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Bihar changing: why parties can't bet on caste now

The voices from Bihar’s key communities, particularly Hindus, reveal an unmistakable soft corner for Modi. But they also reveal a stunning diversity of political views even among members of the same caste group.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2014 12:13 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times

In Bettiah, right behind the Dalit settlement of Jagjivan Nagar, is a madarasa.

Walking down from his office, Maulana Mohammed Idris says while some madrasas receive government funding, they have got none. But he does not hold this against the Nitish Kumar government.

“Last time, the Muslim vote in Bettiah went primarily to Prakash Jha from Ram Vilas Paswan’s party, who was in alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD. Some also voted for BJP’s Sanjay Jaiswal,” he says.

Idris has now turned into a firm Nitish supporter. “He did the right thing in breaking the alliance with BJP. He will have to work two-times harder, yet may not win half the seats he won the last time.”

Asked whether his larger qaum backed the JD(U) as well, Idris laughed, “No one controls anyone’s votes anymore. A son does not listen to his father and you think a community will listen to a Maulana? Some Muslims will go to RJD, some to JD(U), and some even to BJP since Jaiswal has done good work here.”

Whether Idris is right, or whether the community vote will ‘consolidate’ remains to be seen.

In Bettiah's Jagjivan Nagar the madarasa has received no funds from the Nitish Kumar government (Prashant Jha/HT)

Lay of the Land

Bihar sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In the 2009 polls, when they had a partnership, Nitish bagged 20 seats and the BJP, 12. Despite the split, a confident BJP claims it will win anywhere between 18 and 25 seats. Narendra Modi will address four rallies in the state next month. While polls have suggested a dip in JD(U)’s seats, the CM’s aides maintain the ‘secular vote’ would consolidate behind him.

Lalu Prasad’s RJD is close to sealing an alliance with the Congress, learning from their electoral rout last time when they fought separately. But in the process, his party is suffering convulsions. Thirteen MLAs defected to Nitish Kumar on Monday, but by Tuesday afternoon, nine had returned to the party. Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP is in the middle of shifting loyalties from the ‘secular’ alliance of RJD-Congress to BJP.

Politics of identity

Analysts often club people of the same social group as a homogeneous political unit. Indeed, caste and kinship networks matter. People living in a Dalit basti, a Muslim mohalla, a Yadav tol, or a Bhumihar gaun often consult each other before polling day.

Shaibal Gupta, Patna’s foremost social scientist, says, “Broadly, there is a coalition of upper-castes led by BJP, a coalition for upper-backwards led by Lalu Prasad, and a coalition of the non-powerful castes led by Nitish Kumar.”

The government has also specially focused on women, and a big question is whether gender will trump caste loyalties, he adds.

Indeed, old networks are breaking down. The lines between urban and rural are blurring. There is increased migration. And the media plays a critical role. The agency of the individual voter should not be under-estimated. Sample other groups.

Women, Kumar's new constituency (Prashant Jha/HT)

At a Patna middle-class Brahman home, over dinner, four voters said they would continue supporting Nitish even in Lok Sabha. Anju Jha, a school teacher, said, “I remember the kidnappings, the crime, the abuse against upper castes under Lalu. Nitish has provided order.” Her husband, Akhilesh, was the only Modi sympathiser at the table.

But at another Patna home, of Brahman professionals, the numbers reversed. Mohan Chaudhary, an entrepreneur, said, “Congress has ruined the country. We need Modi to stop corruption and revive growth.”

In Bettiah’s Jagjivan Nagar, Nagendra Raut, a retired government employee, said Nitish Kumar had done more for Mahadalits than any other leader. Santosh, a local journalist, said he had conducted an informal survey in the area and many were veering towards Modi. “The BJP has used the alliance with Nitish to penetrate his core constituency. This is no longer a one-way street.”

Bihar’s demographically most influential backward community, the Yadavs, show similar signs.

At Madhubani’s Ranti village crossing, Mahakant Yadav and Joginder Yadav are having tea at a corner shop. The former is a member of RJD, the latter says he is with the BJP. “Around 25% of Yadavs are sure to go with Modi,” Mahakant says.

Yadavs, who have shared an antagonistic relationship with Muslims in the past, seem to like Modi’s belligerent rhetoric. “Nitish took power away from us Yadavs. So if the BJP is taking on Nitish, people would support it,” he adds.

Bottom-to-top churn

The voices from Bihar’s key communities, particularly Hindus, reveal an unmistakable soft corner for Modi. But they also reveal a stunning diversity of political views even among members of the same caste group.

This diversity then ties in with local electoral arithmetic; the choice of candidates; and the fact that in a three-cornered contest, which party cuts into whose votes matters as much as popularity. What is, however, emerging is a huge socio-political change, where no party can take a social group for granted.

The realignments in the high politics of Patna – the LJP’s flirting with BJP, Lalu’s MLAs weighing options, JD(U) leaders shifting to BJP and BJP’s disenchanted moving to JD(U) – is mere reflection of the turbulence on the ground.

Full coverage: My India My Vote

First Published: Feb 26, 2014 00:20 IST