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Now, King Ashoka gets a caste certificate: the BJP game in Bihar

N Kumar | Updated on: 18 December 2015, 12:02 IST

The story

  • The BJP declared Emperor Ashoka a Kushwaha OBC at a function in Patna.
  • This is strange. He was known to be a Kshatriya.
  • They\'ve done that to Chandragupta Maurya earlier.
  • This is a blatant tactic to woo the Kushwahas. They support Nitish Kumar. Are 9% of the vote.
  • Many other historical or literary figures are being repackaged as caste icons.
  • Among others: Sage Parashuram, mathematician Aryabhatta, poets Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Fanishwar Nath Renu.

The context

  • Bihar assembly elections are due in October this year.
  • It\'s a litmus test both for Modi-Shah and Lalu-Nitish.
  • Parties are using every trick to woo caste groups.

The battle lines

  • Close battle: BJP is assured of Upper Caste support. Lalu-Nitish are counting on Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmis.
  • The X-factor is Jitan Ram Manjhi. He is the face of the Maha Dalits.

Update on 18 December 2015:

The Nitish Kumar government recently announced that 14 April will be a public holiday in Bihar from now to mark Emperor Ashoka's birth anniversary. It is not clear how the government zeroed-in on the date, as historians are uncertain about his actual year of birth. Most history books place it at 304 BC.


The upcoming assembly elections in Bihar are critical for every political player in the state.

For Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, it's a battle for survival. For Lalu Yadav, the future of his clan hangs in the balance. For the BJP, it is the biggest test after the crushing defeat in Delhi earlier this year. Caste was always going to be the sharpest tactic these contenders would deploy in Bihar.

But the game just went up a whole inventive new notch: historical characters are now being repackaged in the most cynical way for political ends.

Ashoka as an OBC icon

On 17 May, the BJP held a grand ceremony in Patna to celebrate the 2,320th birth anniversary of Emperor Ashoka - the great king who had a legendary moment of awakening on the battle field of Kalinga and went on to embrace Buddhism.

Many senior BJP leaders were in attendance.

At the event, amidst thundering applause, an organisation called the National Kushwaha Council declared Ashoka to be a Kushwaha.

Kushwahas have traditionally been agriculturalists and were once deemed part of the shudra or lower castes. They are now a dominant OBC community that accounts for about 9% of the vote in Bihar. Union telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declared the government would install a statue of Ashoka and issue postage stamps commemorating the great king.

This has triggered much bewilderment.

What's in a face?

The question everyone is asking is how can Ashoka, a Kshatriya - or a martial caste - suddenly be declared a Kushwaha?

Also, how does the BJP plan to erect a statue of Ashoka when no one knows what the emperor looked like?

The Ashoka Chakra and Ashoka pillar - both national emblems - are the most famous remnants of his legacy. There are no known records of his personal appearance.

The BJP strategy is to prod Jitan Ram Manjhi to fight all seats alone. A direct contest suits Lalu-Nitish

A BJP leader had an ingenuous answer for this. "Nobody has seen Lord Rama and Lord Krishna either, yet their images are made," he said.

But neither he, nor others in the BJP, has an answer for how Ashoka has suddenly transformed into a Kushwaha.

That's probably because he answer doesn't lie in history but in arithmetic.

The caste math in Bihar

Political equations in Bihar are dominated by a powerful combine: the 'Luv-Kush' axis.

Luv and Kush were the twin sons of Lord Ram and Sita in the epic Ramayana.

Kushwahas or Koeris claim their lineage from Kush. Luv represents another important OBC community in the state: Kurmis.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, himself a Kurmi, is considered a champion of this 'Luv-Kush' combination.

The BJP's sudden interest in Ashoka - and the projection of him as a Kushwaha - is an attempt to put a wedge in this combine and keep the two castes apart.

The question is: why is a so-called nationalist party resorting to such visible - and apocryphal - caste gimmicks?

The answer, of course, is again in the caste math.

Battle within the OBCs

Four castes constitute the upper segments of the backward castes in Bihar -Yadav, Kurmi, Koeri and Vaishya. Numerically, Yadavs are the largest backward caste followed by Koeris. Yadavs and Kurmis have ruled the state for a quarter of century now. They are set to come together again. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar dominate this group.

