Caste dynamics in Bihar at play as LS polls near

BJP president Amit Shah and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during the announcement of the seat-sharing arrangement in Bihar. PTI

The rough-and-tumble of politics in Bihar is getting rougher with each passing day as rival parties try and poach from each other and stay on the right side of a complicated caste calculus.

The state is vital to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) because it elects 40 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, elections for which are less than six months away.

Two key allies, Upendra Kushwaha and Ram Vilas Paswan, are unhappy with the NDA because of the recent announcement that the BJP and chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) will contest an equal number of seats in the state. In the 2014 polls, the BJP won 22 seats in Bihar, and Nitish won two. Nitish returned to the NDA fold in 2017.

As a result,  Kushwaha is blowing hot and cold over allying with the NDA in 2019, and Paswan has remained silent about his plans.

Read also: Paswan silent over Bihar seat-sharing
 

Political analyst Neerja Chowdhury says "Kushwaha's shift to the grand alliance will help it. The RJD is trying to refashion the alliance which Lalu Prasad Yadav fashioned in his heyday in Bihar when he was CM--Yadav, Muslim, some non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits. There's a growing sympathy for Lalu Prasad now. The Nitish led BJP in Bihar can face a fight in Bihar. Every small ally will also count."

Nitish Kumar who had severed his 17-years-old ties with NDA came back to its fold last year after a brief grand alliance experiment with Congress and RJD. Former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi-led alliance who was part of NDA in 2014 is now in RJD-Congress alliance. Murmurs of discontent are now being heard in NDA after inclusion of JDU.

Barring Congress, the key leaders in all other parties relevant in Bihar politics owe their origin to the Jayaprakash Narayan movement but now they are standing on different sides of the aisle largely due to their caste identity.

Nitish and Lalu Prasad, the jailed former CM whose family runs the principal opposition party RJD, are different in that Nitish has a caste-neutral identity and Lalu has a secular constituency.

The caste dynamics of Bihar politics are also playing out--- be it about the Kushwaha (Koiri) votes, a relatively empowered group among  Other Backward castes next to Yadavs that control six per cent of the votes, or another six per cent votes of Paswan (Dusadh), the politically and socially assertive Dalit community.

So far BJP seems to have sewn up an umbrella coalition of disparate community groups, which if vote together for it, can ensure a smooth sail for NDA. The fight in Bihar could turn out as Dominant-OBC-Muslim versus Non-dominant-OBC-Dalits and upper castes, a combination which can help NDA sail through despite anti-incumbency.

BJP has been virtually the sole destination for upper castes until recently, wen the saffron party showed great zeal in nullifying a Supreme Court order that had provided some respite to people from arbitrary arrests under SC/ST Act.

Nitish Kumar’s JDU has its popularity beyond the Kurmi caste to which he belongs. Besides many other numerically small Extremely Backward castes have rallied behind the Chief Minister in past in addition to the aspirational youths and women voters. The two caste combinations backed by Paswans among Dalits and Kushwahas make the NDA a formidable force with BJP’s cadre votes working as icing on the cake.

While Lav or Kurmis are four per cent of electorates and are confined in few seats, the odd 6 per cent Kushwaha or Koiris community are spread across the state and could tilt the balance in a number of Lok Sabha seats particularly in central Bihar.

With Nagmani, the son of firebrand Koiri leader late Jagdev, who had led an anti-Brahminism movement in Bihar, having joined Kushwaha’s party, the hold of RSLP in South Bihar has got further strengthened.

Moreover, the traditional rivalry between Nitish Kumar and  Kushwaha, who had quit the former’s party JDU in 2013 is turning out to be another trouble spot for lead NDA partner—the BJP.

Despite being an NDA ally, Kushwaha has carried out a months-long campaign against “falling education standard” in the alliance ruled Bihar. The RLSP chief’s Chief Ministerial ambition is also well- known.  In July this year, he had suggested that Nitish Kumar should step down and make way for somebody else as CM face, a suggestion snubbed by the BJP.

RJD, which has been cornering away major chunks of the 14 peper cent Yadav votes of the total chunk of 50 OBC votes and 16 peper centuslim votes, is keen to widen its social base.

 Clearly, it is taking lessons from theSamajwadii Party Congress alliance drubbing in 2017 Assembly polls of Uttar Pradesh in which Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party did not get many votes from non-Yadav OBCs.

Hence RJD has, on more than one occasion, offered the olive branch to Kushwaha as its chief Lalu Prasad is aware of the political cost Lav-Kush unity can cost his party’s prospects.

Nitish Kumar’s caste men Kurmi trace their origin to Lav, Lord  Rama’s elder son and Kushwahas to Kush, Lord Rama’s younger son.

Hence this hectic activity in the NDA camp to keep the flock together.  On October 26 when BJP Chief Amit Shah and Nitish Kumar met in Delhi to announce that both parties will contest an equal number of seats in Bihar, Kushwaha as well as RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav separately released a picture of their meeting over tea in Bihar.

This came after Kushwaha’s earlier remark that a good ‘kheer’ (sweet dish or rice and milk) can be made if the two components come together. The symbolism in the message was loud as Yadavs, the key base of RJD is into milk production while Kushwahas in agriculture growing rice among other products.

Immediately a meeting was fixed between Kushwaha and BJP’s in-charge for the state Bhupendra Yadav after which Kushwaha’s party dropped signals of its unhappiness at “being offered just two Lok Sabha seats”. Kushwaha on Tuesday met Paswan. Both leaders have, however, remained silent on what transpired in the meeting.

Earlier when there were reports of  BJP having come out with a formulae of keeping 20 seats for itself, 12 to JDU, 06 to Paswan’s party LJP and only two for Kushwaha’s party, the Union Minister had famously said, “, “I do not play cricket and I do not understand this 20-20 formula. Instead, I would love to play 'gilli danda'.”

Amid this heightened political activities,  RJD ally Hindustan Awam Morcha led former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi who belongs to the mushar (mouse eater community) and had indicated last month that his party would contest 20 Lok Sabha seats, held its national executive in Delhi last week. Mind it HAM was part of NDA in 2014 and it has no presence in Delhi.

Watch the space as allies in both the NDA and Opposition camp in Bihar flex muscles.

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Caste dynamics in Bihar at play as LS polls near

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