It was on the scorching afternoon of March 3 last year when Narendra Modi, in the middle of a backbreaking campaign to win India, told a massive crowd in Muzaffarpur in north Bihar of how shocked his opponents were that a party perceived as a Brahmin-baniya outfit had anointed him, a backward caste politician, as its PM candidate.
To some that looked like an attempt to soften the forward caste image of the BJP. Whatever it was, it worked: when the results of the Lok Sabha election were declared, the BJP-led NDA had won 31 out of 40 seats in Bihar, the lion’s share of which were victories by candidates who were Dalits or backward castes.
Eighteen months on from that Modi rally, the electoral circus is back in Bihar. It may be an assembly election, but there’s no mistaking the importance of winning the state: It’s crucial for the BJP to shake up an Opposition that has stalled reform at the Centre and key to consolidating party president Amit Shah’s hold.
But this time in this most caste-ridden of states, the party has had to fight a fire from an unexpected corner: its ideological patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). How it manages to neutralise the damage will have a big bearing on the result of the election.
The ‘backward’ narrative under Modi-Shah duo was going according to plan until an interview by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, to Sangh mouthpieces Panchajanya and Organiser. In it, Bhagwat said that reservation had been politicised since inception, and called for a committee to be formed to decide who should get reservation and for how long.
As far as incidences of friendly fire go, this was pretty lethal, given the fact that the usually Brahmin-led RSS is known to favour reservation based on economic criteria, and has always been suspicious of benefits given to OBCs being cornered by one or two groups.
The BJP’s bete noires in Bihar, two of the country’s most seasoned politicians, needed no second invitation to lam the party: Such a statement from the “real boss of the BJP” was significant, they said.
How rattled the BJP was could be gauged by the fact that general secretary Ram Madhav sent out a clarificatory tweet and the party’s articulate face Ravi Shankar Prasad was pressed into service to virtually distance the party from the remarks of the RSS chief.
Over the last week or so, the verbal duel between Lalu-Nitish on the one hand and the BJP leadership on the other has intensified, prompting no less than the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, to go to the extent of declaring that only a backward candidate would become chief minister of Bihar. This is the closest the party has come to identifying its CM candidate; no one has been named yet.
In rallies over the past few days, party boss Shah has dismissed any suggestion that the BJP would scrap the quota system if it got an opportunity.
The irony is that this is actually the stated position of the new leadership of the BJP and Shah has been put in a position where he has had to reiterate it.
Prasad argued to HT that there was never a doubt that only a backward could become the chief minister of Bihar, where the OBCs and EBCs account for nearly half of the state’s population.
“Today the situation is different from 90s. Even the upper castes have accepted the fact that they will not have a CM from amongst them for the coming decade at least,” another union minister from the state, Giriraj Singh, said.
Indeed, the BJP’s experiment with backward politics is not new. Starting with Kalyan Singh, who forged an OBC-Brahmin team with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and created a magical combination of upper caste and non-Yadav OBCs in Uttar Pradesh during the 1990s, to the emergence of Uma Bharti and Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s investment in backward leaders has always paid rich political dividends.
But the tilt towards OBC politics got fresh impetus when Modi was named PM candidate and his lieutenant Shah took over the reins of the party.
Under the duo, the BJP appointed yet another OBC leader – Raghubar Das – as chief minister in the tribal state of Jharkhand and, for the first time, set up an OBC Morcha (front) at the national level in the organisation.
The BJP’s increasing footprint among backwards, Dalits and other marginalised social groups came at the cost of parties like the SP, BSP and RLD in Uttar Pradesh, RJD and JD(U) in Bihar, JMM in Jharkhand and to some extent the NCP in Maharashtra and INLD in Haryana.
It’s been a dream run for the BJP, but its leaders admit that any misadventure in Bihar will have a direct bearing on other states – most notably Uttar Pradesh – where OBCs hold the key to installation of a new government. States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and even southern states where the BJP has a grand expansion plan have stong OBC population and the BJP can not afford to annoy them.
The best antidote to the recent controversy would be to win Bihar. Otherwise, the party would have to start establishing its backward credentials all over again.