Upper-caste votes may emerge crucial in Bihar polls
Rajendra Singh’s margin of defeat in the Dinara assembly segment was thin, 2,691 votes, in a seat dominated by Yadav, Rajput, Kushwaha and Brahmins.Updated: Oct 27, 2020, 05:15 IST
Ashok Singh is a rice mill owner in Bihar’s Rohtas district and an upper caste (Rajput). He has always backed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but is looking to switch his vote this time.
His choice is Rajendra Singh, an old member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who lost the 2015 election on a BJP ticket to Jai Kumar Singh, a senior leader of the Janata Dal (United) that was with the Opposition Grand Alliance at the time. Jai Kumar Singh was later made minister of science and technology.
Rajendra Singh’s margin of defeat in the Dinara assembly segment was thin, 2,691 votes, in a seat dominated by Yadav, Rajput, Kushwaha and Brahmins.
This time, the Dinara seat has gone to the JD (U), who has fielded sitting MLA Jai Kumar Singh. Rajendra Singh is also in the fray – on a ticket by the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) – and is using his personal ties to the local population and his 37 years of experience with the Sangh to split the upper caste vote, which is about sizeable of the 2.73 lakh-strong local electorate.
“Rajendra Singh lost, but he still remained here in our midst. Dinara is a place from where rice was exported up to Bangladesh once, but all that has changed. Here we want local things to be set right. Despite being a minister, Jai Kumar Singh did not help the place or people in any way. A trusted face is also important,” said Ashok Singh.
At Rajendra Singh’s public meetings, slogans can confuse the uninitiated. Chants praisingNarendra Modi, Amit Shah, along with Ram Vilas Paswan, rent the air. “We know Rajendra Singh. We don’t know any party,” said Mantu Pathak, who runs a grocery shop near Dinara block office.
Satyendra Shah, a high school teacher, said that he would be voting for Rajendra Singh, and not because of the LJP ticket. “We know him as an RSS man and he is popular. He will have direct fight with the RJD candidate,” he added.The Grand Alliance has fielded Vijay Mandal from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)
Barely 35 kms away, another BJP rebel and four-term MLA,Rameshwar Chourasia, is contesting on an LJP ticket from Sasaram, but he is also relying more on his past ties with upper-castes and drawing big crowds. Sasaram’s constituency is dominated by Koeei, Muslim, Rajput and Yadav. The BJP has traditionally enjoyed the support of Kowei and Rajputs and the RJD that of Yadav and Muslim. But the presence of LJP can divide the upper-caste vote, say local residents.
“Whether the crowd will translate into vote and how things will shape up for other parties is something that is hard to guess, for division in upper case vote may end up benefitting the GA [Grand Alliance] candidate. With RJD fielding a candidate from theVaishya community, a traditional vote bank of the BJP, it can also hurt the NDA,” said Dadan Pandey, a farmer from Nauhatta in Sasaram.
Members of the Brahmin, Rajput, Bhumihar and Vaishya castes have traditionally backed the BJP. These communities make up around 15%-16% of the state’s population, but often play a decisive role in building opinion – what in local parlance is called ‘hawa’ – because of their oversized local influence, presence in key institutions and economic and social dominance that has tipped over into violence against marginalised communities in the past.
When the BJP and JD(U) came together in 2010, this upper-caste backing came together with the coalition of extremely backward classes and Mahadalits, two segments nurtured by chief minister Nitish Kumar, to form a stable social base for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
But this time, there is palpable anger among upper-castes against Nitish Kumar because of pervasive unemployment and fatigue after 15 years of rule.
“This time upper caste is the balancing factor and therefore, all parties have fielded them. It is a fact that upper caste is not happy with Nitish Kumar, but at the same time it also does not want to leave him due to lack of credible choice. A lot will depend on upper caste turnout in Covid times. If they remain indifferent, it will also alter the outcome,” said DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
The BJP has fielded the most upper-caste candidates, with more than half of the 110 seats going to dominant communities -- 50 from the upper caste, including 21 Rajputs and 15 Bhumihars, and 15 from the Vaishya community. Its ally JD-U has focused on extremely backward classes and Mahadalits.
JD-U genera secretary and Bihar minister Sanjay Jha said that the upper caste would not leave the JD-U or the NDA after having seen the Nitish government’s work and the horror tales of the RJD regime. “Upper caste voters may have greater expectations from Nitish Kumar, but it will not take the risk of backing Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, for it knows how far Bihar has travelled and from where. Having expectations is always good and election is the time to ventilate it, but this does not mean anger. What Nitish government has done is before the people to see and compare,” he added.
In contrast, RJD has given 13 tickets to upper castes. In the Congress, 32 of the 70 seats allotted to the party have been given to upper-caste candidates. The Congress used to be the party of choice for upper-castes – and the Dalits -- until a rainbow coalition of backward castes and minorities dislodged it from power in 1990.
Congress MLC Premchandra Mishra said that the upper caste had been fooled by the NDA and they were angry with the Nitish government for several reasons. “After 15 years, Nitish Kumar cannot and should not say what he will do; rather he show the report card. Drawing comparison with the past will not convince the upper caste, who have seen the nature of governance in Bihar,” he added.
Moreover, the LJP has fielded nearly 35% upper-castes among its 137 candidates – most of them against the JD(U).
“LJP has given tickets to potential winners. LJP chief Chirag Paswan has categorically said that he does not see the caste of candidates while deciding the seats, but only the potential, image and work,” said LJP spokesman Vikas Mishra, who is also a candidate from Harlakhi seat in Madhubani.
This competition for upper-caste votes, especially in seats witnessing triangular contests, can alter the outcome, say experts. “A lot will depend on how they [upper-castes] behave, especially on the seats JD(U) is contesting, for they may have triangular or multi-corner contests,” said Diwakar.
The NDA is also banking on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP leaders say at a time Nitish Kumar is battling anti-incumbency, the PM can help shore up the alliance’s prospects in tricky contests.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’srallies can change things on ground. He is a man people still trust. Let’s see how much he is able to swing. For NDA, the hope rests on him, unlike before when Nitish Kumar was himself capable of steering the NDA,” said Vijay Kumar, a professor from Nawada.