Most people think of Bihar only as the most backward state in India with an army of unemployed youth. The only positive aspect of modern Bihar in the eyes of most Indians is that Bihar is also the home of a very large number of Civil Service officers, scientists and engineers. Yet, we tend to forget that Bihar is also the cradle of Indian civilisation, the birthplace of Sita, the place where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment, home of India’s first democracy, capital of Emperor Ashoka, playground of Chanakya and much more.
Patna, the capital of Bihar is the modern name of Pataliputra, one of the most celebrated cities of ancient India. The area of Patna and Gaya constituted the core of the ancient kingdom of Magadth. Archaeological remnants of the ancient universities of Nalanda and Vikram Shila are testimonies of Bihar’s glorious past.
History of modern Bihar probably starts with the victory of the army of the East India Company in the battle of Buxar, now a district town in western Bihar. Buxar is not very far from the home of Sher Shah Suri, the ruler of Delhi who introduced the modern system of Revenue Administration in India. It is interesting that many aspects of governance of Sher Shah had been adopted with minor modifications by Akbar and the British colonial rulers. Yet, Bihar is known for a broken revenue system left behind by the Permanent Settlement introduced by Lord Cornwallis, the third British Governor General of India.
Cornwallis did not want the British to go through the hassle of collecting land revenue from individual owners of land and, therefore, settled this task permanently with feudal lords known as Zamindars who deposited a fixed amount with the British Treasury and collected revenue from individual land owners in their respective areas. These Zamindars had huge establishments to collect revenue and carry out local improvement projects. This system covered the whole of what was then known as the Calcutta Presidency and it produced a new class of social parasites who lived on the earnings of others without doing anything themselves. The worst aspect of the Zamindari system was the creation of an aspirational model of a person enjoying the best of everything without doing any work. Zamindars were the local kings without an army and without any control over the machinery that maintained law and order, controlled crime and provided the judicial system.
Some of them cultivated parts of the land in their zamindari and also spent money from the common kitty to conserve the common properties of villages. Some were also known for the patronage of art and culture. The more studious of their children had the best of education and even went to England for higher studies. The brightest among these well educated people became barristers, judges, doctors and members of the coveted Indian Civil Service (ICS) and Indian Police (IP). The common factor that distinguished the elite of the society was that all of them belonged to upper caste Hindu and aristocratic Muslim families.
It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi started his struggle against the British in India from Champaran, a district in North Bihar. He had been invited to Champaran for taking over leadership of the local agitation against Indigo farmers by some educated people belonging to the local zamindar families. The undisputed leadership of rich upper caste persons in the public space was to continue in Bihar for a couple of decades even after India won freedom from the British.
The first Chief Minister of Bihar was Shri Krishna Singh, known as Shribabu, who was a Bhumihar and his main rival within Congress Party was Anugrah Narain Singh, a Rajput. Rivalry between Bhumihars and Rajputs was the main feature of the Bihar unit of Congress Party during the first two decades of Independent India. Anugrah babu (Grandfather of Nikhil Kumar who later became Governor of Kerala) died before Shribabu. When Shribabu died, he was replaced by a Kayasth, Krishna Ballabh Sahay, from his group. KB Sahay was, however, replaced by a Brahmin, Binodananda Jha, as part of the Kamaraj Plan introduced by Indira Gandhi. Congress itself was, however, swept out of power in 1967.
1967 was in many ways the watershed moment in the caste politics of Bihar as the general elections held that year ended the upper caste domination of Bihar politics. Though the short-lived coalition government that replaced the Congress was nominally led by a Congress rebel belonging to an upper caste, the strength of the emerging forces of backward castes was so obvious to all that Indira Gandhi chose to install a backward caste Chief Minister in Bihar when she broke with the traditional leadership of her party in 1969.
Bhumihar, Rajput and Brahmin are the three forward castes with significant presence in almost all the constituencies. Of these, Bhumihars were almost solidly with the Congress until it lost its moorings. They shifted their loyalty to the Bharatiya Janata Party when they realised that Congress was unlikely to make a come back in Bihar in the near future. They are very intelligent and rich landowners with muscle power and claim that they are Brahmins who lost the Brahminical tag when they took up farming under Buddhist influence. Rajputs are more individualistic in their political loyalties in spite of the caste affinity and are equally divided between the ruling and the opposition groups. Brahmins do not know where they stand now. Brahmins of North India used to consider Indira Gandhi as their leader and well-wisher and later shifted their loyalty to Atal Behari Vajpayee, another prominent Brahmin face. They do not consider Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi as a Brahmin but are not sure of a secure place in BJP either.
