2019 polls: It's a battle for caste votes in Bihar

2019 polls: It's a battle for caste votes in Bihar

Jitan Ram Manjhi (L) and Upendra Kushwaha

As voting concludes for the first phase in Bihar on Thursday, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls may decide the political future of two big leaders of Bihar -- former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who heads the Hindustan Awam Morcha and former Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, who heads the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party.

The two leaders are trying to emerge as the undisputed claimant of caste votes -- Musahars among Scheduled Castes and Koiris among the OBCs, the two castes that are yet to reach the forefront of the caste hierarchy of Bihar politics. Mushars (rat catchers) are at the bottom rung of Scheduled Caste society while Koiris are mainly vegetable growers.

Ironically, it was Nitish Kumar who had tried to bring into focus the political significance of both the caste groups to counter the impact of the Lalu Prasad Yadav-dominated OBC politics and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Paswan or Dusadh-led Scheduled Caste politics by creating separate commissions for ‘ati pichchda' (Extremely Backward) and Mahdadalit (bracketing all other Scheduled Castes minus Paswan).

This social combination with the upper caste and Vaishyas votes of the BJP had led to the ouster of Lalu Prasad’s RJD’s uninterrupted 15-year-rule in Bihar in 2005.

It was Nitish who made Manjhi the chief minister in 2014 after the shock defeat of the JDU in the Lok Sabha polls then, while Kushwaha, then a Nitish protege, had become the leader of the Opposition of the Bihar Assembly in 2004 and later a Rajya Sabha member.

Both the leaders -- Manjhi and Kushwaha -- are now heading different political outfits and are part of the Lalu Prasad-Congress alliance to take on the Nitish-Narendra Modi combine in Bihar.

The divide seems to be reaching deep into the interiors of Bihar.

Sixty- year-old Indradev Prasad of Uttrain village in Aurangabad is is a Kushwaha by caste and has voted for Nitish Kumar’s party for a long time.

His sons Sunil Kumar Verma and Dheeraj Kushwaha are divided as the secular grand alliance in the state has fielded a Kushwaha candidate against the NDA.

That Upendra Kushwaha is also with the Lalu alliance is a factor as many in the new generation of Koiris or Kushwahas are drawn to leaders of their own community. The mukhia of Uttrain Niwas Verma says it bluntly: "For 70 years, Rajputs were MPs in Aurangabad. Now it's time for man of our caste. What is the problem if a Kushwaha wins?"

In the caste hierarchy among OBCs after Yadavs (Lalu Prasad) and Kurmis (Nitish Kumar), Kushwahas also nurse the ambition of a community man at the top. In Schedule Caste politics, after a long domination of Paswans (Ram Vilas Paswan), the numerically strong Mushhars are ambitious. In neighbouring UP, Mayawati from the Jatav Ravidas community has already become a CM in the past.

Nitish Kumar belongs to the Kurmi caste, which has a significant presence only in some parts of Bihar, including his home state Nalanda while the nearly six percent Kushwahas or Koiris are divided across the state and hence, their vote could add to victory or defeat prospects in a larger number of Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies. Kurmis and Koiris trace their origin to sons of Lord Rama-Lav and Kush respectively.

Nitish Kumar has been the harbinger of Lav-Kush unity in state politics. Unlike the prosperous and somewhat peaceful Kurmis, the Kushwahas are divided into sub castes that include the more militant Daangis, who have been a bit revolutionary.

The late Jagdev, better known as Bihar’s Lenin, had ushered in many social reforms, banishing Brahminical rituals from the marriage ceremony among the Koiris. The firebrand leader was assassinated back in 1974.

Nitish is desperate to cement this Lav-Kush unity. He got a statue installed in Gaya some time ago while the JDU has been organising a martyr day for Jagdev with regularity. Nitish Kumar also inducted his son Nagmani, who has record of party hopping, snatching him away from the RLSP before the Lok Sabha elections. Kushwaha's party is in a bruised state with larger number of desertions, mostly joining the JDU camp.

Even in the Mushar tolas of Gaya, Aurangabad, Jehanabad and Nawada, the name of Jitan Ram Manjhi evokes caste pride but there is anger over Nitish Kumar having forced him to resign as CM. The elders concede that “Nitish has given us handpumps and roads. Nitish is a nice man.”

Bihar has 2.2 million mushhars of which 96 percent are landless and 92 percent work as farm labour. NItish has organised about nine meetings in Gaya alone, seeking to defeat Jitan Ram Manjhi.

May 23 will decide whether Nitish manages to win back his earlier social base or its fragmentation strengthens Manjhi and Kushwaha.