Bihar rejects politics of hate

Abhay Kumar

Until deep into the night before November 8, the day of declaration of results for the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, I received several calls and was visited by many worrying faces. ‘Will the Mahagathbandhan [Grand Alliance] win?’ asked Mohammad Umar Farooque, who hails from Sitamarhi (Bihar) and currently teaches economics at Delhi University. Fear crept up in the hearts of Farooque and many others after a few exit-poll predictions gave the BJP-led alliance a clear majority.

 Since I toured many parts of Bihar for over two weeks during these polls, my views on the results of Bihar elections were sought. They were anxious that I should reassure them that the BJP was going to lose.

In the early hours of the next morning when the initial trend showed the BJP having a lead over the Grand Alliance, the heartbeats of my friend Gautam Buddha Rai of JNU increased. But the bubbles of BJP’s chances of winning elections soon burst as the trailing Mahagathbandhan surged ahead and suddenly went past the magic figure.

 ‘The psychological trauma is finally over’, clapped 25-year-old Wasim from Begusarai (Bihar), welcoming the surge of the Mahagathbandhan. Since the morning he remained glued to TV in Delhi.

 At the end of the day when the dust settled, the final result clearly gave a two-thirds majority to JD-U-RJD-Congress-led Grand Alliance which won as many as 178 seats out of 243, while the BJP-led NDA bit the dust, winning mere 58 seats.

 However, the biggest gainer of Bihar polls was Lalu Prasad Yadav-led RJD which won 80 seats, while Nitish-led JD-U bagged 71 seats. Having struck an alliance with Nitish-Lalu paid rich dividends to the Congress as the Grand Old Party of India won 27 seats out of 41 it had contested.

 Unlike the tirade of the BJP and a large section of upper-caste dominated media against Lalu for being the architect of “jungle raj”, he walked away with man of the match award. While his role in consolidating backwards and minority votes in favour of the Grand Alliance was crucial, he was also at the forefront of taking on the BJP.

 Srikant, director of Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Studies and Political Research (Patna), had told me in an interview in Patna before the counting of polls that the “aggressive campaign” of the BJP, particularly its jibe against Lalu, had consolidated a large section of backwards against it. ‘Calling Lalu’s rule as a jungle raj is informed by one’s social location in fovour of feudal forces. For example, those who are opposed to backwards would call it jungle raj,’ asserted Srikant.

 Seen in retrospect, the aggressive use of communal and anti-lower castes cards undoubtedly turned out to be detrimental to the BJP, bringing down the number of its MLAs from 91 in the previous assembly to 53 out of 157 it contested. Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Upendra Kushwaha’s RSLD, which were on BJP’s boat, too sank as none of them could reach anywhere near the double digit figure.

 With this humiliating defeat, Narendra Modi -who aggressively campaigned in Bihar and resorted to communal speeches, which did not befit the stature of a Prime Minister -has lost the carefully crafted halo around him. Unlike his own rhetoric of development to all, his government has been working in favour of the rich and corporates, while rabid Hindutva leaders have been given protection, their anti-minority and anti-Dalit venom created an atmosphere of intolerance, fear and hate.

 Notwithstanding BJP’s claim that development is its “core agenda”, BJP leaders in Bihar, since the beginning of the electoral campaign, were trying to create communal polarization. For example, BJP President Amit Shah-weeks before his widely-condemned remarks, that crackers would be burst in Pakistan if the BJP would lose Bihar elections, had raised the issue of beef in a Samastipur rally on October 10.

 Launching an attack on Lalu for his remarks that Hindus also ate beef, Amit Shah said, what kind of gau-palak (cow-breeder) Lalu is that he had made no difference between beef and mutton. He then went on to say that if the BJP came to power, it would enforce a complete ban on killing cows and its breeds.

 From the first phase till the last, beef remained on the plate of the BJP in Seemanchal. On the eve of the final phase of elections, a BJP advertisement was printed in several newspapers showing a woman hugging a cow with a bold headline questioning Nitish’s “silence” over the issue of cow slaughter and saying, ‘Mr. Chief Minister you maintained silence while your ally kept insulting the cow, worshiped by every Indian.’

 While the Election Commission took exception to these advertisements, the BJP, unmindful of such warnings, continued to work for polarising voters on religious lines particularly in Seemanchal which has a considerable Muslim population.

 Such politics of hate by the BJP leaders created an atmosphere of fear among Muslims. During my interactions with Muslims in many parts of Bihar, they raised serious concern about BJP’s attempt to create frenzy over the beef issue. ‘The BJP wants to derive unfair benefit from this,” said Shabbir Ahmad from Samastipur. Many others charged the BJP leaders with pursuing “double-standards” in the beef issue. “Ninety per cent of the people in beef business are Hindus. The BJP wants to fool people. Earlier too, the same party did the same thing in the name of temple’, Ahmad added.

 When asked what Muslims felt after the recent incident of lynching at Dadri, Haji Mohmmad Azim Ansari from Samastipur said that no untoward incident could take place in Samastipur as Muslims maintained patience (sabr) in the wake of any provocation, while the administration of Bihar “kept the situation under control”.

 However, they added that politics over beef had led to creating suspicion among Hindus. “One of the fallouts of the politicisation of beef is that a section of Hindus is turning suspicious when food items are offered to them by Muslims,” rued Haji Mohammad Azim.

