In a poignant tribute to one of Bihar’s political stalwarts, the Government of India announced the posthumous conferment of the Bharat Ratna upon Karpoori Thakur, the former Chief Minister of Bihar, on January 23, 2024. Popularly known as ‘Jannayak’ or the leader of the people, Thakur’s legacy continues to resonate in the realm of Indian politics.
Throughout his political career, Thakur championed the cause of marginalised communities, particularly the backward castes and Dalits. His bold policy decisions, though controversial at times, continue to resonate in contemporary India’s socio-political landscape.
Born on January 24, 1924, in Pitaunjhia (now Karpoori Gram), Samastipur district, Bihar, Karpoori Thakur played a pivotal role in shaping the socio-political landscape of the state. His political journey was characterised by stark contrasts, with him emerging as a towering leader despite belonging to the minority Nai (barber) caste. Thakur served as Bihar’s Chief Minister twice for short tenures, leaving an indelible mark with his radical policy decisions that continue to influence the political discourse.
Thakur’s early years were marked by his participation in the freedom struggle, for which he faced imprisonment. In independent India, he entered politics and was elected as an MLA in 1952, maintaining this position until his demise in 1988. Thakur’s political trajectory included a brief stint as an MP in 1977 and a temporary setback in 1984 during the sympathy wave for the Congress after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
A defining moment in Thakur’s political career came when he assumed the role of Bihar’s Education Minister from March 5, 1967, to January 28, 1968. Later, he ascended to the position of Chief Minister in December 1970 with the Samyukta Socialist Party, only to face a fall from power after six months. His second term commenced in June 1977 but was cut short in about two years due to a reservation policy he implemented, a decision that carried significant consequences.
While Thakur’s leadership was characterized by both acclaim and opposition, he earned personal respect for his untarnished image and refusal to exploit public funds for personal gain. Notably, his simplicity was evident when he borrowed a torn coat for an official delegation to Austria in 1952, a gesture reciprocated by Josip Tito, the President of Yugoslavia.
Thakur’s major policy decisions left a lasting impact on Bihar. He removed English as a compulsory subject for matriculation examinations, implemented prohibition of alcohol, and initiated preferential treatment for unemployed engineers in government contracts. His most significant policy move was the introduction of a layered reservation system, popularly known as the ‘Karpoori Thakur Formula.’
In June 1970, the Mungeri Lal Commission, appointed by the Bihar government, identified 128 “backward” communities, with 94 marked as “most backward.” Thakur’s government, in line with the commission’s recommendations, implemented the reservation policy. The ‘Karpoori Thakur Formula’ allocated 26 per cent reservation, with 12 per cent for OBCs, 8 per cent for economically backward classes among OBCs, 3 per cent for women, and 3 per cent for the economically poor from “upper castes.” This pioneering move predated the central government’s EWS quota, gaining significance amid subsequent demands for caste census.
Thakur’s commitment to social justice faced immediate challenges. The implementation of the reservation policy cost him politically, leading to his government’s fall and opposition from upper castes. Derogatory slogans targeting his caste, a reference to his traditional occupation as a barber, were hurled at him. Despite the backlash, Thakur’s personal integrity and absence of corruption charges during his tenure earned him respect.
As Mandal-Kamandal politics gained prominence, Thakur’s legacy became a focal point for various political players in Bihar. The irony of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar identifying closely with Thakur, despite the previous generation sidelining him, adds a complex layer to the political landscape. Thakur’s impact on Bihar’s socio-political fabric endures as different parties seek to claim his legacy.
The posthumous conferment of the Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur is a testament to his enduring impact on Bihar’s politics and social justice. As the nation reflects on his leadership and the policies he championed, Thakur’s legacy serves as a guiding light for future generations navigating the intricate intersections of caste, politics, and governance. His commitment to the marginalised and dedication to principles of social justice leave an indelible mark on India’s historical tapestry. The Bharat Ratna becomes not just an award but a recognition of the values and ideals that Karpoori Thakur tirelessly worked to uphold throughout his remarkable journey.