There are no signs of a Modi wave in Bihar this time, though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rallies have drawn huge crowds.
And there is no anti-incumbency against chief minister Nitish Kumar. On the contrary, there is immense goodwill for him everywhere. Talk to people in the rural and semi-rural areas, and
there seems to be an undercurrent of sympathy and support for him, particularly among the lower castes, poorer sections, and women, as someone who had been ‘tried and tested’.
Unlike 2014, the opposition to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is united this time. Last year, when they fought separately, they lost out to the BJP, despite polling 6% more votes together than the NDA. So a consolidation of the ‘secular’ vote should have made the Mahagathbandhan of the Janata Dal(U), RJD and Congress comfortable, but everyone is calling it a ‘kaante ki takkar’.
One reason for this lack of clarity is that the 2015 Bihar election is about the deepening of the Mandal story. It is also about the mandalistion of the BJP, which is underway.
Gone are the days when the BJP used to be called a Brahmin-Bania party. Or when OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti were removed from chief ministership, and KN Govindacharya’s plea for ‘social engineering’ had few takers.
A sub-text of Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign was the possibility of an OBC leader becoming the prime minister and it had traction among the backward classes. Amit Shah launched the party’s OBC morcha two months ago, striking a note different from the Hindu consolidation that the BJP and RSS have otherwise focused on.
The BJP has fashioned an alliance of ‘extremes’, with the chattering upper castes creating a ‘mahaul’ for the party on the one side, and Dalits and extremely backward castes (EBCs) on the other, all under the umbrella of ‘development’, with Modi as its chief mascot reaching out to the aspirational youth.
But after the first phase of polling, when Shahnawaz Hussain suddenly began to see merit in Prem Kumar (an EBC leader) and some others in Rameshwar Chaurasia (another EBC leader) as CM candidates — the party had earlier decided not to declare its CM candidate — it showed a lack of confidence that the party felt.
The Kushwaha vote appears to be divided even though Upendra Kushwaha is part of the Union government. Though the Paswans (they are 6% of the electorate) accept Ram Vilas Paswan as their leader, he is facing trouble in many a constituency because of bad ticket distribution. This could be the NDA’s Achilles heel.
The BJP had started working on Jitan Manjhi when he was still chief minister. For many Musehars Manjhi has become a symbol of self-respect. Comprising around 3.5% of the Dalits (who comprise 16% of the electorate) theirs is a story of landlessness, poverty, sexual exploitation, malnutrition and lack of education among children. However, the Musehars now want their share of the political pie and this is the message implicit in their unhappiness at the removal of Manjhi as CM.
Though RJD leader Lalu Prasad had said that this election was about Mandal Raj 2, Bihar is now entering Mandal Raj 3. The first phase of the Mandal story saw Lalu Prasad, a Yadav, ride the crest of power in 1990, backed by the entire phalanx of backward castes, Dalits and Muslims, giving voice to these communities. When his rule degenerated, Nitish Kumar, representing a section of the backward classes, broke ranks with Prasad and formed an alliance with the upper castes represented by the BJP, but with the leadership remaining in his hands.
Kumar widened his base in 2010, reaching out to the more marginalised communities, the EBCs and Pasmanda Muslims, creating a separate category of Mahadalits. Most importantly, he moved the story beyond political empowerment to economic welfare in what could in time to come become a bottom-up approach to development. This marked phase two of the Mandal story in Bihar.
And now phase three, which has seen the upper castes, fearing a loss of power with Kumar’s break with the BJP, uniting behind the saffron party. Unlike 2010, they smell a possibility of getting back into the driver’s seat, no matter who becomes CM under the NDA. The others — Paswans, Kushwahas, Manjhis, and the pro-BJP EBCs — are too fractured to drive a hard bargain for the leadership role.
This fear, of turning the clock back 25 years, may be one reason why the takers for Prasad’s forward versus backward pitch are growing. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s words about revisiting the reservation policy have ensured that the fat is in the fire, and as a Pasi (Mahadalit) teashop owner in Jehanabad, south of Patna, put it, “If reservation is ended, there will be vidroh on the streets of Bihar aur khoon ki nadiyan bahengee.” It was not surprising that Modi was compelled to break his ‘maun’ with the assurance that reservations would continue.
The devolution of power, inevitable in a democracy, was what the original idea of ‘Mandal’ was all about, but over the years it got equated with the rise of casteism.
No matter who comes to power, Bihar is moving into a new phase of politics where the EBCs and the Dalits, who want a greater share in the power structure, will have a bigger say in decision-making processes. It is they who will be the deciding factor in this election, but the EBCs (estimated to be around 30%) are divided, and so are the Mahadalits. Victory will be determined by the side that gets the larger share of their vote.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.