The college gates were closed. A group of young men stood outside, with files in their hand, negotiating with security guards who did not allow them in. A police van was parked inside, and the premises had a deserted look.
It was the day after the death of former president APJ Abdul Kalam in late July, and the CM Science College in Darbhanga — one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Bihar — was shut as a mark of a respect and mourning. The problem: authorities had advertised in the local press that a Chennai-based firm would be in the college that day to interview candidates for possible placements. The last minute cancellation could not be conveyed in time. And over 500 people had turned up, waiting at the gate.
The company that had come all the way from Chennai to Darbhanga was Aimfill College of Aviation Studies. On its website, Aimfill International advertises itself as 'a finishing campus', concentrating on 'aviation, marine, acting modeling, paramedical, information and industrial technology, and in management areas, etc'. It promises training in 'all the needed technical skills and soft skills' and creating 'industry-ready candidates'.
Tinku Kumar Mandal was among those who had turned up for the interview in Darbhanga. He filled in a registration form and was told that the college would inform him of the new date.
As Mandal was leaving, I bumped into him outside the principal's office and asked whether he was familiar with what Aimfill was offering. "We are just registering at the moment. It is a job but I do not know what the job is like. I just read about it in the paper." The distinction between a bridging institute and a company job was either not made clear in the advertisement or was lost on Mandal.
He said he was pursuing his Bachelors in history. "But I am not talented enough to clear any competition. I will need to find something in the private sector." It was instructive that in the hierarchy of priorities, clearing a competition — euphemism for UPSC or the state civil services or IIT — ranked the highest, with 'company jobs' coming second.
Arvind Jha, the college principal, told HT that they had begun the practice of calling outside institutions from last year. The college has over 3,000 students, and the principal admitted that classrooms are not able to attract them. A teacher wryly commented: "When students know there is no link between what happens in the classroom and whether they will get a job, how will they get attracted?"
Mandal, and the over 500 students who turned up for a bridging course in aviation in a place like Darbhanga which does not have a modern airport, would have nodded to that.
When asked about his political preferences, Mandal was wary, and cautiously said: "I compare the past state of development with the present and then decide. There has been some improvement. We have better roads and electricity under the Nitish government. But I have personally not benefited under any government scheme." And how would he vote? Mandal smiled, and said, "Isn't that my private right? What I can say is traditional patterns will not work anymore."
The young demographic
Back in Patna, voters like Mandal are keeping party strategists up at night and forcing them to polish their narrative. From Narendra Modi, whose special package has the promise of jobs, to Nitish Kumar, who in his Swabhiman rally promised free WiFi, one demographic that remains the centre of attention is the young voter.
Make no mistake, the dominant prism through which politicians look at elections in Bihar remains caste. In an hour long conversation, 40 minutes would be spent on dissecting the exact caste arithmetic of a constituency, the caste-wise base of any party. And based on this understanding, large general conclusions have now been established - 'forwards' are with BJP; Yadavs are with Lalu and the EBCs are with Nitish. But BJP is making substantial inroads into both these constituencies. With Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manji, the BJP has an edge with Dalits; Muslims are with the Lalu-Nitish alliance.
But as a top JD(U) leader told HT, "Caste is a factor but not the only factor." An adviser to the party added that even if everyone above 30 voted only on caste grounds, there was still a substantial portion of the electorate that may not do so. A top BJP leader echoed this.
The narrative gets most complicated if you look at demographics. Fifty-six per cent of the electorate - 3.8 out of 6.6 crore voters - are in the 18-40 age bracket. Out of this, 1.8 crore voters are below the age of 30. There are 24.13 lakh first time voters, making up 3.5% of the electorate. Whether this vast constituency thinks as neatly in terms of caste, or whether there are other factors playing into their choices, is the big question.
It would be a mistake to assume that the young voter is not aware and conscious of his caste, as conversations with dozens of students, young casual labourers, professionals and self-employed men and women in the state revealed. Through their families, socialisation, the education system, the networks created at work and conversations, the fact that someone was a Brahman, someone a Yadav, someone a Teli, someone a Rajput, someone a Dalit was deeply grained and integral to their personality. The question is if this consciousness is the sole determinant of their political choice or not.
'Yeh dil maange more'
A day before meeting Mandal at CMS college, I was in Saharsa. The RJD had called a bandh in the state, demanding that the caste component of the Socio economic caste census be made public, deprivation according to caste be quantified and budget be allotted accordingly.