 But, as the results indicated, a majority of the voters in Bihar elections, both Muslims and non-Muslims, have slammed BJP’s politics of cow and beef. ‘Cow, instead of giving milk [victory to the BJP] has delivered the party dung [defeat]’, was one such reaction of people on social media.

 Yet another issue that backfired on BJP was reservation. While the Grand Alliance leaders, particularly Lalu, exposed the BJP for being anti-lower castes by quoting the statement of RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat about the need to review reservations, the BJP, sensing the consolidation of lower castes in favour of the Grand Alliance, tried to give it a religious colour to arrest lower castes mobilising against it. 

 To communalise the issue of reservation, none other than the Prime Minister came forward. Addressing a public rally in Madhubani in the last phase of the elections, he made a wild allegation that Nitish and Lalu want a review of reservations so as to give part of it to Muslims.

Besides using Prime Minister to spread such a false propaganda, the BJP went on to print advertisements in local newspapers about “quota conspiracy”, accusing Lalu and Nitish of snatching Dalits and Backwards of their share of reservations and giving it to a minority (Muslims).

 Behind such strategies, BJP’s game was to paint Muslims as the “other” or the “enemy” of society and mobilise Hindus on religious lines. But the roots of social justice and Mandal politics in Bihar were so deep that the majority of people in the state could easily sense BJP’s tricks.

 During my interactions with a large section of lower castes and Dalits, whom the BJP was eying as potential voters, said that they would vote for the Grand Alliance as the BJP serves upper castes interests. For examples, a large section of Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe, also called Bathe, a small village on the river Son in Arwal, that hit the national headlines in the winter of 1997 when 58 Dalits and lower caste people were killed allegedly by upper caste-Bhumihar militia Ranvir Sena in a single night-said that they would vote for the Grand Alliance. ‘If BJP wins, Babhans (upper caste Bhumihars) and [upper caste] Rajputs would become sher (lions),’ said Mritunjay Kumar. Like Mritunjay, noted author Srikant called the BJP as a Brahminical party. Besides the issues of beef and reservations, price-rise and cuts in welfare schemes by the Modi Government had a negative impact on BJP’s prospects of winning elections in Bihar. For example, some passengers, most of them women who were sitting on a three-wheeler from Khagol to Phulwari Sharif near Patna, expressed their anger against the Modi Government for price rise. ‘Dal (pulses) have become out of our reach’, rued one woman, addressing the driver who, in turn, asked them not to vote for the BJP as it would, if it was voted to power, further cause price rise.

 It is logical that the issue of price rise might have played a role in determining the voting behaviour of a large section of women. According to the election commission data in the 2015 Bihar polls, 60.57 per cent of women cast their votes as against only 53.41 per cent male voters.

 Given that, the leaders of the Grand Alliance too raised the issue of price rise in their rallies. Lalu, addressing a public rally in Mahua on October 21, said, when the issue of price-rise was raised, Modi replied that the price of petrol had come down. ‘What if the price of petrol had come down and that of pulses has gone up. Are you going to drink petrol?’ wondered Lalu.

 Similarly, Nitish in his rally in Punpun in Phulwari Sharif on October 19, said ‘BJP ki dal galne wali nahin hai’. Nitish used the local idiom of ‘dal nahin galegi’ which means that one would not succeed despite making all kinds of efforts. He further said that the prices of dal had shot up to Rs. 200 a kg during Modi regime. ‘People are somehow surviving (guzara) with bhaat-tarkari (rice and vegetables) and mand-bhat [rice and rice water],’ added the chief minister.

 With the Grand Alliance wining two-thirds majority in Bihar, the myth of Modi being “invincible” and “unstoppable” has been demolished second time within a year after the BJP’s defeat in Delhi Assembly Elections. The victory of Nitish has given a boost to a move for greater solidarity of opposition parties against Modi Government. This has also lent credibility to the protest of hundreds of intellectuals, artists, writers, key personalities from the world of cinema, literature and culture against the rising intolerance in the country, whom the ruling establishment is criticizing for spoiling the reputation of the country. Besides, the dominance of Modi and BJP President Amit Shah in the BJP would be increasingly questioned by other fractions in the party.

 However, the splendid victory to JD-U, RJD and Congress parties does not mean that the challenges they face are over. The real test of the Grand Alliance begins now as it has to live up to the expectation of this huge mandate in Bihar as well as all over the country.

 During my interactions in Bihar, I gathered that while Backwards, Dalits and Muslims were determined to vote for the Grand Alliance, they also had grievances against the forces of social justice that have ruled the state for the last 25 years. Among such complainants were two widows, a Dalit and a Muslim, from Zahidpur in Phulwari Sharif constituency, who had come to attend Nitish’s rally at Punpun High School. Middle-aged Ishrat Parwin, whose deceased husband used to sell eggs, works as a maid servant. She expressed her grievances, ‘I do not have any rozgar (employment). I also do not have a BPL card, house or a toilet.’ Similarly, a Dalit widow Meena Devi said that she did not have a hand-pump nor a toilet in her house.

 But interestingly, their grievances against the government did not come in the way of their choice of the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar. ‘I will vote for Nitish’, said Meena Devi, while Ishrat asserted that if she had come to listen to Nitish, she would also vote for him.

 While the victory of the Grand Alliance is welcomed by the forces of secularism and social justice, the Grand Alliance’s real test lies in their ability to reach out to likes of Meena Devi and Ishrat Prawin.

Abhay Kumar covered Bihar elections for The Milli Gazette.