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The Bihar puzzle: how some castes are deserting Nitish

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 1 October 2015, 13:37 IST

The concerns

  • In the past, JD(U) has garnered support from a cross section of Bihar\'s caste-divided society.
  • Nitish\'s falling out with the BJP and Jitan Ram Manjhi may cause an erosion of support.
  • Brahmins and Bhumihars may desert the JD (U).
  • The Manjhi episode may cause the Mahadalits to move away from Nitish.

The hope

  • Extremely-backward classes, to which Nitish himself belongs, could stick with him.
  • A large number of Dalits could still support the JD(U).
  • Nitish\'s possible alliance with RJD and Congress may garner Muslim support, if they can decide on a seat-sharing formula.

The Bihar assembly elections will, in all likelihood, be heavily influenced by caste equations, and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does not want to leave any stone unturned.

Playing the development card, organised campaigning, caste arithmetic - he is throwing in a bit of everything in the hope that any one of these, or a combination, will get him the winning numbers.

Nitish's victory two terms ago, in 2005, came on the back of a strong yearning for change from the Lalu-Rabri regime of 15 years, in which Bihar seemed to have been stuck in a time-warp.

The verdict on his performance as CM was unequivocal in 2010 and he, along with his ally, the BJP, retained power thanks to a strong development agenda.

However, he suffered a major setback when his decision to part ways with the BJP - in opposition to the decision to anoint Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate - backfired. The JD(U) won only two Lok Sabha seats in the state, as against 19 in 2009.

As the state heads towards assembly polls once again, two questions would be upper most in Nitish's mind.

One, will the Lok Sabha mandate, which was clearly in favour of BJP, also reflect in the Vidhan Sabha elections?

And two, will the JD(U)'s voters accept the tie-up that Nitish has entered into with his one-time arch-rival Lalu Yadav?

Erosion of support

To add to his concerns, Nitish appears to be gradually losing the support of many voter groups that supported him in 2010.

The JD(U)'s vote-bank in 2010, as distinct from that of its then ally BJP, comprised the extremely-backward classes (EBCs), Mahadalits, Bhumihars, and some sections of Brahmins and Muslims.

According to Shashi Bhushan, former senior fellow at the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, EBCs make up 31% of the total population of Bihar, followed by Mahadalits (16%), Muslims (16%), Brahmins (8%) and Bhumihars (7%).

Muslims could stick to RJD and Congress

Out of these, the Muslim vote has traditionally seen a three-way split in Bihar - between the JD(U), Lalu's RJD and the Congress. While the Congress is known to be the 'natural home' of Muslim voters all over India, the RJD has always enjoyed a strong support from the community in Bihar.

The introduction of a 50% quota for SCs, STs, OBCs and EBCs in govt contracts indicates Nitish's strategy

This leaves the JD(U) as their third choice. Nitish is likely to benefit by them only through a coalition arrangement with the RJD and the Congress - something he is already putting in place.

However, seat-sharing is yet to be announced and it is speculated that a turf war is simmering between the RJD and the JD(U) over those constituencies where there are a large number of Muslim voters.

Brahmins - a divided house

Bhushan explains that Brahmins are nearly equally divided in two major groups in Bihar - the Kanyakubj Brahmins and the Maithil Brahmins.

Several leaders among the Kanyakubj Brahmins have criminal antecedents and are with the JD(U) presently. They are likely to wait and see which way the wind is blowing.

Since they need to be with the party in power for their criminal enterprises to thrive, they will stay with JD(U) if they see it winning, or shift to the winning side.

As far as the Maithil Brahmins are concerned, in a case of great electoral irony, wherever they are present in substantial numbers, Muslims also have a strong presence. So for the RJD-JD(U) combine, they will not be a high priority and are, therefore, likely to go with BJP.

Bhumihars - Anant Singh's arrest is a signal

The Bhumihars supported the JD(U)-BJP combine for in 2010, partly because of Nitish and partly because of the BJP. However, when Nitish parted ways with the BJP, before the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, a large chunk of the Bhumihar vote shifted towards the BJP.

A portion of it, however, remained with the JD(U), because many notorious criminals from the community were sitting MLAs of the ruling party.

However, the recent arrest of the most influential Bhumihar MLA-don, Anant Singh, in Patna is being interpreted as a clear indication from Nitish - that he is convinced of the erosion of the community's support for him and has given up on them.

Manjhi episode may sway Mahadalits

Jitan Ram Manjhi belongs to one of the 30 Mahadalit castes, called the Musahars, who are among the three numerically strongest groups, the other two being Dusaadhs and Chamars. Numbering 4% each, together they comprise nearly 75% of the state's entire Dalit population.

Bhushan says Nitish's bitter falling out with Manjhi and the latter's subsequent stepping down as CM has created this impression that the former couldn't tolerate a Mahadalit as CM. This could mean a substantial erosion of their support for Nitish.

However, there is an alternate view. Dr Ajay Kumar Singh of the UGC Centre for Federal Studies, Jamia Hamdard University, feels that Manjhi's image in the public's mind is also that of a betrayer, since he was appointed the CM by Nitish.

Moreover, Singh adds, this election is also going to be about personalities and the three names dominating the public discourse in Bihar at this point of time are Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and Narendra Modi.

EBCs - Nitish's only hope

The EBCs are a cluster of 112 castes which are recognised as the most deprived among the 130-odd castes mentioned in Bihar's OBC list. The EBCs, as one block, are the largest voters' group in the state.

They supported Nitish in 2010, not only because he himself comes from among them, but also because he gave tickets to several of their leaders. A large number of them won and became MLAs.

This is the only group that has so far not given any signal of deserting the JD(U) in large numbers, even though a senior EBC leader and former minister Bhim Singh did turn his back on the party in support of Manjhi.

The X-factor

Singh points out another caste combination that does not exist in the government's records but in the vocabulary and traditions of the people of the state.

Panch-paniya is a categorisation of five lower castes - Dhanuk, Hajjam, Kurmi, Turha and Dhobi - from whose hands upper castes can accept water to drink. These have also been called 'upper shudras' in some academic literature.

These five, according to Singh, are also with Nitish, reinforcing his argument that apart from the EBCs, a large number of Dalits are still supporting the CM.

The Bihar Cabinet's recent announcement of introducing a 50% quota for SCs, STs, OBCs and EBCs in government contracts, is also an indication of Nitish's strategy to win over the deprived sections.

It reaffirms what most observers are beginning to agree with now - Bihar's leaders once again want their voters not just to cast their vote, but vote for their caste.

First published: 4 July 2015, 0:29 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.