A day after leading the ‘Pran Pratishtha’ ceremony at the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government’s decision to confer the highest civilian award — the Bharat Ratna — on former Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur.
Karpoori Thakur introduced reservations for the most backward castes (MBCs) in the state within the larger quota for backward castes, or OBCs, in 1978. Referred to as the ‘Karpoori Thakur formula’, it predated the Mandal Commission implementation by 12 years.
During his nearly ten years at the helm, Prime Minister Modi tried melding the two components of the ‘Mandal versus Kamandal’ politics of 1990.
Over the past 48 hours, the Prime Minister embraced the two streams, hitherto considered adversarial.
In 2017, the Modi government instituted the G Rohini Commission for sub-categorizing the OBC quota to ensure extremely backward classes (EBCs) accrue the benefits of reservation, which dominant OBCs, such as the Yadavs, are perceived to have cornered.
The commission submitted its report last year.
However, the decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur, who hailed from a poor nai (barber) caste, also strikes at the dominant OBC versus extremely backward classes’ social dynamics in Bihar.
Karpoori Thakur mentored and shaped Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar’s engagement with politics, both of whom carried forward the backward classes and Dalit assertion in Bihar.
However, EBCs saw Prasad’s rule as one monopolised by the Yadavs, a resentment that Kumar harnessed to win, in alliance with the BJP, in 2005.
Last year’s caste survey in Bihar enumerated the socio-economic status of OBCs and EBCs as distinct categories.
Last month, the BJP picked Mohan Yadav as its Madhya Pradesh chief minister.
The conferring of Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur also counters the demand for a nationwide caste census by the Congress and its INDIA bloc allies, such as the Samajwadi Party, JDU, and RJD.
Born on January 24, 1924, Karpoori Thakur participated in the freedom struggle and was a member of the Congress Socialist Party and later the Praja Socialist Party.
He was the legislator of the Bihar assembly from 1952 until his death in February 1988, barring a brief stint as a Lok Sabha member in 1977, which he quit to become the Bihar chief minister.
Karpoori Thakur was the Bihar chief minister for two stints, from December 1970 to June 1971 and June 1977 to April 1979.
On Tuesday, followers and admirers of Karpoori Thakur concluded their year-long centenary celebrations in Patna when the news that the socialist icon was conferred the Bharat Ratna was announced.
Arun Srivastava, a socialist activist who had organised meetings to mark Karpoori Thakur’s centenary, told Business Standard that he welcomed the decision.
“Modi will end up appropriating socialist icons as well,” commented an organiser of the centenary celebrations.
Former Union Finance Minister and civil servant Yashwant Sinha, Karpoori Thakur’s principal secretary in 1978-79, remembered him as a true mass leader.
According to Sinha, Thakur had been treated shabbily as a child by the upper-caste landlords of his village.
Thakur told Sinha that he was good at his studies. When he passed his matriculation with good grades, his father took him to the village landlord to inform him about Karpoorji Thakur’s achievement.
“Very good. I am happy about your achievement. Now come and press my legs.”
Karpoori Thakur did so and even later stepped in for his barber father to cut people’s hair or shave beards.
“Despite all the humiliation he had suffered in his early life, Karpoori Thakur was remarkably free of any rancour for the upper castes,” Sinha said.
Apart from introducing reservations, Karpoori Thakur was a votary of giving government contracts to unemployed youth, such as engineers, arming Dalits so that they could defend against attacks by upper caste militias, and advocating the use of Hindi in education and official work.
First Published: Jan 23 2024 | 10:16 PM IST