Muslims, peasants key to Bihar polls

Ranjit Devraj:

Eastern Bihar, reckoned as India’s most lawless region, completed this week the second and last phase of voting for a new provincial assembly in an election that is most likely to return to power the same coterie of politicians that have ruled the state for the past 15 years. Muslims account for 17 per cent of Bihar’s 85 million people and together with the largely peasant Hindu Yadav caste, which forms another 17 per cent, provide the backbone for the regional Rashtriya Janta Dal Party (RJD) and the politics of its supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav.

For the past 15 years, Yadav has ruled Bihar directly as chief minister or by proxy through his wife Rabri Devi. The RJD is now favoured to win yet another five-year term in the current elections.

Additionally, the RJD is a key ally in the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance that defeated the right-wing, pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections held eight months ago with the single purpose of defeating ‘communal forces.’

In the new dispensation at the centre, Yadav himself holds down the important Railway Ministry portfolio while exercising control over Bihar as president of the RJD party and by installing his wife as chief minister.

Over the years, Yadav’s rivals have tried to wean away his formidable power base among the Muslims and also from his own caste but so far, the combination has held together in spite of charges of poor governance in Bihar.

Thus Ram Vilas Paswan, a contender for power in Bihar and a champion of secular values, finds himself campaigning with an Osama bin Laden look-alike in the hope of swaying the Muslims to his Lok Janshakti Party.

Another challenger Nitish Kumar, leader of the Samta Party that is closely allied to the BJP, has been accusing the RJD of being long on promises to the people and short on actual delivery. Against that criticism, Yadav has one enviable record — during the 15 years that he has been in power, Bihar, for all its lawlessness, has not had a single instance of communal violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

In 1992, despite the rioting and mayhem across the country following the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state by zealots from the BJP, there was peace in Bihar. On the other hand, within India’s Hindus, there is a discrimination of another kind. The Yadavs and other middle castes have become beneficiaries of the government’s positive discrimination policies, and because of this they are deeply resented by their upper caste co-religionists. This has actually played into the hands of Laloo, who portrays himself as the champion of the Yadavs and the underprivileged class. For that reason, nothing has dented the RJD’s popularity.

For many Biharis, experts claim, the RJD gives them a sense of dignity that no other party would. Rakesh Chaubey, a fellow at the Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar’s capital Patna, said he viewed Yadav’s political success in the face of continued bad press as a classic example of ‘’middle class monopoly over knowledge dissemination’’ and how the media failed to understand the element of caste politics in the state.

The elections in Bihar began with a spate of mysterious kidnappings of students from some of Patna’s elite schools. When the schoolmates of the victims staged protests Yadav pointedly refused to meet them on the grounds that the whole thing was being stage-managed by his political opponents in an attempt to make the lawlessness charges stick. —IPS