There seem to be two reasons why Nitish Kumar registered such a spectacular victory in the Bihar assembly elections. One reason is obvious. The other reason is obscure, not generally perceived. The obvious reason is of course the Bihar government’s stress on better governance and development which brought it good results. But earlier governments providing good governance have not fared like this. The landslide victory merits a closer look to decipher its causes. There is most likely a hidden cause that needs to be appreciated. In my view this election was also a vote against caste based reservations. Let us see how.
Nitish picked up the mantle of the later Karpoori Thakur. The latter was a backward, a barber by caste. In those days neither had Mandal swept national politics nor had the Yadavs acquired the political prominence they have today. Nevertheless Karpoori understood the ground realities of Other Backward Castes (OBCs). He recognized the division between the more prosperous backward castes and their impoverished brothers. So he drew a distinction between the land holding backward castes and the landless backward castes. He listed them as different categories.
Nitish followed Karpoori’s footsteps. Only he classified them as the Backward and the Most Backward Castes (MBC). The deep resentment among the vast number of OBCs provoked by the caste based reservation policy has not perhaps been appreciated by most political analysts. There are 3000 backward castes. But the fruits of reservation have been hogged by the powerful few among them because they have greater access to education. The perception among the OBCs that the Yadavs comprising 8 percent of the population have cornered the major fruits of reservation earmarked for the entire OBC group may not have found much vocal expression but it was very much there. In a sense, the results of caste based reservation created anti-Yadav resentment among a large section of the OBCs. One suspects that Bihar’s Muslims recognized this ground reality. The resentment against the Yadavs was also expressed in another way by forward rural castes who considered the Yadavs to be as prosperous as them. The demand by Jats to be considered backward is one manifestation of this.
All this is not to suggest that caste had no relevance in the Bihar election. But it was used precisely as it is used in democratic elections all over the world. In the light of the profile of each constituency candidates with the largest local bonding were favoured. This is how Asian candidates in the British polls and Hispanic or Black candidates in US elections are fielded. This was how Choudhary Charan Singh during his days of success renounced caste as a poll agenda issue but took great care to give caste weight in the selection of his candidates. Thoughtful Yadav leaders like Sharad Yadav should dispassionately reconsider the consequences of caste based reservations. Very likely in the not too distant future a similar revolt among members of the Dalit community will occur against the powerful Chamars who have cornered the fruits of reservation.