Understanding small caste-based political parties in India

by SARTHAK BAGCHI

Mukesh Sahni at the rally to launch the Vikassheel Insaan Party at Gandhi Maidan, Patna, November 2018PHOTO/Sarthak Bagchi

The story of the Vikassheel Insaan Party or VIP, a party of the Nishad community in Bihar, is important for understanding the positives and negatives of the rise of small caste-based political parties whose only agenda is reservation and representation.

Political observers of Bihar are aware of the importance that Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, the large open space of lush green grass cover in the heart of the city, has among the political class. From Jayprakash Narayan’s call for “Total Revolution” (sampoorna kranti) to Lalu Yadav’s call for Yadavs to occupy the political landscape of Bihar in 1990 to Nitish Kumar’s Kurmi “Chetna” rally in mid 1994 to even Narendra Modi’s “Hunkar” rally in 2013, it is imperative for every political leader who wishes to leave his mark on Bihar to prove one’s mettle by filling Gandhi Maidan with his or her supporters.

The proliferation of caste-based parties on Bihar’s political horizon in the post-Mandal era has seen a parallel rise in Gandhi Maidan’s political prominence; the maidan witnessed as many as 40 caste-based political rallies between 1990 and 1993-94 (Choudhary and Srikant 2001, 252). Successfully filling the ground with a sea of supporters is a symbol of one’s “arrival” in Bihar.

Mukesh Sahni, the leader of the newly formed Vikassheel Insaan Party or VIP, knows this fact only too well. It was on the morning of 4 September 2015 that I met him for the first time during a padyatra outside the Gandhi Maidan that had been organised by his Nishad Vikas Sangh. The padyatra was supposed to start from Gandhi Maidan and culminate at the Governor’s House where Sahni, who likes to call himself the “Son of Mallah”, was to meet the then Governor Ramnath Kovind, and along with his supporters put forth the demand for the inclusion of the Nishad community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST)/Scheduled Castes (SC) category.

Comprising about 8% of the total population of Bihar, the Nishads are a largely riverine caste group of around 22 sub-castes or jaatis, who come from the Mallah, Godhi, Kevat, Noniya, Sahni and other sub-castes which are involved in river-related occupations as boatmen, fishermen, net weavers, salt makers and so on. The community with around 22 sub-castes forms a large part of the 130 odd jaatis which together make up the Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) population, which in itself comprises about 32% of Bihar’s population.

Mukesh Sahni’s VIP is the latest entrant to the club of regional caste-based parties which have been proliferating in India, especially in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

A young and flashy individual, who had brought back to Bihar the riches he earned in Mumbai, Sahni looked the opposite of the image of a career politician as popularised in public perception. Although clad in a kurta pyjama, he had a crisply cut waist coat of a designer label, some accompanying gold chains and a shiny earring on his right ear, bringing out the bling factor in his personality. The blonde highlights in his hair, albeit out of place in Bihar, were a token of his assertive rich self from Mumbai. 

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