Frontlist | JP to BJP: Santosh Singh’s book suffers from a lack of thematic coherence

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In recent years, attempts to find a historical register of contemporary politics in Bihar has swung between basket-case treatment and the glaring lack of attention to the particular. This has limited the frames of political commentary and journalistic analysis of the state’s politics in the news media as much as ossifying the scope of academic exercises.

The trajectory of post-Independence politics in Bihar has for long been seen within the realm of social alliances. This formulaic treatment has ranged from explaining the “coalition of extremes”, as American political scientist Paul Brass put it, during the initial years of Congress rule (the triumvirate of upper castes, Dalits and Muslims) to the response of Lohiaite socialist mobilization, the ferment of the JP movement, the OBC assertion, and even the churning that following the implementation of the Mandal report. In the process, it has also been sprinkled with a cast of characters that shaped, and were shaped by, the imperatives of state politics.

In its failure to look beyond these familiar tropes, journalist Santosh Singh’s book, JP to BJP: Bihar after Lalu and Nitish, disappoints on many counts.

Singh’s book fritters away a chance to find fresh prisms to look at the evolutionary strands of state politics or grasp the fluid nature of its current dynamics. Moreover, the sketchy nature of the book robs it of even its utility as a primer for beginners.

In what seems like a ham-handed attempt in the wake of the recent Bihar election, JP to BJP is undermined by limitations that are as much methodological as they are substantive. This is sad because far from being a parachute observer of the state politics, Singh has been reporting from Bihar for different media organisations.

To begin with, the book’s lack of thematic coherence causes it to stray – both intermittently and rather inexplicably. The narrative on the stages of Bihar’s socialist politics often loses steam, with too many and too lengthy anecdotal interventions. For instance, in revisiting the cast of characters – from Lohia and JP to Karpoori Thakur, Ramanand Tiwary, and Kapildeo Singh – at the helm of the socialist counter to the initial Congress dominance in the state, the book does not go beyond anecdotes and inadequate explanations.

In dwelling on the socialist challenge to the “Congress system”, as Rajni Kothari had dubbed the party’s cross-section interest absorption, the book does not reflect on the social nature of power configuration in the initial phase of Bihar’s democratic politics, or the process accompanying the shift and consolidation. Some obvious aspects that escaped the book’s analytical lens include the political evolution of different socio-economic constituents, factors fuelling upward social mobility or dragging sections into stagnation, and how the divergence as well as intersection of social and political capital of various caste and professional groups.

At the same stage, the book could have further probed the Congress’s failed efforts in course-correction in the face of the socialist challenge posed by parties like the Samyukta Socialist Party. This could have pinpointed early signs of the shifting sands of the social matrix.

As this piece details:

“The Congress in the 1970s was focused on consolidating its earlier support base which was showing fissures. It was aware of how the landless Dalits, disenchanted with the unfulfilled part of the land reforms, were moving towards the Left parties and even the extremist forces led by Naxal fronts. The party sought to correct the subversion of the Bihar Land Ceiling Act, 1961, with the Ceiling on Land Holdings (Amendment) Act of 1972-73, though the implementation of this Act also faced challenges of stratagems like the benaami zameen that the surplus landholders used.”

In later years, another interesting facet of this, that Singh could have probed, was why a sizeable section of Dalit politics in Bihar found the Left-tilted stream of Marx and Mao more appealing that the Ambedkarite stream of political mobilisation.

In reflecting on the Lohiaite “saikre saath” mobilisation, the OBC assertion in the state, and the heady days of the JP movement, Singh limits the narrative to a few leading figures. For example, including Karpoori Thakur without the attendant details of the socioeconomic churn seen during the emergence of the OBCs as the defining political community in the state. Similarly, the asymmetry within a number of caste groups constituting the OBCs – something Karpoori Thakur sought to address through the Bihar formula of November 1978 – could have been a significant aspect to revisit. Arun Sinha, one of Singh’s predecessors at the Patna bureau of the Indian Express, had hinted at some of the internal elements of the OBC power asymmetry in his book Battle for Bihar.

Among the many important aspects that escaped the book’s gaze is the arguments within the OBC leadership during the Mandal phase, the advent of which coincided with the emergence of Lalu Yadav.

To quote from this piece,

“This line Lalu adopted on Mandal caused fissures among the OBC leadership, a significant section of which was led by Nitish Kumar. In his early days of Lohiaite political action, and as one of the young leaders of the JP movement, Nitish had authored a document for the Yuva Janata, then the youth wing of the Janata Party. Nitish, despite belonging to the Kurmi caste of the upper backwards, was much more alive to the problems and claims of the EBCs. His proposal for a quota within a quota had found its place in the Karpoori formula.

