The Political Legacy Of Bharat Ratna Karpoori Thakur: Unravelling His Visionary Impact On India’s Socio-Political Landscape – OpEd


The Government of India announced to confer the Bharat Ratna posthumously to Karpoori Thakur also known as ‘Jannayak’ on the occasion of his birth centenary, the former chief minister of Bihar. After this announcement, it is pertinent to delve into his life, career, his ideas and the lasting impact of his political decisions. Karpoori Thakur was one of the most influential Lohia socialist leaders. As a socialist he participated in most political movements outside the legislature, and remained a member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Bihar from 1952 until his death on 17 February 1988 interrupted only in 1977 when he became a member of the Lok Sabha. He was once the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar (from December 1970 to June 1971) and the Chief Minister of Bihar twice (from June 1977 to April 1979). He lost only one election, in the 1984 Lok Sabha election.

When he was the deputy Chief minister and Education Minister of Bihar, he introduced some controversial policies – removing English as a compulsory subject in the matriculation examinations. During his first term as Chief Minister, he gave priority to unemployed engineers in government contract jobs. He introduced reservation for OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions in the state during his second term as Chief Minister of Bihar. He brought a reservation policy for backward classes, which had a provision for sub-quota for the Most Backward Classes (MBC), which is currently known as the Extremely Backward Class (EBC). He himself belonged to a community (caste) that was a minority and politically ineffective as a group: the Nai (Barber) community. He played a major role as a mentor to the socialist leaning leaders of Bihar – Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and many others.

The subsequent proliferation of socialist leaders into different parties, some of whom were disciples of Karpoori Thakur, does not end the continuity of his legacy. The process of empowerment of lower-class groups started by him is still going on. His notion of empowerment which included self-respect and dignity and development could be implemented in a sequence – development followed by dignity and self-respect. Even Karpoori Thakur focused on the first and neglected the latter. This was again due to the difference in the development vision of the socialists and the policy approach of their governments led by Karpoori Thakur. The agenda of these governments included symbolic and identity issues, but not development. Thus, he did to process some populist demands like reservation only and passing the matriculation examination without English. In this sense Karpoori Thakur was not able to create a regime, but he left room for future government practices to be adopted by socialists who came to power in the 1990s.

Karpoori’s dynamic politics, which spanned four decades from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, showed how creatively he approached arousing the lowest classes of society. The main tactics were to instill in rural Bihar some semblance of caste and class consciousness, as this was impeding the upward mobility of socioeconomically challenged caste groups. Indeed, it appears from the reasoning, articulation, and agenda-setting that Karpoori’s politics were shaped and moulded by the way the government operated, with a constant attempt to persuade these actions. He attempted to influence legislative and policy decisions loudly, but he also tried to influence government behaviour by making opposed demands and coming up with a plan of action. 

Karpoori positioned himself within the framework of government and used official logic to improve the lot of the underprivileged. He frequently outlined the goals of government and emphasized the constraints and possibilities of acts and omissions by the state. The tendency of his political articulation and techniques to emphasize the state’s opposition to democracy was evident. 

But it was always apparent that he valued population calculations, political arithmetic, and reason in the service of the excluded population’s care and welfare, both in his approach to ruling and in opposing it. According to Mitchell Dean, calculation is essential because the government demands that the “right manner” be specified, specific “finalities” be prioritized, and strategies be adjusted in the end to provide the best outcome. As Chief Minister, Thakur’s emphasis on calculation and well-thought-out intervention projects demonstrated the rationality of government and ultimately became the hallmark of all he stood for. In a short amount of time, during his dual roles as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, Thakur emerged as a prominent populist leader. 

His programs and recommendations were replete with astute political judgment and innovative governing techniques. The enactment of the OBC reservation, the annexation of castes, the optional nature of English education, the holding of panchayat elections, and other populist measures were all well-thought-out and quickly carried out. By highlighting caste inside the class and aggressively pursuing caste conflict to challenge the dominance of higher castes in electoral politics, these moves changed the sociological category of caste into “caste political.”

The benefit was interpreted as establishing the power of the backward caste in Bihar politics. Blair states that “Sachhidanand Sinha could be said to be the creator of modern Bihar. He led the struggle that resulted in Bihar’s separation from Bengal in 1912.” One could argue that Sri Krishna Sinha, who led the province during independence and the first fifteen years of its post-independence period, established a Forward Raj in Bihar. Furthermore, it’s possible that Karpoori Thakur invented the Backward Raj. Lalu Yadav carried forward this legacy but allegations of corruption and nepotism have overshadowed Lalu Yadav’s contribution in strengthening and continuing the sense of dignity and self-respect among the backward classes. Current chief minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar carried forward the legacy of Karpoori Thakur more broadly, he provided respect and self-respect to the people of Bihar along with development.

The article concludes by pointing out further studies. As the leader of a populist government, Karpoori Thakur also symbolizes a distinctive development within socialist thought in India away from the Marxist tradition. If we view it in the light of changes in socialist politics with the advent of liberalisation in India Thakur’s tenure in power also points to the first experiments in “socialist” government and the importance of Thakur as the leader of a populist government will become more apparent. Perhaps, Karpoori Thakur’s greatest contribution as the head of a socialist government was to point out other possibilities that Lohia could have had for socialism and social justice. When postcolonial Bihar’s political events are closely examined, it becomes clear that Karpoori had a significant impact on the growth and collapse of socialist politics in the region as well as the backward caste system that shaped the political landscape and provided the groundwork for subaltern politics.

Dr. Nitish Kumar Arya

Dr. Nitish Kumar Arya is an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Arts at IMS Unison University. He is working in Public Economics with a special focus on contemporary economic issues.

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