The BJP hopes to counter this by wooing Kushwaha votes. They also hope that some of the other most backward classes will rally around them. It has already taken the Vaishya - or trader community - votes for granted.

In the general elections, the BJP had made some inroads into the Kushwaha vote by allying with Upendra Kushwaha, a bitter critic and former associate of Nitish Kumar. Rebranding Emperor Ashoka as a Kushwaha is a back-up plan.

Caste was always going to be the sharpest tactic in Bihar. But the game just went up a whole new notch

The struggle for power between the backward castes loops back to the 1930s when an organisation called the Triveni Sangh was formed. Kurmis and Koeris used this platform to get themselves declared 'Kurm Kshatriya' and 'Kushwaha Kshatriya' respectively. Their aim was to carve out a share from the power and property of the Kshatriyas. They were successful.

Now the battle for power continues.

After the Yadavs and Kurmis reached the echelons of power, the Kushwahas too deem it their right. The BJP is trying to strengthen this sentiment by making Kushwahas believe they belong to the lineage of one of the greatest rulers of India.

History as a game of caste football

Mahendra Suman, a noted political analyst in Patna, isn't surprised by the BJP's 'Ashoka card'. The party has been there before. It has repackaged the iconic king Chandragupta Maurya earlier.

And, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, the party had wooed the Kurmi vote by invoking India's first home minister Sardar Patel as a Kurmi and had vowed to build the tallest ever statue of the 'Iron Man'.

It's just ironic now, Suman says, that a party promising 'Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas' - development for all, with the participation of all - is willing to play its caste cards so blatantly. The trend is not new though. In Bihar, no one is anyone until their caste is nailed.

Every hero has a caste

According to Suman, the Rajputs have long incorporated Veer Kunwar Singh - a Bihar royal who fought the British in 1857 - in their fold as a rallying figure.

The legends of the Nishada tribe in Ved Vyasa's Ramayana have found a renewal in the political aspirations of the Nishad caste. (Eklavya, the boy who had to cut off his thumb because he could shoot better than Arjuna, was a Nishada.)

If Brahmins swear by Chanakya, the original political savant, Bhumihars would like to have exclusive copyright on Parshurama - the epic sadhu who destroyed the kshatriyas - and Swami Sahajnanda, who pioneered the farmer movement in Bihar.

Analyst Mahendra Suman isn't surprised by BJP's 'Ashoka card'. It repackaged Chandragupta Maurya before

The Kurmi campaign to bring Fanishwar Nath Renu, one of Bihar's greatest writers to their fold, is well known. His groundbreaking math and astronomy may be long forgotten but the 4th century BC mathematician Aryabhatta has been resurrected as a Bhatt Brahmin.

For the Musahars - one of the most impoverished low castes in Bihar - the mythical Shabri, the 'untouchable' who fed Lord Rama, and folk heroes Deena-Bhadri, are important cultural icons. There has been a scramble to give them prominence after the now ousted chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi came to occupy centrestage in Bihar politics.

There are reports that a particular group is trying to ascertain the caste of Gautam Buddha now. It may soon hold a rally in his name - supported obviously by a political party.


Lord Krishna has long been a ping pong ball in Bihar's hyper-political landscape. His images adorn Lalu Prasad Yadav's house. This was probably why, during the general elections, prime minister-aspirant Narendra Modi made it a point to tell the Yadavs that he comes from 'Dwarka's Gujarat' - the purported birthplace of Krishna.

This created palpable unease in the Lalu camp. His wife Rabri Devi retorted that Yadavs would not be fooled by Modi's theatrics. Nothing captures the shifting sand of Bihar's caste landscape better than the Income Tax roundabout in Patna. One sees new posters here every day.

During the day, the Brahmins and Bhumihars form a 'Unity Council'. But by evening, there are posters of Bhumihars celebrating the anniversary of Parashurama on their own, while Brahmins stake a separate claim on him.

At a recent function organised in honour of the celebrated Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Modi lamented that caste politics has ruined Bihar. It was hard to miss the irony as the purpose of the program itself was to tap the powerful Bhumihar vote bank.

Lalu's wife Rabri Devi says that the Yadavs would not be fooled by Modi's theatrics

And political analyst Prem Kumar Mani reminds one that the roadmap was made clear when Modi himself used his OBC status to garner votes for the Lok Sabha.

