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Dr Shaibal Gupta on caste, politics and Bihar

Last updated on: October 20, 2010 19:50 IST

Image: Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal
Photographs: Reuters
Bihar expert Dr Shaibal Gupta tells Sheela Bhatt why the upcoming assembly election is a benchmark in the state.
Dr Shaibal Gupta, director of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute, sees Bihar's fascinating politics through the eyes of an economist.

Dr Gupta's book Bihar: Stagnation or Growth (edited with A N Sharma) is a significant source of reference on the state.

Dr Gupta, who is an expert on Bihar's caste and polity among other issues, discusses the issues at stake in the current assembly election with's Sheela Bhatt.

Read the first part of Sheela's interview with Dr Gupta here: 'Nitish govt has given Bihar its lost identity'

How do you see Lalu Yadav's legacy in retrospect? After all, Lalu Yadav was a huge presence when he ruled.

Lalu Yadav came into power when Bihar was undergoing many movements. The Congress had a radical movement. Democratisation of Bihar was 'on' that time.

Lalu Yadav contributed positively on two fronts. He ensured that he implemented the Mandal Commission report (on reservations for the Other Backward Classes) so that he could manage a paradigm shift in the political structure of Bihar.

At that time, (current Bihar Chief Minister) Nitish (Kumar) and Lalu together scripted the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. They were considered the 'Ranga-Billa' of the Mandal Commission. Later, they parted ways.

Lalu was a leader of the poor, but he made a strategic mistake and was reduced to become a leader of a particular caste.

Then, he got involved in the fodder scam. He brought in social change, but his base shrunk.

He could not bring about the 'development of Bihar' on his agenda. Elsewhere in India backward class movements converted into movements for identity and development.

Lalu Prasad could not convert social justice movements or backward class movements into sub-identity movements or movements for economic development.

Nitish has taken forward what was done during Lalu's regime. He is talking of backward class consolidation. He is talking in terms of consolidation of sub-nationalism and he is taking the economy forward.

Please Click the NEXT button to read Dr Gupta's fascinating insights on Bihar politics.

ALSO READ: How Rs 2,000 brought Bihar's most heartening change

'Growth is caste and class neutral'

Image: Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has carried forward Lalu Yadav's task, says Dr Shaibal Gupta
Photographs: Reuters
How is the caste kaleidoscope poised in Bihar this election?
Essentially, what (current Bihar Chief Minister) Nitish (Kumar) followed was a coalition of variety of castes.

From the upper castes to the backward classes to the Dalits, all were in his coalition.

After five years, it is believed that some sections of the upper castes may have deserted Nitish.

But there is a contrary opinion about it as well.

In Bihar, roads are being built and bridges are being constructed. It has seen 11 per cent growth which is construction-centric.

Any such growth is class and caste neutral.

Even if some upper class sections are not happy with him because Nitish Kumar wanted to pursue radical land reforms, still, they will be happy with the development.

In a way, the election of 2010 will be a benchmark election of Bihar where people will know which is more important: Development or caste?

Because the consolidation of social justice is absolute in Bihar; you just cannot think of a Brahmin, Rajput or Bhumihar to be the chief minister of Bihar.

In that sense the backward classes are not uncertain or insecure that the coming election will be a 'counter-revolution'.

Normally, when such consolidation of caste takes place, they think in terms of development.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Kammas and Reddys have consolidated capitalism.

In Tamil Nadu, the Nadars and various other communities have triggered it.

In Gujarat, the Patels have done that. That type of capitalist transformation is yet to take place in Bihar.

Until that phase is completed, the first phase of development of Bihar won't get over.

Nitish has created conditions for this growth. But one has to have some sort of social base for entrepreneurship that could attract capitalist agents of change.

Is Nitish Kumar building up his image as other regional leaders like Narendra Modi or Jayalalitha do?

In Gujarat many previous chief ministers had also created benchmarks, so Modi needed to build his image to go beyond that.

In the case of Nitish Kumar, there are no benchmarks to compete with like what Modi has had to do.

That is why overnight he has become the darling of the people.

'Bihar remained behind in attracting foreign investment'

Image: Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates interacts with a villager during a visit to Bihar in May
Photographs: Reuters
What is not working out on the ground?
One, Nitish has not got enough support from the central government.

There are several agendas on the basis of which the central government's support becomes vital.

Bihar has zero power production. There are about 30 to 40 power projects in the pipeline in Bihar.

Until and unless one gets the coal linkages from Jharkhand, it can't materialise.

The central government has to ensure it. The central government ensures that a particular power plant gets dedicated coal supply. Such permission is not coming soon.

Most of the southern and western states created a huge economic base and they could attract foreign investments. But Bihar remained behind.

The Japanese are the highest investors in India after China. They are comfortable with the southern and western states. Also, those states, which are not landlocked, have developed well.

Look at Bihar's regional profile.

When the British ruled, it faced devastating conditions. Bihar was part of Bengal. It was subjected to maximum exploitation. Not only were the resources of these areas abused, but also the deficiencies of the Mumbai and Madras presidencies were met from here.

Moreover, due to the Bengal presidency's extermination by the British, Bihar was starved.

