In Bihar, is class transcending caste?
For students of political change, the Bihar assembly elections are of great significance. The world’s poorest go to vote in the world’s largest democracy, in the first direct elections of this scale after the Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world. Under the formal veneer of campaigning, marked by political rallies and speeches, is a truly substantive and deep political deliberation in Bihar’s villages and towns, with labour primarily re-centering the electoral discourse towards aspects of life and livelihood in unanticipated ways. Labour and its desire for voice and visibility in Bihar signals a shift in the base, and indicates a reshaping of the political arena, following a long period of political continuity and bureaucratic-charismatic leadership in the name of development and welfare. The change has been truly unanticipated and sudden for a polity hitherto characterised by the caste-based politics of agada-pichada (forward-backward), where Lalu Prasad’s Mandalisation engulfed even the sharpest tenors of Left politics rooted among agrarian labour; and where Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar’s plank of good governance was firmly rooted in a social base of the ati-pichada — the extremely backward classes conglomerate referred to as a cluster of panch-phorana jatis. This contextual rootedness, Kumar’s background as being one among the Jayaprakash Narayan-Karpoori Thakur-inspired socialists, and his personal clean image was embedded in his governance model — it is this that is the central object of questioning in these state elections.