Kayasthas are a forward community with a dominant presence in bureaucracy all over North India whether the rulers are Hindus, Muslims or foreigners. Their concentration is, however, limited to the capital and adjoining areas. This community has produced stalwarts like India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad and the eminent Socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan and new age celebrities like former finance minister Yaswant Sinha, film actor Shatrughan Sinha, and present Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. When Yaswant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha were with the BJP, Kayasthas were solidly behind that party but now they are a divided lot.
The most dominant backward caste is Yadav. Though this caste has some presence in almost every state in India, they are important politically in Bihar and UP. Though many of the Yadavs like BP Mandal of the Mandal Commission fame were big landowners, they had very little presence in the highest echelons of bureaucracy until OBC reservation was implemented by Prime Minister VP Singh. Lalu Yadav was president of the Patna University Union during the agitation that led to the declaration of Emergency and became a Member of Parliament in the Janata Wave of 1977.
Lalu Yadav became leader of the Janata Dal Legislative Party in a three-way split of votes and became the Chief Minister after the next election. Once in the chair, he successfully consolidated his position as leader of the backward communities and decimated the Congress by skilfully agreeing to all the personal requests of Congress leaders who were made to look like invisible supporters of Lalu Yadav. By directly interacting with ground level officers, he established supremacy of his caste over the state machinery despite not having many persons of his caste at the higher levels. He ruled Bihar for 15 years without ever selling the dream of development and only invoking caste pride.
Nitish Kumar upset the applecart of Lalu Yadav by exposing how the other backward castes had been neglected by the latter. The Kurmi community of Nitish is much smaller in number and more educationally advanced than Yadavas but Nitish played a masterstroke by identifying himself with the sentiment of the Most Backward Communities that they were being taken for granted in spite of their numbers.
In fact, the leading communities of OBC corner all the benefits of reservation leaving others in the lurch. By offering a separate quota for them, Nitish was able to win them over. The result was that Nitish too ruled Bihar for 15 years. Since Nitish had entered politics as a socialist with secular values, he was able to garner significant support from those Muslims who were not happy with Lalu Yadav. His voter-base got a further boost by encouraging disgruntled elements of other parties to migrate to his party.
Dalits constitute a major segment of the electorate but it would be wrong to think that this is a monolithic segment. Chamars and Paswans, the two prominent castes among Dalits, have never been on the same page. Jagjivan Ram was a Chamar like Mayawati of UP while Ram Vilas Paswan was a Paswan as the name suggests.
Muslims constitute the other major segment in the electorate. Though Muslim presence is there in most of the constituencies, their main concentration is in North Eastern Bihar bordering Bengal. Muslim votes used to be divided among RJD of Lalu Yadav, JDU of Nitish Kumar and Congress. With Congress and RJD coming together and JDU going for an alliance with the BJP, Muslim votes could have been a solid support base for the opposition but for the Owaisi factor. The argument of Owaisi of Hyderabad is that Muslims should protect their own interests instead of depending on others. The Opposition parties, however, say that Owaisi is in cahoots with BJP to split Muslim votes. The impact of Owaisi will be known only when the election results are announced.
The present Bihar election has become a tussle between supporters and detractors of the Nitish government though efforts are being made by the BJP to make it appear as a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity. For the first time, themes of development and employment seem to have taken centre stage eclipsing caste considerations. Will this apparent change transform the election calculus in Bihar is the question for which an answer is eagerly awaited. What complicates this calculus is the fact that nearly 60% of the electorate became eligible to vote in the last decade and have only a very faint idea about the credentials of the opposition parties. The polls predicting a Nitish victory on the one hand and the vast crowds coming to the rallies of Tejashwi Yadav on the other make any prediction of the Bihar election results extremely difficult.
(The author is a former Bihar cadre civil service officer and ex-member of Union Public Service Commission. The views expressed are personal.)