Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked mostly development on Saturday but subtly played the caste card by repeatedly invoking Yadavs and Mahadalits, who together make up about a third of the Bihar's population, as he opened campaigning for the state polls.
Modi attempted to revive the ghosts of the Lalu Prasad Rabri-Devi regime -- which ruled the state for 15 years – and insisted the BJP was the only party to choose in the polls.
The reference to caste was subtle but calculated in a speech otherwise wholly dedicated to issues of development and comparisons of the NDA’s 14-month governance record at the Centre with the Nitish Kumar administration's failures since he broke away from the NDA in 2013.
Yadavs and Mahadalits can help the NDA wipe out an 8% vote share advantage a newly-formed Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress-NCP alliance has over the saffron party, according to the Lok Sabha poll numbers. To win Bihar, the NDA needs greater polarisation of the Yadavs – more than the 19% which voted for the BJP the last time – and complete consolidation of Dalit votes.
In the 2010 polls, the then JD(U)-BJP alliance won a brute majority of 206 seats, riding high on a ‘complete coalition’ of the other backward classes—extremely backward caste under the JD(U) and upper castes and Vaishyas, led by the BJP.
The verdict was underwritten by a guarantee of good governance and initiatives taken by the first Nitish regime between 2005 and 2010.
In the Lok Sabha polls, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Rashtriya Lok Tantrik Samta Party (RSLP) had swung the balance in favour of the NDA. However, the scenario has changed in the last five years. The Muslim-Yadav combine of the RJD is still rock solid and makes up about 32% of the state’s population that may assail the NDA.
This is where the Dalits, led by former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, become crucial to the October battle. After falling out with his former mentor Kumar, the Mahadalit leader has aggressively courted the BJP and finally joined the saffron coalition.
Not surprisingly then, Manjhi and LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan -- both Dalit leaders- got maximum speech time on Saturday with the PM also mingling with them. The attack was concentrated on the RJD with Modi saying the name stood for “R’ozana ‘J’ungle-raj ka ‘D’ar ( Fear of Jungle Rule everyday), which, he said, Bihar would never want to suffer again.
He then played up the way Manjhi was humiliated by Nitish Kumar, stressing Dalits did not get the honour it deserved under the JD(U) regime. Modi also played up a perceived rift in the RJD-JD(U) combine, harking back to Lalu Prasad’s comment that he “had been forced to consume poison” soon after the Congress backed Kumar as the CM face of the grand alliance.
He also talked about Kumar’s latest controversial tweet -- ‘Sandalwood is not affected by snakes.’ Juxtaposing the two comments, he delivered the killer message: “Bihar could have nothing to do with poison or snakes”, while emphasising on the “Two unnatural and inimical allies, “ who were least expected to develop Bihar”.
He also subtly reminded the people a perfect state-Centre relationship could develop Bihar and for that “the same party should rule in Delhi and Patna.” He also talked about Kumar’s “unreliability”, pointing out his “backstabbing of the NDA”, and charged the JD(U) leader with dishonouring the mandate of 2010. “Here is a person, who promised he would not ask for vote if power didn’t reach every home in 2015. Power has not reached the homes but he is still asking for votes,” Modi said.
Modi also stole tactical time in this electoral war over development and gave himself the leeway to pick the best package that would impress poll-bound Bihar and declare it at a moment of his own choosing to reap maximum dividends for the NDA.