“Along with Lalu’s insistence of doing away with the Karpoori formula in implementing the Mandal report, the Yadavisation of governance and party organisation during his rule made it clear that his OBC-Muslim coalition was actually a Yadav-Muslim social alliance – something that was later coined as the famed ‘M-Y axis’ of Bihar’s electoral politics.”

As I wrote in another piece:

“…the tilt towards upper-backwards, and particularly the dominance of the Yadavs and the Ashrafs (the upper crust of the state’s Muslim population), had exposed gaps and resentment even within the OBC-Muslim axis of social alliance powering the incumbent Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal. The RJD’s reliance on the M-Y axis was seen as a betrayal of the wider Lohiaite approach of the late 1960s.”

In the same phase of the state’s political evolution, the book does not adequately deal with what, in the long run, became the period’s prime imprint on public memory: the lumpenisation of public space and the brazen political patronage given to it. Here, it would be relevant to recall how only two years after the state entered the 1990s, the signs of “functioning anarchy” were becoming insidiously clear. Even though confined within his Marxist frame, scholar Arvind N Das had spotted the state’s slide into the rules of the internal jungle in his work The Republic of Bihar.

It was against the backdrop of these two factors that Nitish recognised a strong opening. He blended the non-Yadav OBCs and lower-rung Dalit groups with a moderation of rhetoric against the upper castes and the nurturing of development and governance as a constituency of its own.

In tracing the steady rise of the BJP in the state, Singh rambles. As a result, the diffused nature of the book’s focus becomes evident. Singh’s general foray into tracing the strands of religious identity politics in colonial India has only fleeting references to Bihar. Even here, the rigour of historical scrutiny is missing. The political articulation, for instance, of cow sacredness and the opposition to cow slaughter in modern India is far more complex than the book’s cursory inferences might suggest. Even before the 1882 riots in Kanpur, to which the book alludes, an important example of the many layers of the issue can be seen from the fact that one of the first major responses against cow slaughter came from a Sikh sect.

As I explained in this piece:

“In colonial India, one of the first major responses against cow slaughter, and a violent outburst for the cause of cow protection didn’t come from a Hindu group. Instead, it came from a Sikh sect practising vegetarianism, the Namdhari Sikhs (also known as the Kukas). Traced back to the 1870s, it was a response that was as much a confrontation with Muslims as it was a backlash against the British government’s intervention in what Namdharis valued as their community’s way of life.”

It resulted in a violent confrontation in 1871 and more violence in 1872 at Malerkotla in Punjab.

This aside, the book’s lazy blue-pencilling allows for many errors. On page 21, for example, Singh writes that Ram Vilas Paswan cleared the exam to become a daroga, or sub-inspector. Page 201 says Paswan qualified in the deputy superintendent of police exam. The latter is correct.

Similarly, on page 55, a quote from British political thinker Harold J Laski is confusingly attributed to “Laskey”. On page 143, Shrikishna Singh, described as a “Rajput leader”, is mentioned to have died in 1957, though he actually died in 1961 and his name was never tied to “Rajput leadership”. Perhaps the author had Anugrah Narayan Singh in mind.

In the “late 1990s”, the book sees Sharad Yadav as the number two in Devi Lal’s Lok Dal on page 158, and being courted by Lalu and Nitish. However, the late 1990s saw Lalu forming the RJD in 1997 with Nitish already being a part of the newly formed Samata Party by 1994. Sharad Yadav was president of the Janata Dal in 1997 before being part of the JDU in 2003. Devi Lal’s Lok Dal was obviously out of their political landscape. The book clearly got its sense of “late 1990s” muddled.

Similarly, the RJD’s opposition to the Centre’s reservations for economically weaker sections, or EWS, receives a new turn in the book on page 253 which, incorrectly, refers to reservations for “extremely backward classes”. These are only a few examples of many glaring errors, where the book has sacrificed accuracy for quick publication, or dispensed with editorial revision.

So, in its sketchy and fumbling attempt to trace the strands of continuity and change in Bihar’s political landscape, Santosh Singh’s book is marred by a lack of ambition. Amidst other limitations, it’s held back by a lack of original engagement in its understanding of the entrenched and emerging political space. While it offers nothing new to old students of Bihar politics, its limited historical frame and anecdote-heavy treatment do not have much for initiates too.


Read more: Sikh historian’s book on Akal Takht Sahib

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