Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have come together after two decades to ward off the most powerful enemy they have ever faced. But their collective wisdom has not travelled beyond caste politics as apparent in the anointment of a Mahadalit as the new Bihar CM. It is because they have identified Narendra Modi as their nemesis and Ram Vilas Paswan has swum with the tide for a record fifth time to confuse matters further.
In the 20 years that Nitish-Mayawati- Lalu-Mulayam-Paswan-BJP have been playing the Mandal-Mandir games, the rules may have remained the same, but the rest of the scenario has changed like never before. Their nemesis now is not an individual but the electorate itself. Modi understood this better, and while making allowance for the old-timers who still vote on caste-communal lines (through Baba Ramdev, Upendra Kushwaha and Amit Shah), he moved the chessboard elsewhere.
The numbers have changed, the new voter in UP and Bihar has grown up in a post-Mandir, post-OBC reservation neo-liberal environment. By the time anyone born in the late 1980s and ’90s became a voter, these issues had been subsumed by employment, development and self-preservation- first attitude. Nitish is believed to have favoured Kurmis and Lalu the Yadavs all their political lives. Look where it got them in 2014. Whereas the most potent promise Modi made was he will turn UP-Bihar into Gujarat. Thirty one percent of voters in UP and 35 percent voters in Bihar fell in this neo-liberal generation. And look what Modi got.
The General Election has traditionally been held for the benefit of residents of UP and Bihar. The rest of the country just sort of plays along. With 120 seats, they pretty much dictate who will ride to the South Block office. Every party knows a wave has to work here. All the Mandal- Masjid-Mandir strategies are formulated for this region. The rest of the country will only be recipients of collective wisdom of voters here. For long, the UP Brahmins believed only they could decide who ruled India. Then in the late 1980s, the Mandir issue brought in the BJP, which was quickly swallowed by Mandal forces, which brought in Maya, Lalu, Mulayam and Paswan clad in social engineering robes. Tired of incessant caste wars, hooligans and lack of development unleashed by successive OBC and Dalit governments, the electorate has finally opted for the Gujarat model.
But what does it mean for the rest of us? It is good that the electorate there has matured, and perhaps pushed by a more selfie generation, now wants to become Punjab, Gujarat or Maharashtra where as ‘bhaiyas’ they have traditionally looked for a better life. UP has been rewarded with 10 Union ministers, including the top two. Bihar has another six. That’s a third of the Cabinet. There is very little outside defence and transport that these ministers will not dictate. Fewer ministers, so fewer bureaucrats familiar with problems of other states, which in turn means fewer favourable policies.
It does show Modi’s willingness to start turning the wheels in these states. The per capita income of UP and Bihar is in the region of Rs 50,000 per annum. It is significantly less than that of Gujarat at Rs 89,000 but it is on par with states like Chhattisgarh and Odisha, which also deserve the Centre’s attention.
In Modi’s model, special packages may actually be considered anti-development. Nitish wants special treatment for Bihar on par with the hill states, with soft loans and softer payback. Why should the rest of the country not be given similar packages? Most states are now fighting insurgencies, disease and poor infrastructure development. True, ministers alone will not be able to swing policies and determine the attitude of the bureaucracy towards their state, but with the expected return of the dominance of the UP and Bihar cadres in Union ministries, lesser states will suffer. The decline of dominance of UP cadre had meant more key ministries were handled by officers from MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan for the first time. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Punjab managed well because of their strong corporate sector. Modi’s win may have in some ways reversed the equation back to square one.