The land-tilling system also affected Bihar. There were intermediaries between the people and the state. Revenue generation was less here. There was continuous exploitation of tillers by the zamindars.

Even public investment was meager. Wherever there was a direct relationship between tillers and the State, there was more development.

Then, in Bihar, there was no regular survey operations by the government or tax networks because the zamindars collected the rent from tillers. So, there was no presence of a government.

Historically, the quality of governance suffered in this part of the country. It was similar in Bengal and Orissa.

Now you can see in Bengal how most of the districts are falling like a house of cards.

'Lalu is trying to revive his image with Muslims'

Image: Muslim support is vital for Lalu Yadav's electoral success
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
What are Lalu Prasad Yadav's options?
Lalu is trying to consolidate his political base. Some social support of the Yadavs is still there.

He is trying to court the upper castes now. It is a tall order, but he is trying.

He is also trying to revive his image with the Muslims.

During Nitish Kumar's rule, many things have been done for Muslims.

The Bhagalpur riot accused have been convicted. A plethora of social security measures in favour of Muslims has been initiated.

In spite of the Bharatiya Janata Party being part of the ruling alliance, the agenda to help Muslims was never affected.

Lalu is taking the battle seriously. Rabri Devi is no more his proxy candidate.

The way he gave a share of tickets to (Lok Janshakti Party chief) Ramvilas Paswan shows that he is not very confident.

Caste will always be his hidden agenda.

Lalu will try to say that Nitish is following a radical land reform policy, which he will stop. That would please the upper caste sections.

From left of centre, Lalu Yadav is trying to get to right of centre.

'Robust land reforms may have political disadvantages'

Image: A project under the NREGA in progress at Sheikhpur in Bihar
Photographs: Desmond Boylan/Reuters
Do you think Nitish Kumar's controversial land policy was good for Bihar?
I think it is good for the state. Politically he may get some disadvantages but in Bihar, no land management was followed up after Independence.

In permanently settled areas you must have updated land records. How can you update it without proper land management?

Even for capitalist development, you must have updated land records, otherwise banks would not give you loans.

I was leading an international delegation for interaction with banks in Bihar and they were shocked that the land records were not updated.

During Congress rule, the policy was that any tenant (bhattedar) who had been working on it for 12 years and if he paid 44 times the rent, then that land would be his.

Theoretically, tenants had more rights during Congress rule, but sadly they were never implemented.

Nitish's initiation in land reforms could bring about a dramatic improvement in production.

Bihar doesn't have money resources to bring in technological intervention in agriculture, so Nitish Kumar wants institutional reforms.

'Congress-RJD coalition is not a viable one in Bihar'

Image: RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, erstwhile allies of UPA-I, address a rally in Patna
Photographs: Krishna Murari Kishan/Reuters
How do you see the revival of the Congress party in this election?
The Congress has not been revived. But the widespread antagonism of people in Bihar against the Congress has diminished.

Muslims are no more against the Congress.

The party is back in the reckoning. It was persona non grata. It is not so now.

Do you think Rahul Gandhi's national image will work?

The Congress's appeal has increased because of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. But that will not be sufficient to bring in change.

For that you need organisation. You need region-specific policies and iconic state-level leaders.

Do you think Lalu Yadav and the Congress should have gone together this election?

I think the social base of the Congress and Lalu Yadav is different. It has some kind of antagonistic contradiction in it. I don't think it's a viable coalition.

That is why their coalition never took off in Bihar.

In Bihar, the social base of the Congress and the social base of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) is, relatively, more similar.

'BJP feels the thunder of Nitish's popularity'

Image: BJP leader L K Advani with George Fernandes at an election rally in Bihar earlier this decade
Photographs: Reuters
Many experts believe the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) needs Nitish Kumar, not vice versa.
The BJP has declined in the context of Bihar. It has not reached a plateau in Bihar yet. The scope for growth is still there.

They (the BJP) have not pursued a personal agenda, but have followed the agenda of development of the state.

In that context their role has been very positive.

Yes, in a coalition, they do feel the thunder of Nitish Kumar's leadership and popularity.

In West Bengal, the ruling Left Front's coalition partners feel the same about the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

Can Nitish Kumar go it alone in Bihar?

It is a hypothetical question. It is taken for granted that Nitish himself doesn't feel that he can go alone, otherwise why would he continue with the NDA?

What is your reading of the fact that Nitish Kumar took offence to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's advertisement showing them both together?

Nitish always wanted to identify with that section of the BJP which was closer to (former prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee.

The way he is pursuing inclusive politics in Bihar, he thinks his identification with Narendra Modi may not go down well with the people.

Do you believe the argument that Bihar's idea of Hindutva is different and the people may not accept Narendra Modi's political message?

I have no idea. There has been no interface between Bihar and Narendra Modi.

Do you think Nitish Kumar will win this assembly election?

I will not go into the numbers game.

One has to analyse if Nitish Kumar has increased his social base at the micro level. He has increased his base.

We will see after the election to what extent his expanded social base transfers into votes.

For the moment, it appears he is ahead in the race.

If Nitish Kumar wins, will it be on the issue of governance?

Obviously. This is the first time in Bihar that it will be shown that issues of governance and development matter.

It is going to be a benchmark election in that sense.