad concentrated its attention upon the Muslim-Yadav vote-bank and OBC resurgence – evocatively known by the acronym MYOBCs. Yet Nitish Kumar has scratched holes in this grouping with his list of Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). The Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan, for instance, is essentially a Dalit front, in order to neutralise which the JD (U) created the concept of the ‘Mahadalit’. The Mahadalit roster is now so long that it contains every category of Dalits – except the Paswans! The 17-percent Muslim vote-bank is what the coalition needs to maintain its hold over the state, but will these caste calculations succeed in countering the spread of class consciousness? JP would have answered that question differently from what many of his disciples today seem to think.
The Gandhian alternative
The BJP chief in Bihar, C P Thakur, is a Bhumihar. Other flag-bearers of upper castes in the Hindutva line-up are Kailashpati Mishra (for Brahmins), Radha Mohan Singh (for Thakurs) and Deputy Chief Minister Modi for the Vaishya business class. They will resist land reform, oppose any government plan to break up powerful transport cartels, and have no stake in improving either tax collection or service delivery. Nitish Kumar’s caste arithmetic can ensure an electoral victory for his coalition, but whether it can also effectively respond to the Naxalite challenge is extremely doubtful.
The integrative principles and politics of patronage of the Nehru-Gandhi era helped to maintain the ungovernable unity of Bihar. Karpoori Thakur released lower castes from the bondage of the caste system, while Lalu Prasad helped Yadavs to claim leadership positions. Yet each of these formulas has by now lost its potency. Populist politics can no longer counter either leftwing or rightist extremism. New situations require new solutions, something that can perhaps be found in what JP advocated for governance with social justice: a mix of Gandhian humanism and Marxist materialism. A populist regime is an unsustainable substitute for a people’s republic. The alternative to Maoism is a Gandhian way, not leaderism.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.