Politics Of Bharat Ratna

Appropriating Icons for Political End

Prem Singh

On the occasion of the birth centenary of Karpoori Thakur (24 January 1924–17 February 1988), several programmes were organised at different parts of the country. But the coverage of those programmes in the mainstream media was negligible. As soon as the BJP-led NDA government announced the award of Bharat Ratna posthumously to Karpoori Thakur, he became the subject of discussion in the mainstream media as a 'socialist icon'.

Particularly English newspapers published the news, reporting, articles and editorials about him with great enthusiasm. The reactions of many leaders and parties on this sudden decision of the government also became a subject of the media. In all this, the government's “politics” behind the decision to award Bharat Ratna to Thakur was also mentioned and discussed. It was said that the government has used Bharat Ratna to blunt the opposition's caste-based census card. The RSS/BJP has tried to prove through this award that there is no conflict between ‘Hindutva’ and social justice. By conferring the same award on LK Advani is in line with its well-thought out plan.

In truth, the central government did not commemorate Karpoori Thakur in Bihar or any other state during the entire birth centenary year, which ended on 24 January 2024. Despite being awarded the Bharat Ratna, it does not seem that the government will have any serious concern with Karpoori Thakur even in future. Actually, this is just an election manoeuvre of the BJP government.

The politics of Bharat Ratna has also engulfed the Grand Alliance government of Bihar. There was a tussle between the claimants to the inheritance of Thakur. Nitish Kumar, an 'engineer' of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), while commenting on the award, took a dig at RJD's dynastic politics by saying that Thakur never did dynastic politics. He, in fact, declared himself the real heir of Thakur by saying that he himself too never took his family forward in politics. In order to further strengthen his claim he also stated that he made Thakur's son Ramnath Thakur a member of the Rajya Sabha, who always follows him. He also conveyed a message to the BJP that he alone has the patent on EBC votes in Bihar. That is, the benefit of giving Bharat Ratna to Thakur passes through the corridor of his rightful heir!

There was a tussle going on between JDU and RJD for some time. Apart from this, Nitish was upset that despite being a “tallest leader” in the opposition camp, the India alliance did not declare him as the prime ministerial candidate. He was not even made the president of the alliance. Even before the 2019 LokSabha elections, he expected that the Congress would go ahead accepting him as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the combined opposition. When this did not happen, he left the Grand Alliance and went back with the BJP. He again returned to BJP-led NDA, picking up the bale of legacy of Thakur. The interesting thing is that Thakur, who suddenly came into limelight after the announcement of Bharat Ratna, has been ostracised, and Nitish Kumar has gained the centre-stage.”

In such a situation, it would be appropriate to ask the question whether the Bharat-Ratna, that came out of the womb of power-greedy politics of communalism, casteism, individualism and vanshvad (dynasty rule) while sitting in the lap of corporate houses, to Thakur enhances his honour or diminishes his dignity posthumously. In fact, this episode once again explains that in the era of corporate-communal nexus in politics the national icons are being humiliated by being used in undignified power-politics.

People in academia and literature often noted that Karpoori Thakur always used to travel with a heavy bag of books. He had his own ideological and political training in socialist thoughts and movement. However, he used to imbibe all the transformative ideas coming from various sources including the ideas of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar. He had a deep commitment towards basic modern values like democracy, secularism, civil liberties and human rights. His simplicity and his insistence on not taking the slightest advantage of his political position for the benefit of his family and friends was a clear indication of his link with the Gandhian-Socialist stream. Thakur belonged to an extremely backward and small in numbers the barber caste. Despite such a background, he could develop an independent political personality of himself.

He started his political innings by leaving college and participating in the Quit India Movement. He was elected member of Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1952 elections. From then till his death, he always won the assembly elections continuously. He won the Lok Sabha election from Samastipur in 1977. In his entire political career, he lost only the 1984 LokSabha elections. He played the role of Leader of Opposition in Bihar Assembly for a long time. He became the Chief Minister of Bihar twice–from 22 December 1970 to 2 June 1971, and from 24 June 1977 to 21 April 1979. He had a deep knowledge of parliamentary rules and processes, and was sincerely adhered to them.

He made a provision of 8, 12, 3, 3 percent reservation for extremely backward classes, other backward classes, women and economically poor of general category respectively. This is known as Karpoori Formula, for which he had to face even abusive language from people with upper caste feudal mindset, especially the Jan Sangh cadres. Not only did southern leader Devraj Urs take a dig at Thakur's reservation policy, it also became a subject of controversy among socialists. Some people say that the provision of sub-quota within the quota had the consent and inspiration of JP, whereas some hold the opposite opinion. Both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, who claim to be Thakur's heirs, have proven to be leaders who only settle the electoral calculations of castes. They have not been moved by Thakur's commitment to socialism and social harmony.

Dr Lohia’s thesis–“Class is mobile caste. Caste is immobile class” - is about Thakur's understanding of caste and class question at a practical level. When the leaders who openly play dynasty politics in a feudal style and claim themselves as the heirs of the legacy of Thakur, they simply devalue him. Lohia's offer to bring Dalits, Adivasis, backward castes, women and poor Muslims ahead in politics was an epoch-making idea to transform the socio-economic-political-cultural structures of the country forever.

Among the Backward/Dalit leaders, Thakur was the only one who fulfilled Lohia's hope through his political work. It is to be hoped that Thakur’s relevance will not be allowed to disappear in the politics of Bharat Ratna.

[The author associated with the socialist movement is a former teacher of Delhi University and a former fellow of Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla]

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Vol 56, No. 35, Feb 25 - Mar 2, 2024