The return of Nitish Kumar as the chief minister of Bihar has been welcomed by many as a good augury for democracy and development in the state. Bihar has had more than its fair share of misfortune in the last few decades due to the reckless and irresponsible failures of governance. Nitish Kumar took charge of affairs five years ago just when people had begun to feel that things could not possibly get worse in Bihar.
Yet, there was a time when the advent of Lalu Prasad was welcomed by many well-meaning intellectuals as a breath of fresh air in the stagnant waters of Indian politics. I remember listening silently to a conversation between two well-known intellectuals, one Indian and the other European, both of whom maintained that, unlike P.V. Narasimha Rao and his then finance minister, he was a man of the people who could galvanize the masses by his deep and sincere commitment to social justice.
This is not to suggest that Nitish Kumar will end in the same way as Lalu Prasad. The two leaders have shown themselves to be very different in character and temperament. Whereas Lalu Prasad was flamboyant, Nitish Kumar is earnest, and that is all to the latter’s credit. By all accounts, Nitish Kumar’s achievements in his first term of office as chief minister have been solid and substantial. He has performed more than creditably in addressing the two major problems by which Bihar had been bedevilled for a long time: law and order on the one hand and infrastructure on the other. Extortionists and buccaneers have been brought under control, and the roads are safer and better lit at night.
Nitish Kumar’s achievements stand out as remarkable, partly because there was so much leeway to make up. As that leeway becomes reduced by virtue of his own sustained efforts, his further achievements will appear less remarkable in the future. Electoral politics, despite what the television pundits say, is notoriously fickle. There is no more basis for believing in the rationality of the voter under democracy than in the rationality of the consumer under capitalism. Five years from now, Nitish Kumar is bound to face a more severe test than the one he has recently passed. After all, it is not such a bad thing in a democracy for incumbents of high office to be kept on their toes.
Some commentators have taken the view that, by focusing on development, Nitish Kumar is putting an end to the politics of caste and community, or what many now call identity politics. Their optimism is, in my judgment, hasty and premature. The people of Bihar no doubt want development — better roads, an assured supply of water and electricity, better schools and health centres and so on — and no doubt their present chief minister is sincere in his commitment to development. But there is no reason to believe that the pursuit of development requires the rejection of identity politics.
It is well to remind ourselves of where we stood at the time of Independence. At that time our nationalist leaders as well as our progressive intellectuals believed that the advance of democracy would lead to the withering away of caste. They were by and large convinced that caste was antithetical to the principle and practice of democracy. They knew, of course, that caste was still an active presence in the country. But they believed that it was artificially boosted by their colonial rulers so as to serve the policy of divide and rule and to obstruct the growth of democracy. They were convinced that once they secured freedom from colonial rule and instituted democracy in India, caste would gradually begin to weaken. They were no doubt sincere in their belief, but that does not mean that they were right.
M.N. Srinivas was one of the first to pick up the signals of the resilience and the resurgence of caste in independent India. In a presidential address to the Indian Science Congress in 1957, he argued that democratic politics was giving a new lease of life to caste. At that time, many academics and journalists took a sceptical view of his argument and some even treated it with scorn as being backward-looking and reactionary. Yet events were to show that Srinivas had been right and his critics too complacent in their faith in the transformative powers of democratic politics.
Will the emphasis on development by itself put an end to the preoccupation with caste and community? I believe that it will not, and for the following reasons. Development is about creating more resources and better facilities. And to the extent that Nitish Kumar continues to deliver on these fronts, he will continue to be well-regarded. But development is not only about the creation of resources and facilities, it is also about their distribution in a just and socially equitable manner. It is not at all certain that Nitish Kumar’s ideas about equity and social justice are radically different from those of his two immediate predecessors. No doubt he is more serious and earnest than they were; what is in doubt is whether caste and community will be far from his mind when he thinks of a just distribution of the fruits of development.
Many years ago, well before either Nitish Kumar or Lalu Prasad had appeared as major players in the political arena, an academic grandee from Bihar told me that in his state only the mosquito was free from caste. It attacked everyone equally without consideration of caste whereas human beings always took caste into account in planning their assaults. He was of course speaking half in jest, and about the academic profession in particular. It is difficult to judge how deep or pervasive the consciousness of caste was before Independence. Bihar did not experience the kind of social and cultural movements that discredited caste, at least to some extent, in the adjacent state of West Bengal.
After Independence, caste came to be used extensively in mobilizing electoral support at every level of the political system. Nor was it only a matter of electoral support. There was also an ideological justification for the use of caste to meet the ends of social justice. Bihar proved to be particularly hospitable to the socialist vision of Ram Manohar Lohia, who seemed to argue as if caste were India’s destiny. It may not be entirely accidental that B.P. Mandal, whose name has become a byword for caste quotas in education and employment, came from the state of Bihar.
In any democracy based on popular support, political leaders have to think of redistributing the benefits and burdens of society among its constituent members. But there is a world of difference between redistributing them among individuals or households or classes, and redistributing them among castes and communities. Moving from the latter to the former will require a monumental shift of social perception. Nitish Kumar is, no less than Lalu Prasad, an intellectual heir of Ram Manohar Lohia. There is as yet little evidence to show that he is prepared to assign primacy to any other kind of social division over the divisions of caste in redressing social disparities.