The government’s announcement of a Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur strongly underlines the limitations of a singular approach in electoral politics. It is no coincidence that the announcement was made the very day after the consecration of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. This also shows the pragmatism in the politics of the Narendra Modi-led BJP. This tells us that the BJP may not be so confident of repeating its Lok Sabha performance of 2019 when it won 17 of Bihar’s 40 seats. The NDA along with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) had won 39 seats.
In Bihar’s electoral politics, any combo pairing up two out of the JDU, BJP, and RJD can sweep elections. The BJP has been on a sticky wicket ever since the Nitish Kumar-led party switched sides and formed a government with Lalu Yadav’s RJD. The BJP is aware that the Nitish Kumar-led seven-party alliance is a formidable force. The Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur is a step to minimise any damage.
Karpoori Thakur, a strong follower of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jai Prakash Narayan, was known for his OBC politics. He belonged to the most backward community in the OBC (Other Backward Classes) category. He was a Nai (barber) by caste, which is not considered either powerful or dominant in the Hindu caste hierarchy and is much lower in the caste order. Yet, he emerged as a powerful leader and served as the Chief Minister twice – in 1970-1971 and later 1977-1979. It can be argued that he never got a full term. But even in his brief tenure, he formulated a reservation system for caste-ridden Bihar, marking nothing short of a revolutionary change. He emphasised that OBCs should not be categorised as one monolith and that the bloc suffered the same ills of a Hindu caste society – upper castes dominating the power structure and enjoying the fruits of power and the others left with a marginal share despite being more in number.
Thakur was aware that in Bihar, within the OBC section, the Yadavs, Kurmis, and Kushwahas enjoy most of the perks, not just in electoral politics but also in government jobs. It is for this reason that when he became Chief Minister, he implemented the recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission, which identified 94 most backward communities from among 128 OBC castes. This was famously called the Karpoori Thakur formula. According to this formula, other than a 25% reservation constitutionally given to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 26% was reserved for other sections of the society. Of this 26%, 12% was for the OBCs, 8% for the economically most backward castes within the OBCs, 3% for women and the remaining 3% was granted to the poor among the upper castes. This was done more than a decade before the VP Singh government decided to give 27% reservation to OBCs, as recommended by the Mandal Commission.
VP Singh did not bother to give special attention to the economically most backward castes among the OBCs. Not surprisingly, he faced the allegation that instead of being honest to the concept of social justice, he played a political move to checkmate his former cabinet colleague, Devi Lal, who had revolted against him. The concept of a creamy layer within the OBC was introduced by the Supreme Court of India. But to the credit of VP Singh, the implementation of the Mandal Commission changed the politics of the country; it unleashed a new OBC energy and produced new leaders in national politics, like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Kalyan Singh, and Uma Bharti. OBC politics was instrumental in slowing down the march of Mandir politics in the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It was because of the combined strength of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram, and later Mayawati, that the BJP, after forming government in 1990, had to wait for more than 25 years to take power on its own. To date, the BJP has not succeeded in Bihar. It had to piggyback on Nitish Kumar to rule in the state.
When Rajnath Singh became the Chief Minister of UP in 2000, he did try to lure the EBCs (Economically Backward castes). He had instituted a committee chaired by Hukum Singh to identify EBCs within the OBC. The committee recommended 5% reservation for Yadavs, 9% for eight other OBCs, and 14% for the remaining 70 OBCs. This was to break the hegemony of Yadavs in UP politics and draw the non-Yadav OBCs, especially EBCs, towards the BJP. But before Rajnath could implement this formula, the party lost the UP election and the Hukum Singh Committee report never saw the light of day.
Once Modi became its supreme leader, the BJP started weighing the option of making inroads within the OBC community. It realized that the domination of the powerful Yadavs, Kurmis, and Kushwahas had alienated the other weaker castes within the OBC fold. One of the reasons that the BJP accepted Nitish Kumar as the leader of its alliance in Bihar was that after becoming Chief Minister, he had successfully wooed the EBCs. With Nitish Kumar exiting the NDA, however, the BJP stands to lose the support of EBCs.
Nitish Kumar has further complicated matters by making the caste census report public and challenging the BJP to support it publicly. The BJP is ambivalent on the subject, given the divide within. If it supports the caste census, the BJP risks antagonizing the upper castes who, at the moment, are overwhelmingly voting for the party. The BJP is also bound by its ideology of Hindutva, which is a project to unite caste-ridden Hindus as one unit. The BJP believes that caste politics, or Mandal politics, will cleave the Hindu society further and reinforce caste consciousness, which will damage the united Hindu identity.
The inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, besides creating a meta-Hindutva narrative, is also an attempt to neutralise the Opposition’s demand for a caste census. The BJP knows that caste consciousness is deeply entrenched in the Hindu psyche. And that the Opposition, particularly the combined strength of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, could succeed in making the caste census a pivotal issue during the parliamentary elections. Also, the Ram temple euphoria may have limited appeal. It is for this reason that the Modi government has suddenly decided to give Karpoori Thakur the Bharat Ratna. I don’t remember the BJP ever raising such a demand in the past.
In fact, when Karpoori Thakur decided to implement 26% reservation in government jobs for the economically backward sections of the society, mainly OBCs, leaders of the Jan Sangh (the BJP’s former avatar) in his government had openly opposed his move. Karpoori Thakur was abused in the streets with derogatory slogans like, “Yeh reservation kahan se aayi? Karpoori ki mai biyayi (Where did this reservation come from? Karpoori’s mother gave birth to it).” But once Nitish Kumar made the caste census public and the report revealed that EBCs constitute 36% of the total population of Bihar, the BJP was left with no option but to do something to erase the impression that the party and its government at the Centre is opposed to the interests of OBCs, mainly EBCs.
Politics is a great leveller. With a Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur, politics has come full circle.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.