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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 14:09 GMT
Analysis: Turning point for Bihar?

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Laloo Prasad Yadav
Mr Yadav believed he had a 'contract' to rule Bihar (Photos: Prashant Ravi)
Once upon a time, not so long ago, Laloo Prasad Yadav was widely hailed as the messiah of "backwards" in India's dirt poor and troubled state of Bihar.

Fifteen years ago, he led his regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party to power supported by the wretched of the earth in a state where mainly upper castes had ruled ruthlessly.

Mr Yadav, an earthy maverick cowherd-turned-politician with a penchant for folksy rhetoric, had been backed by the state's lower castes, Muslims and Dalits (untouchables), groups that had been marginalised by the upper caste landowners.

India's rich and middle class hated Mr Yadav for pursuing what they believed was populist politics.

But in his Bihar fiefdom his supporters called him the deliverer of "social justice" and dignity for the lower castes.

Both were only partially right.

Rainbow coalition

Mr Yadav's social policies did end up giving the lower, or backward, castes dignity.

Bihar's per capita income is $94 a year against India's average of $255
A total of 42.6% live below the poverty line against India's average of 26.1%
A total of 47.5% are literate against India's 65.38%
There were 32,600 kidnappings from 1992 to September 2004
More than 1,000 political workers have been murdered since 1990

But more than 40% of Bihar's people continued to live in abject poverty, less than half could read or write and its per capita income was a third of the Indian average. The state accounted for a paltry 4% of goods sold in India.

Law and order also withered away - a murder took place every two hours, a rape was committed every six and a bank looted every day.

But Mr Yadav continued to insist that caste, not governance - or the lack of it - would continue to determine the way people voted in Bihar. Many independent pundits went along with him.

The messiah has now reached the end of the road, after a drubbing at the hands of former socialist comrade Nitish Kumar and his regional Janata Dal (United) party backed by the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Mr Yadav has been defeated by a rainbow coalition of the lowest castes, or extremely backward castes (EBCs), upper castes and breakaway Muslim and Dalit voters, many of whom had voted faithfully for Mr Yadav over the past 15 years.

The results defied Mr Yadav's belief that he had a "contract to rule" Bihar having stitched together a seemingly unassailable Muslim-Yadav vote.

Muslims comprise 16.5% of Bihar's people and another 12.7% belong to the backward Yadav caste, so Mr Yadav had nearly 30% of the votes in his pocket.

'Positive vote'

In fact he had more - in 1995, during the high point of his reign, he swept to power winning 40% of the votes, mopping up the ballots of other backward castes, extremely backward castes and Dalits.

It points to an immense churning in India's rural heartland

In a sense, the fracturing of Mr Yadav's vote bank and the voting in of a rainbow caste coalition led by a low-profile, colourless politician with a reputation for hard work and integrity points to the people of one of India's largest and most densely populated states opting for governance rather than solely protecting their caste fiefs.

So much so that a number of Muslim voters went along with a coalition backed by the Hindu nationalist BJP in an election where Hindu nationalism was never a rallying point.

"It is a positive vote for change. Most of the voters were disappointed with lack of development," says analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

When people vote for development - often overriding a tradition of standing by their caste chieftains - in a state that urban India has nearly written off as a failed one - it points to an immense churning in India's rural heartland.

"The results reflect the Bihar people's desire for restoration of governance and law and order above their caste and community," says Professor Nil Ratan at Bihar's AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences.

Nitish Kumar
Nitish Kumar is a low profile politician
But, as analysts like Shaibal Gupta of the Bihar-based Asian Development Research Institute say, caste also sealed Mr Yadav's fate.

"Politics without caste in Bihar is simply incomplete," he says.

So the turning point during this election was the decision of the extremely backward castes to vote for Mr Kumar.

'Hidden vote'

The EBCs - a mainly self-employed, poor, landless and largely unrepresented people - make up a third of the electorate.

Mr Kumar was shrewd enough to give party tickets to some 23 candidates belonging to this caste group to stand in the elections.

The biggest change is that development will finally get its place in Bihar. The middle class will again start taking interest in Bihar
Analyst Shaibal Gupta

"The EBCs have always been a hidden vote bank in Bihar of sorts. They used to vote for Mr Yadav, but he never really publicised it. Mr Yadav's coalition was mostly known to be one of his own Yadav community and the Muslims," says Professor Ratan.

At the national level, Mr Yadav's loss is a blow to the governing Congress Party-led coalition - the only large northern Indian state under the coalition has fallen.

The support of Mr Yadav's party's 26 parliamentarians is essential for the government's survival.

Congress leaders are speciously attributing their ally's defeat to a split in the "secular" vote, when Hindu nationalism was never an issue in the elections.

Mr Yadav's loss may help in chastening him - the way he ruled the state by proxy through his wife, Rabri Devi, and the long-running corruption charges he faces have been sources of embarrassment for the federal government.

Bihar is reputed to be India's most lawless state

Mr Kumar's win is a shot in the arm for the lately beleaguered main opposition BJP, which had backed him, but it is not enough to pose a major threat to the government

The challenges before Mr Kumar and his coalition in rebuilding Bihar are daunting.

He has to meet the aspirations of the caste groups who voted for him, rein in a possible backlash by the upwardly mobile backward castes and private upper caste armies which may be looking to settle scores, and keep winners with criminal records out of the state government.

He also has to deal urgently with the rising and violent ultra-left movement of Maoist rebels fighting for more rights and a more equitable society.

"But the biggest change is that development will finally get its place in Bihar. The middle class will again start taking interest in Bihar," says Shaibal Gupta.

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