In Bihar, no caste safety net for politicians: Nitish and Lalu need to rework their strategies

Treating caste groupings as stable electoral blocks has been core to the social engineering strategy in Bihar for decades. The more caste groups a party brings under its umbrella the bigger the chance of its victory – this has been the conventional wisdom in the state. It made all political parties launch into a mad rush to woo castes prior to any election. The big leaders flaunted their caste identity and commanded the unflinching support of their caste members. All this appears to have changed. In a few months from now once the elections begin, Bihar is set to witness a voting pattern where traditional caste equations stand topsy-turvy.

A spate of recent political developments in the state indicates that any party or leader cannot rely on any caste as they used to be earlier. Yadavs stood firmly with Lalu Prasad, Kurmis with Nitish Kumar, Dusadhs (Paswans) with Ram Vilas Paswan but now they no longer get blindly swayed by the calls of their chieftains. In some cases there’s competition for leadership for the latter from within too.

 In Bihar, no caste safety net for politicians: Nitish and Lalu need to rework their strategies

In a RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav with Ram Vilas Paswan who is now a Union minister in Modi government.

Take for example the case of Lalu. He emerged as the most powerful leader of the Yadavs in the late 1980s and in quick time became the chief minister of Bihar in 1990. For the next 15 years, he remained the unchallenged hero of his community. Even in the last Lok Sabha polls, Yadavs rallied round him as the RJD polled over 20 percent votes—some five percent more than the JD(U). However, post his alliance with Nitish, it is an entirely different story.

There are clear indications that the Yadavs do not trust him much. This became evident when his emotional appeal to his caste men to support the JD(U) in the elections to 24 seats of Bihar Legislative Council was rejected with disdain. The result was that the grand secular candidates lost in places even in the strongholds of the RJD. The defeated JD(U) candidates now openly accuse Yadavs of not “supporting” them in the elections.

Nitish's situation is similar as he has lost much of his credibility after frequently seeking support of Lalu to keep himself afloat. Of the five seats his party won, it posted a convincing victory only in Muzaffarpur. In Nawada, his candidate scraped through. Although much before he joined hands with Lalu, Nitish had already lost much of his sheen when he dumped its long-standing ally, the BJP. His caste men did not understand why would Nitish break alliance with the party which gave him political asylum of sorts when he was battling for survival.

The result was that Nitish wo n two seats in the last Lok Sabha polls despite his aggressive campaigning. Even the council poll victories can’t be called his own. While he won the Purnia seat with the help of a “borrowed” candidate, his other candidate somehow managed to win from Nalanada, the home district of Nitish.

Paswan, too, has lost his credibility due to his frequent flip-flops. At one point of time, he was the one of the most reliable face of Dalits (after BSP leaders Kanshi Ram and Mayawati). Such was his hold over his community that his party had emerged the ‘King Maker’ in February-March 2005 assembly elections, bagging 29 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly. The frequent change in his political stand, with him focussing on power in any governments irrespective of their policies and ideologies, has now given him the reputation of being unreliable even among his core supporters.

The man who once enjoyed the support of almost the entire Dalit class now can’t even claim the support of his own caste men. Paswab set an example for the nation when he resigned from the AB Vajpayee government over the issue of Gujarat riots but on the eve of last year’s Lok Sabha polls, he suddenly became part of the Narendra Modi-led NDA. Now, he is a Union minister in the Modi government and he has a new take... "communalism is not an issue now".

Even the BJP has been compelled to make change in its election strategy in the changed political situation. Till recently, the powerful upper castes like Bhumihar, Brahmin and Kayashtha identified with the BJP, presenting them as diehard supporters of the saffron outfit. In turn, they got prime positions within the organization or in the government but now these groups are clamouring for a change. As leaders like Dr CP Thakur, Giriraj Singh, Ashwini Kumar Choube and Shatrughan Sinha go on airing their grievance in public, the party is now trying hard to woo the vast backward, extremely backward caste and Dalits voters.

The formation of the ‘Backward Morcha’, thus, is not without a political motive. It is looking beyond the upper castes – who constitute about 15 percent of the electorate – for support. “The BJP is the only party that gave the country the maximum number of chief ministers from the Other Backward Classes. The first OBC prime minister (Narendra Modi) to the country was also given by the Bharatiya Janata Party,” said BJP chief Amit Shah on Friday, addressing the first meeting of the newly-formed OBC Morcha. The way both Lalu and Nitish have gone on indulging in war of words with the BJP gives enough hints about the BJP’s shift in caste strategy.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had inducted or allied with a number of backward leaders such as Ram Kripal Yadav and Upendra Kushwaha, much to the annoyance to the upper caste leaders who had accused the party of having sidelining them. This time, the BJP has gone farther and even allied with Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi to make up for the possible loss of upper caste votes.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2015 11:28:44 IST