In this explained.Live session before a nationwide audience, political scientist Suhas Palshikar discusses the importance of the Bihar election, India’s first amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and the stakes for BJP, Nitish Kumar, and the brand of politics Lalu Prasad had introduced. Edited excerpts:
On the stakes in the Bihar elections, at the Centre and in the state
This election has something very important about it, because five years ago, when after the first victory of the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership the Bihar election came, BJP couldn’t do very well. At that time, it was said that this onward march of the BJP has been stalled (which it wasn’t — after Bihar, UP came and the entire discourse of politics changed). For the BJP now, it is a moment of reckoning, a moment of doing something they couldn’t do in 2015, namely win Bihar handsomely and on their strength. Of course, if NDA wins, it would be a victory of both JD(U) and the BJP, but the way the BJP operates, it is quite clear that they would say that the JD(U) piggybacked and therefore it will be BJP’s victory. That claim wouldn’t be wrong entirely. Therefore, in this election, the reputation of Prime Minister Modi as someone who can win state elections is at stake. The reputation and political future of someone like Nitish Kumar, who has survived many ups and downs and has managed to be the Chief Minister for 15 years, is at stake. And the entire politics that Lalu Prasad started is also at stake.
One, the election of Bihar is important because India is experimenting with continuing a democratic political process even in spite of a very frightful pandemic. Two, it is important for the BJP. Three, it will decide the type of politics and the future of the politics that Lalu Prasad initiated three decades ago.
On the recast from Lalu Prasad’s social justice politics to Tejashwi Yadav’s economic justice politics
What Tejashwi is doing is probably to neutralise both the BJP and Nitish Kumar. But if he did it sincerely, if he followed it up later, that would be actually a paradigmatic change, not just in Bihar but in the way we understand politics. Social justice politics, or Mandal politics as it was known then, has outlived its role, and today it is only the label that is flaunted around. Two contradictions emerged in social justice politics. One was that a politics of only one predominant backward community emerged. In the case of UP and Bihar, it was the Yadavs, and out of their politics many other pre-eminent political castes in western and north India are emerging now and asking for reservations also. The other contradiction was: social justice, even the word itself, never actually excluded the question of economy. But some of us, who have been proponents of social justice, misread it as if the economy didn’t matter at all, and so long as there is pratishtha, so long as there is status, so long as there is prestige, through the downtrodden caste, everything is fine. Mayawati also probably made that mistake at one point of time in UP. If Tejashwi, for political compulsions, is now changing gears, I think there is a possibility of recasting politics.
On whether a consequence of this recast has been parties apparently stepping back from Muslims
There are so many complications involved in this. Yes, social justice politics opened up possibilities of more representation by and of the downtrodden communities. But at the same time, why is it then that we had to make a distinction between the backward and the more backward? The reason is that the more backward are more backward not just because they are downtrodden in the social sense of the term, but also in the economic sense of the term. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the fact that the Muslims of Bihar and UP or many other states predominantly are equivalent to the so-called OBCs at least, if not the SCs. But to have them excluded not just from the discourse of social justice, but also from the policymaking that stems from social justice… Why is it that someone like Nitish Kumar had to talk of Mahadalits? This tells us about the contradictions that are inherent in overemphasising, singularly, the question of caste. Caste is useful when you have to commit atrocities against the lower communities, caste is not enough to actually overcome caste. And that is something which was missing in the social justice politics of our three decades; a correction is required. I don’t know how many politicians are ready to take the bait. If you are seen as deviating from that [social justice politics], you can be very easily accused of betraying your father’s legacy in the case of Tejashwi. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
On the perceived potential of caste to chip away at communalism
That is a difficult question. Lalu did it and we are always talking of how he stopped the Rath Yatra. He did it because for his project of social justice, there was no other way but to bring together as backwards rather than as Hindus. But there are two things here. One, history has shown over the last three decades that from the same backward communities, right from the 1996-98 elections, a large chunk of the OBCs have been attracted to the Hindutva politics of the BJP. Secondly, even in OBC politics itself, there is a tinge of majoritarianism, which we often tend to ignore. The claim is not about backwardness, the claim is about majority, that we are in a majority, and therefore we should get a certain right. Look at what the Jats are saying, what the Marathas are saying in Maharashtra, what the Lingayats are saying in Karnataka. In a sense, the social justice agenda has not been able to counter the majoritarian politics of the Hindutva variety. In fact, it must have indirectly legitimised it.
On Lalu Prasad’s historical role
This is an election where the architect of this new politics in Bihar is absent from the theatre of politics today. That is Lalu. But it is not just about Lalu’s social justice agenda, it’s not just about Lalu arresting L K Advani; it is something more than that. You know, Lalu in his own right actually broke the Lutyens’ Delhi that Modi so fondly talks about — Lalu was the first politician who understood Lutyens’ politics and broke the threshold, entered it and made his politics the centrepiece. I am saying this not just as a personality, I am not saying this as a brave or old Lalu Prasad, I am saying this because that actually was the moment when India’s politics was changing gears and you had a contradiction. You had a Rajiv Gandhi-like politics, a Sam Pitroda-like politics, an erudite Narasimha Rao-like politics and then, at the same time, a very different, not just rustic —rustic is actually not a very good word for Lalu, just the rootedness of his politics — but as a symbol of a different kind of politics. I wish that politics had expanded. It is immaterial whether Lalu became important or not; it is immaterial whether Lalu could have become Prime Minister or not. What is important is this different type of politics — because liberal democratic politics always has this tendency of becoming routine, predictable and elitist. Though he also became an elite himself, Lalu changed the ideas of our elitism, he changed the ideas of our democratic politics. That is why Lalu is important. That is not just Lalu, because then it was Mulayam, then it was Mayawati, and then in a sense it is Modi also, in a very different way in which he does politics.
So, when history will be written, I don’t know whether it will be so kind to Manmohan Singh, but it will definitely will have to be more kind to Lalu Prasad in spite of the fact that he has been charged and convicted of certain charges. He faltered and many politicians have faltered like him, but in spite of him faltering, there would still be a qualitative difference between Lalu and his arch-rival Nitish. There would finally be a difference between the two.
On conventional satta parivartan (power change) vs the necessity of vyawastha parivartan (systemic change)
Fundamental question, and my really superfluous answer would be that all vyawastha parivartan has to happen through satta parivartan in democratic politics. If we were thinking of democracy, then we shouldn’t be imagining a dichotomy between the two. I agree that this dichotomy does exist and therefore our task as citizens is actually to find ways of bridging the gap, but to cut off these two and then imagining a systemic change is impossible. Even the great national mentor emerging out of Bihar, Jayaprakash Narayan, who wanted the so-called vyawastha parivartan, had to engage himself at the fag end of his life in satta parivartan in order to have vyawastha parivartan.
On the view being expressed that people’s sufferings in the pandemic could hurt JD(U) rather than BJP
The BJP and the present government are politically very astute. Therefore, they don’t bother about the sufferings of the migrants, but make sure subsequently that a so-called package will be announced, and the goodwill of the government of India and its leadership will remain intact. Also, as a larger party, the BJP will always be interested in ensuring that its state-level partners get villanised rather than itself. So if that happens in Bihar, that would be to the advantage of the BJP, because what happens then is that a migrant goes back to Bihar, and he or she actually thinks of the responsibility of the state government, rather than the government in Delhi.
Transcribed by Mehr Gill
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