The buzz is that there are now attempts to put a caste tag on the great poet Jai Shankar Prasad.

Moves and counter-moves

The moot question is who will be the real beneficiary of the divisive game being played by all sides?

There are no straight answers.

The polity of the state has been complicated further with the rise of Jitan Ram Manjhi.

Here's how the chessboard currently looks.

It is a neck-to-neck battle between the Lalu-Nitish combine and the BJP.

The BJP is taking the Upper Caste votes, which constitute 12% of the electorate, for granted. It is vying for the votes of Kushwahas who, along with Vaishyas, constitute another 13%.

It can bet on another 2.5% votes belonging to the Paswan community, courtesy its ally, Ram Vilas Paswan.

The party is also hoping for a shift in the Yadav vote, similar to what took place in the general elections.

The BJP's believes that the community may desert Lalu as he has more or less yielded to the projection of Nitish Kumar, a Kurmi, as the chief ministerial candidate of the alliance. (That is, if the alliance survives.)

The BJP already had Nand Kishore Yadav in its ranks. Now Ram Kripal Yadav, an old aide of Lalu, is also on their side.

It is also counting on other Yadav leaders like Bhupendra Yadav, the party's in-charge for Bihar. The ouster of MP and notorious muscleman Pappu Yadav from the RJD has provided a further chink in Lalu's votebank.

Check, game, and old mates

The other camp has its own arithmetic.

Lalu is sure of the support of the Yadavs who account for 14% of the electorate.

Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, knows that allying with Lalu will keep around 16% of Muslim vote intact. If this calculation works, it can pose a serious challenge to the BJP.

Both political dispensations know that in such a scenario, the key to power in Patna may lie with the most backward and Dalit votes.

Nitish's Maha Dalit politics during his tenure as chief minister has had a lot of impact at the grassroots.

The Maha Dalits are now more formidable as a political force. Panchayat elections have seen a number of Maha Dalits emerging victorious. They are now aspiring for a larger political pie.

The political fortune of the BJP depends to a large extent on Jitan Ram Manjhi

The ascent and descent of Jitan Ram Manjhi - who is from the Musahar caste and was the first Maha Dalit chief minister of Bihar - has strengthened this yearning among the Dalits.

Neither BJP, nor the Lalu-Nitish alliance, has a face from these communities they can count on.

This is the reason why Lalu is openly courting Manjhi. Whereas BJP wants to prevent his re-union with his old political peers at any cost.

Most BJP leaders do not want Manjhi in the party though. They would prefer to make it a triangular contest by prodding Manjhi to fight alone in all the seats.

A direct contest suits Lalu-Nitish, on the other hand.

Then there are players like Pappu Yadav, who are hard to ignore. His wife Ranjita Ranjan won the Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket. The couple is considered particularly powerful in the Kosi belt.

This was an area where BJP could not open its account even while the Modi wave was sweeping the rest of the country.

The credit for this reversal was largely given to Pappu Yadav and his wife. Pappu Yadav also holds a fair amount of sway over Muslim voters of the area.

In such a closely fought election, any alliance will ignore Pappu Yadav at its own peril.

It is being said that Nitish wants his support. However, just as he would not budge on Manjhi, Lalu is unlikely to accommodate Pappu Yadav. Manjhi, on the other hand, has declared his intent to align with anybody who has nothing to do with Nitish. There is a great chance he may side with the BJP, in some form or the other.

The final countdown

Asaduddin Owaisi's MIM is also planning to test the waters in the Muslim dominated Seemanchal area.

It had made its presence felt in the Jharkhand elections. This is certainly bad news for the Lalu-Nitish combine.

The politics of Bihar has become completely polarised on caste lines. As the elections approach, parties will try to widen the gap further.

The political fortune of the BJP depends to a large extent on Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The JD(U)-RJD alliance's seat-sharing negotiations will have more than its fair share of bickering. Lalu wants more seats than JD(U) on the pretext that RJD got more votes in the general elections. Nitish Kumar wants seat allocation based on the current strength of parties in the Vidhan Sabha.

If Lalu somehow gets Manjhi on his side, he may well decide to row his political boat away from Nitish with Congress on-board.

While the BJP searches for another king in its pack.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 2 June 2015, 17:30 IST