It was always dismissed as India’s 'Wild West' state. But Bihar finally seemed to have leapt out of the cauldron of crime, corruption and caste-based politics after Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar became chief minister a decade ago.
Kumar was credited with turning around one of the country’s most backward states and making development a key political issue among its 66.82 million voters. But today as the politically-significant state heads for a crucial assembly election, caste equations are taking centre-stage once again.
Development is still a hot issue, but the debate on who will win the battle for Bihar centres around the caste arithmetic on either side of the political spectrum. The NDA is looking to tap the upper caste Brahmin and Bhumihar, Kayastha and lower caste Mahadalit votes while the grand alliance, led by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad is eyeing the backward castes of Kurmis, Yadavs and Muslims.
Both sides hoping to tilt the balance by driving a wedge in the Extremely Backward Castes, or EBCs, who account for some 30% of the voters in Bihar.
“The viciousness of caste equations may have gone in a state where upper caste children do not share the same classroom or mid-day meal utensils still, but voters have the choice to go for their caste candidate who will end up on the winning side in their perception,” says Dr DM Diwakar, director of Patna’s AN Sinha Institute for Social Studies.
Mathematical models are being worked out, earlier results are being pored over and the midnight oil is being burnt in war rooms to identify strategies to be adopted to assess the “right caste” candidates to be fielded in each of the 243 constituencies.
Analysts are not surprised.
Although caste-based politics lay dormant in the face of a Narendra Modi wave during the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is taking no chances this time.
To begin with, the BJP has not named a chief-ministerial candidate to lead the NDA juggernaut for fear of alienating other castes. In an effort to take on the grand alliance, it is also reaching out to the politically significant lower caste Kushwahas.
But it may not be a cakewalk for the BJP. The Modi factor may still be potent but in the face of a combined opposition for
the first time, it is imperative to forge a caste realignment.
The NDA’s main allies, Paswan and Kushwaha, were with the RJD and the JD-U in the 2010 assembly polls. Their tilt towards the BJP in 2014 created a powerful array of castes and broadbased the saffron formation’s vanguard of uppercastes to force a split in the secular formations to the NDA’s advantage.
But the BJP has an edge because the new Dali icon, Jitan Ram Manjhi, will help pull more Dalit-OBC votes into its kitty.
“While the NDA byword is micro-management of castes, the main fight has boiled down to the further splitting of EBC-OBC vote banks,” says Saibal Gupta , economist with Asian Development Research Institute.
The grand alliance is clearly rattled by the extension of the BJP’s support base in Bihar.
Between them, Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad control a big chunk of the lower castevote in Bihar: Prasad with a bigger Yadav vote share while Nitish Kumar with just 3% Kurmi votes.
As the slugfest intensifies, the question many are asking is: Will the people cast their vote or vote for their castes?