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Political Pitch

Poll position


MAN OF THE MASSES: Nitish Kumar chooses to ride on a rickshaw to a screening of 'Slumdog Millionaire' in June 2009

Nitish Kumar's anti-Modi move shouldn't have surprised any one, not even ally BJP. His secular posturing is part of a planned election strategy on which he has been working for five years now. With Bihar going to polls a few months later, he knows Patna will not be won on the development plank alone.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's anti-Narendra Modi eruption should not have surprised any one, least of all his partnerin-government, the BJP. His hawkish secular posturing, which derailed the BJP's national executive meet in Patna last week, is part of a meticulously planned election strategy on which Kumar has been working from the day he was sworn in as chief minister five years ago. In a few months from now, when Bihar votes for its next government, the great Nitish gambit will be put to test and he will emerge either as a master strategist to rival the handful of chief ministers who have won a second successive term, or go down as a gambler who played risky politics with Bihar's complex caste equations.

The BJP's confused response to the humiliation Kumar heaped on it in the middle of a high-profile party gathering underlines how rusty its political antenna has become. The signals were all there. Kumar had an agenda for Bihar and was working to a plan, with or without the BJP. The saffron party failed to read his lips.

For the past four-and-a-half years as chief minister, Kumar has moved methodically to create a social base for himself by attempting to craft a new coalition of caste and community interests beyond traditional hegemonic groups like the Brahmins and Bhumihars, and more recently the Yadavs and the Paswans. Shaibal Gupta, who heads a Patna-based thinktank called the Asian Development Research Institute, calls it a "coalition of extremes" that extends from the upper castes at one end to the MBCs (most backward castes) and Maha-Dalits at the other.

Kumar's strategy has been two-pronged. He has shrewdly mixed development with targeted social welfare schemes for marginalised groups in a bid to chip away at Lalu Prasad's backward caste-Muslim-Dalit vote base as well as the BJP's urban middle class and upper caste constituencies. In a way, he has fragmented Bihar's caste-ridden society further by breaking it down into smaller groups. Khaled Ansari, a member of a research organisation called the Patna Collective, prefers to see it as "democratisation" of the polity. He says, "More and more groups are getting political space in Bihar today. They have larger voices and all political parties are being forced to listen to them. "

Kumar's tactics are not new. They were used by Lalu Prasad in his early years as chief minister and before him by veteran socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, widely regarded as the father of social engineering in Bihar. It was Thakur who started job reservations for the backward castes and introduced the concept of quota within quota by creating the MBC category for special benefits.

Thakur was unable to carry his social engineering forward, because his government was aborted midway in 1979. Kumar, though, has breathed new life into the politics of his mentor. Welfare schemes apart, Kumar has tried to give MBCs a stake in local governance by reserving 20 per cent of panchayat seats for them. "This is a critical element in empowerment. For the first time, subaltern groups are part of the governance structure in Bihar, " Gupta emphasised.

Even more fascinating is Kumar's dalliance with Muslim groups. He has moved away from the traditional Muslim politics of "secular" parties by wooing lower caste groups from the minority community. In the process, he has challenged the myth of a monolithic Muslim identity by foregrounding caste instead of religion in Muslim politics. Interestingly, of the 80 castes listed as MBC in Bihar, around 35 are from the Muslim community. They are entitled to the same benefits and schemes including job and panchayat reservations as their counterparts from Hindu castes. "Nitish Kumar's sweeping victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls was because lower caste Muslim votes shifted to him, " says Ansari.

His most visible effort to co-opt MBC Muslims was to give Rajya Sabha berths to two prominent leaders of the Pasmanda movement among lower caste Muslims, Aijaz Ali and Ali Anwar. Kumar's success has spurred Lalu Prasad to look at Pasmanda politics too and for the first time he has set up an MBC cell in his party to reach out to lower backward castes among both Hindus and Muslims.

Though Kumar has altered the caste and community matrix in Bihar by giving the lower backwards more political prominence, the fear of an upper caste backlash looms large. The recent tension with the BJP is a sign of his upper caste-dominated saffron ally's increasing restlessness with Kumar's MBC and Maha-Dalit politics. Kumar is also facing trouble from upper caste leaders within his own Janata Dal (United) party with his state president Rajiv Ranjan (Lallan) Singh, a Bhumihar, quitting the post in protest against a move to introduce a Bataidari Act to give sharecroppers more rights over the land they till. Kumar has desisted from going ahead with the proposed Act, but it hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of large landlords who are worried about the impact land reforms will have on rural power equations.

The caste conundrum in Bihar is complex and ultimately beat even a shrewd master of social engineering like Lalu. Kumar knows that his battle for a second term will be a tough one. While his development work may have created some chemistry in his favour, he may just come a cropper unless he gets the caste arithmetic right. The point was driven home during the bye-polls for 18 assembly seats in the state last year soon after his sweeping victory in the Lok Sabha elections. He won just three of the 18 seats, while his bete noire Lalu won as many as six. Later, Kumar is reported to have admitted that he may have fallen victim to an upper caste backlash over the planned Bataidari Act.

Since then, he has tried to do a balancing act. He has also tried to play the Bihari purush card by introducing a sub-nationalist sentiment into his politics. He took up cudgels on behalf of beleaguered Biharis in Mumbai when they were under attack. More significant is his effort to hype up the upcoming centenary year of the creation of Bihar in 2012. As part of the run-up to this, his government celebrated Bihar Day this year. It was the first ever such celebration.
The BJP is hoping that Kumar's innate caution will hold him back from snapping the alliance in Bihar and that they can fight the forthcoming assembly elections together. But the Bihar CM continues to keep his saffron ally guessing, blowing hot and cold alternately as he weighs his options.

Nitish Kumar has tried a shrewd mix of developmental activities and social welfare schemes for the lower backward groups among Hindus and Muslims. Some highlights: Reopened cases of the Bhagalpur communal riots and ensured conviction of at least one accused Ensured speedy trial of criminals for better law and order;a record 48, 500 criminals convicted;124 of them awarded capital punishment, 8, 602 get life term Implemented the Bihar Special Court Act under which the government can confiscate the immovable properties of corrupt public servants;1, 300-odd public servants chargesheeted and properties worth Rs 10 crore identified Provided 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayat raj institutions and urban local bodies and 20 per cent reservation for MBCs Opened a Jankari call centre, first in the country, to ensure effective and transparent implementation of the RTI Act 'Hunar' scheme for skill upgradation and economic empowerment of Muslim girls 'Apki Sarkar Apke Dwar' programme in Maoist-affected areas for speedy development of the region Bicycles for girls - and later boys - studying in Class IX Talimi Markaz and Utthan Kendras (educational improvement and empowerment centres) for out-ofschool children of Muslims and Mahadalits 'Hunar and Auzar' scheme for vocational training for Muslim, SC, ST and extremely backward girls who are given tool kits at the end of their training.


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