The award of the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, to Karpoori Thakur, Bihar’s first socialist chief minister, is well-deserved. It is fitting that it should have come on the eve of his birth centenary. A pioneer of backward caste and class reservations, ahead of the Mandal Commission reservations, Thakur extended benefit of reservations to women as well as economically weaker sections among the upper castes. Empathy for the economically weaker sections informed his approach to governance. Coming from a dirt-poor background (his father was a barber in their village), as chief minister of the most caste-conscious state in the country, Thakur annoyed the upper castes who could not reconcile to his meteoric rise. Unsurprisingly, even a section of the backward castes was not too pleased since he belonged virtually at the near-bottom of the caste hierarchy. He had lived through daily caste slurs and humiliations, but thanks to his determination and astuteness he rose to the top of non-Congress politics in Bihar. As a two-time chief minister, especially during the brief period of the Janata Party ascendancy post-Emergency, Thakur gave Bihar good governance. Notably, both Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav were his young lieutenants, though the latter did not heed his mentor’s advice on shunning corruption. Among the pantheon of socialist leaders of his time, which included Chandra Shekhar, George Fernandes, Madhu Limaye, etc, Thakur alone in the caste-ridden society in Bihar was able to reach out to all sections of the people. Even when he introduced Prohibition in the state, he ensured that it was implemented with a soft touch, without the police harassment and extortion that you witness daily in today’s Bihar.
Meanwhile, the charge that the government has given the Bharat Ratna to Thakur with an eye on the coming Lok Sabha poll can neither be confirmed nor denied. If meeting the long-pending demand to confer the honour on the socialist icon of Bihar also helps the BJP reap electoral benefits, so be it. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was among those demanding a Bharat Ratna for Thakur. Nitish thanked the Prime Minister for fulfilling a long-pending demand. Given how Nitish has pushed the caste politics, seeking a caste survey with an eye on the most backward castes in Bihar, the BJP too would hope to burnish its credentials as a well-wisher of the same caste groups. Bharat Ratna to the pioneer of caste reservations would aid its cause. Indeed, speculation is rife that all is not well between Nitish and the RJD, and that the highest award to Thakur may be the excuse for him to tie up with the BJP yet again. When it comes to Nitish, nothing can be ruled out. But BJP would certainly hope to profit from the Bharat Ratna to Thakur in the coming parliamentary poll.