It has almost become a routine now. In the concluding parts of many of his speeches in the first two phases of assembly elections, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar asks the people several times: Bihari Ya Bahari (local or outsider)? The idea is to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which, Nitish’s party men say, is being “remote controlled” by the outsiders. The choice before the voters, as the Bihar chief minister elaborates, is to elect one of their own or end up being ruled by outsiders.
Whether the slogan wins him some extra votes or not is yet to be seen, but it seems to have rattled the BJP. An influential English daily reported last week that the saffron party has come out with a new hoarding in Patna featuring just local leaders, a first for the party in recent times. It has also come out with a new slogan: Bihar ki hogi tez raftaar, Kendra-rajya mein ek Sarkar (Bihar will see rapid growth if the same party rules at the Centre and in the state). The BJP has perhaps sensed that local versus outsider slogan needs to be countered. Hence the shift in campaign approach.
But is there any basis to local versus outsider debate in Bihar? In fact, the state has always taken pride in sending influential leaders to the Parliament in the past. It was immaterial whether they belonged to the state or not.
Eminent freedom fighter JB Kripalani, considered to be one of the finest parliamentarians ever, won Lok Sabha elections from Bihar in the 1950s. So did veteran socialist leader Madhu Limaye. George Fernandes has represented Muzaffarpur and Nalanda and Sharad Yadav won many Lok Sabha elections, the last one in 2009, from Madhepura. Former Prime Minister IK Gujral too contested once from Patna constituency but the elections were countermanded. He later took the Rajya Sabha route to enter Parliament.
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Bihar has a long socialist tradition, mostly anti-Congress, influenced by the ideologies of Ram Manohan Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan. And many of the socialist leaders won elections there despite hailing from other states. But that was mostly in the pre-Mandal days. As the socialist tradition gave way to the politics of dominant castes after the 1990s, localisation discourse began to take roots. The decline of the Congress created opportunities for others to occupy the centre stage. In the free-for-all scenario, very fluid and still evolving, right caste affiliation started getting rewarded. Electoral contest got reduced to ‘my leader from my caste against your leader from your caste’.
Two leaders from outside the state—George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav- still won the elections during this period. But they won because they either had the right surname or were backed by the right caste combination.
It was also the time when mass exodus of Biharis to look for employment opportunities elsewhere was underway. The perception of some form of discrimination in other states gave rise to a sense of Bihari identity. The identity, not very strong still and certainly not strong enough to smash caste barriers, seems to have travelled back to the home state.
I doubt whether local versus outsider identity is strong enough to swing votes either way. But the fact that it is there has prompted leaders now to use it in the extremely competitive electoral battle.