On Gandhi Path, a road off the bustling Shankar chowk in the Saharsa town, Kumar was standing outside a small shop.
He was pursuing Bachelors in Education (B.Ed) from the BN Mandal University, named after the man who came to be associated with backward reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Kumar said that the degree in education had only resumed a few years ago. "Under Laluji, all technical degrees were shut but this government resumed the courses." Kumar was from the Tanti community traditionally considered a backward community in Bihar until recently. "But the Nitish government has now categorised us as SC. This means we will get reservation benefits," said Kumar.
Given the fact that Nitish had resumed the course he was now pursuing and had even enabled affirmative action benefits, I said, 'So you will vote for JD (U)." Kumar responded, "No. I will go with BJP here. Lalu had ruined everything. The good work that was done happened when Nitish and BJP were in an alliance. That is when roads, education and electricity improved. As soon as the alliance broke, crime increased." He added that with BJP at the centre, if the party won the state, Bihar will get a 'direct package'. "There are no factories or plants, and unemployment is the biggest concern. I will vote on issues like these."
If it is a direct contest between 'forwards' and 'backwards', through the traditional prism of caste, this election is a done deal - the JD (U)-RJD has an edge. To avoid precisely this, the BJP is seeking to make inroads into the backward communities. They are doing this by projecting leaders and candidates from within these segments, and by using a narrative that may appeal to voters like Sanoj Kumar.
JD (U) is not convinced the BJP move would work. The top leader quoted above told HT that they are familiar with the enhanced expectations of voters. "We know that the Bihari voter wants more. Yeh Dil Maange more is the essence of their mood. But BJP does not have a monopoly over the aspirational voters. Look at our track record - and look at the track record of Modi in Delhi in the last 14 months. What have we not delivered on?"
Where caste still matters
"Neither have done anything," said Amresh Kumar, sitting in front of his small 'medical clinic' just off the highway in Basudevpur in Samastipur district.
"Modi has gone to 16 countries in 14 months, and by the end of the 5 years will hand over this country to bideshsis. Every good in India will be foreign-made." And Nitish, Kumar said with a smirk, 'is asthir, unstable'. "First, he breaks the alliance with BJP; then he resigns and makes Manjhi CM; then he removes Manji and comes back; then he allies with Lalu. Why is he so unstable? If he has committed an accident, he will have to go through the pain."
Kumar is a 'gramin chikitsak', a rural doctor, in his 30s. After a six day training at the district hospital, the civil surgeon awards a certificate allowing individuals like Kumar to provide basic medical care in rural areas.
When I met him, he was sitting with Mohammed Salim, who ran a 'mobile downloading shop' in a bazaar in the vicinity. Salim had gone to visit relatives in Delhi when he came across the High-Tech institute in Khanpur, where he enrolled for a short course and picked the craft of repairing mobile phones. With over 82 percent individuals in rural Bihar having a mobile set, as documented by the recent socio-economic caste census, the penetration of telephony is deep. "There are as many mobile shops as mobiles now - for repair, for downloading videos and pictures, for sale of new sets. Every village market has four such shops at the least", said Salim. People, he said, knew what was happening in far-away areas with two tools - the mobile phone and television.
Kumar was rather cynical of the state government's development claims. He claimed Nitish may have improved the roads, but that has led to more accidents. "Every second day, there is an accident on the state highway." But how is that the government's fault? "They should have also instilled more traffic sense and put in more policemen on these roads. Autos are filled to the brim, people run across the road when there is high-speeding cars." He was not too impressed with higher school enrollment figures either. "Schools are toys for kids. They go for khichdi (mid-day meals). There is no education that happens inside."
Given his skepticism, I assumed he would, like Sanoj Kumar, opt for BJP. He laughed, "Ab Dekhiye vote doosri baat hai, now look, vote is a different issue. We have to look at jaat, caste, also." A Kushwaha, which is counted among the backward castes in Bihar, Kumar said he was a Nitish voter. "Look, everyone is there to loot and make idiots of the janata. And if someone has to go up to Patna and loot, then it is better to have someone from your own community do it."
Bihar's younger voters, who hold the key to the assembly polls, are ambitious and want more for themselves and their families; they are cynical of tall claims made by political figures; they are connected to the world through technology; they are desperate for opportunities; and they have a complex relationship with caste. The interplay of these very factors will determine their voting choices.