Political message in Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur - Hindustan Times
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Political message in Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur

Jan 26, 2024 10:09 PM IST

The decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on Thakur may turn out to be a game-changer for the BJP in Bihar.

In politics, ideology finds expression more in praxis than in theory. The ideology of a political party is often revealed in the messages it delivers through its policy decisions. Take the case of the Bharat Ratna conferred posthumously on Karpoori Thakur, the socialist leader and two-time chief minister (CM) of Bihar. Coming ahead of the general elections, it carries a political message from the BJP-led NDA government. Thakur was a freedom fighter, socialist and hero of the anti-Emergency struggle. He was also part of the trade union and labour movements in the 1960s. He was a close associate of JP Narayan and an important face of the sampoorn kranti (total revolution) mobilisation against the Congress-led regime. The Bharat Ratna is a recognition of his contribution to public life, an acknowledgement of a unique leader who rose from the ranks of a marginalised community and worked all his life for their cause.

Former CM Karpoori Thakur (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Former CM Karpoori Thakur (HT Archive)

Thakur was both liked and reviled in his lifetime. He was appreciated by the subaltern communities in Bihar such as the OBCs and SCs. On the other hand, he was vehemently criticised by the feudal elite. He was also targeted by some dominant OBCs. This honour lifts Thakur above Bihar’s caste discourse and recognises his contribution to the making of a new polity.

Let’s now look at the political messaging in the honour. First, it is an attempt to revive the symbolic memory of “inclusive social justice politics” that Thakur pursued. On the one hand, it empowered many communities that had been oppressed by the feudal castes. On the other, it facilitated the dominance of a few of these newly empowered castes. Thakur was aware of this contradiction built in the process of social empowerment. So, as CM, he implemented the recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission and introduced sub-quotas within the quotas as a creative response to the multiple levels of deprivation. It came to be known as the Karpoori formula. In office, the BJP tried to address the layered nature of deprivation by constituting samajik nyaya (social justice) committees — the committee formed by Rajnath Singh when he was UP CM and the Rohini committee instituted by the Centre are examples of such policy interventions by the BJP.

Second, Thakur sought to remove English as a compulsory subject from the school curriculum. The aim was to enable educational mobility for students from rural areas and socially and economically backward groups. For students coming from marginal social settings, lack of English skills often was a hindrance to their educational advancement. Thakur’s initiative aimed at building the self-confidence of these students. This move of Thakur was roundly criticised by the social elite. His idea resonates with the BJP’s message of reducing the influence of English.

Third, in the context of the general elections, the honour for Thakur is politically significant. Bihar sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The OBCs constitute 63% of its population, according to the recent caste survey. Thakur belongs to an EBC community; EBCs are 36% of the total OBC population in the state. He is highly regarded among the EBCs and honouring Thakur may help the BJP spread its influence among this section. The BJP’s political strategy is to woo the OBCs and expand its political base in Bihar. The party is trying to prepare a rainbow alliance of caste leaders in Bihar under the twin planks of governance and Hindutva.

Hence, the decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on Thakur may turn out to be a game-changer for the BJP in Bihar. It may even create trust capital for the party among the OBCs in other Hindi heartland states including UP, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan.

Badri Narayan is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. The views expressed are personal

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