The popular cliché about Bihar holds that it does not cast its vote, but votes its caste.
This is both true and false.
Identity and its different forms – caste, religion, region, ethnicity – matter in all Indian states. Look no further than the recent Patel agitation in Gujarat or the tribal unrest in Manipur.
Look at the religion-based voting patterns of Jammu and Kashmir, the caste-based vote blocs in Karnataka or even the calculations about how to win over Punjabis or Poorvanchalis in the Delhi elections. This is why Bihari leaders take exception when only their state is called caste-ridden.
Yet, it is undeniable that caste remains a fundamental axis in determining political choice in Bihar.
And this is because caste has been the fundamental axis on which discrimination has taken place in society and power order arranged. Bihar has less than 20% ‘forwards’ – yet for almost forty years after independence, it was this bloc that controlled politics.
Coupled with the discrimination that existed in society, this exclusion alienated the demographically substantial backward classes. Socialists tapped into this constituency. Lalu Prasad was a symbol of the rise of the backwards. He gave them a sense of empowerment and ‘voice’.
But his defeat showed the politics of dignity had to be accompanied with the politics of livelihood. It also showed when you mobilise on the basis of identity, there is a danger of that identity fragmenting. Nitish Kumar’s rise was a result of creating micro-caste identities, and coupling it with development. Upper castes, represented in the BJP, backed him, for they saw it as a way to come back to power.
Caste will continue to matter in this election. The RJD-JD(U)-Congress grand alliance is banking on a straight ‘forward versus backward’ election, where they are at an advantage. The BJP is hoping to break this by making inroads into the backward and Dalit communities.
But caste will not be the only factor determining political choice, for there is an ambitious, connected, exposed younger voter in Bihar who knows his caste but is willing to transcend it.