In Bihar, where upper castes constitute less than 15 per cent of the population, the BJP alliance got a combined vote percentage of 34.1 per cent while that of the Mahagathbandhan was 41.9. While both the alliances witnessed a decline in vote share compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections wherein the combined vote share of Mahagathbandhan and NDA was 45.04 per cent and 36.36 respectively, the former has seen a decline of relatively more votes, 3.14 per cent to the NDA’s 2.26.
Secondly, in terms of core social base, the Mahagathbandhan hinged upon the triad of Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmis who alone constitute around 35 per cent of the state electorate, while the NDA was comfortably placed among upper castes, Banias and Paswans who constitute almost 25 per cent of the total electorate. Besides, the NDA was expected to do better among Mahadalits due to its association with Jitanram Manjhi. Another BJP ally Upendra Kushvaha, hailing from Kushvaha/Koeri caste, is yet to emerge as the supreme leader of his caste and could not match the status that Lalu, Nitish Kumar and Ramvilas Paswan enjoy in their respective castes. In this respect and for the sake of analysis, assuming the core support bases of the two respective alliances to be constant, the NDA seems to have got almost 9 per cent vote beyond its core support base (Upper caste, Bania and Paswan) while the same in the case of Mahagathbandhan (Muslim, Yadav and Kurmi) happens to be just 7.
It should also be noted that the social base of the votes fetched by the NDA beyond their core support base happens to come from lower OBCs, EBCs, Dalits and Mahadalits wherein the saffron alliance has succeeded in getting more votes from non-Yadav-non-Kurmi subaltern castes, 9 per cent, than the Mahagathbandhan’s 7 per cent.
Hence, in terms of the expanse of the social base defined by the number of subaltern castes rather than plain numbers, the BJP alliance seems to have wider acceptability among lower castes than the Mahagathbandhan.
It was the numerical preponderance of the triad of Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmis, constituting 35 per cent of the total electorate, and their active and decisive consolidation behind Mahagathbandhan that ensured the resounding victory for the alliance in the first place. In other words, NDA lost the election despite having wider social base and Mahagathbandhan won the election with relatively narrower social base, primarily on account of the numerical weakness of multiple pro-BJP EBC and Mahadalit castes against the combined strength of Muslims and Yadavs.
NDA’s Failed Upper Cut
The most important factor accounting for NDA’s electoral debacle, which is missing from most of the analyses, happens to be the non-representativeness of the caste profile of its candidates in comparison to that of Mahagathbandhan. In a state that has a mere 15 per cent of upper caste population, BJP and its allies altogether fielded more than 40 per cent of upper caste candidates while their share in Mahagathbandhan was merely 16.
The fielding of disproportionately higher numbers of upper caste candidates in a caste sensitive state like Bihar proved detrimental for the saffron alliance and no rational explanation could justify this tactical blunder.
It seems BJP expected too much from subaltern allies like Paswan, Kushvaha and Manjhi and went by the assumption that their association would transfer their caste votes to the saffron camp. While the assumption was partially true, the top BJP strategists forgot the simple fact that the caste profile of individual candidates is as important a factor in fetching votes as the association of big caste leaders with various parties.
Thus, while BJP and its allies got a significant section of low caste votes due to alliance with Paswan, Manjhi and Kushvaha, it lost many potential low caste BJP voters due to the fielding of a disproportionately higher number of upper caste candidates against low caste candidates of Mahagathbandhan. The BJP ignored the electoral fact that the appeal of top caste leaders needs to be substantiated through the caste profile of individual candidates at constituency level.
It would be naïve to expect a top low caste political leader to ensure the transfer of a majority of his caste votes to upper caste candidates in constituencies where rival parties had fielded low caste candidates. This becomes all the more important when the rival party is led by a magnetic personality like Nitish Kumar whose appeal and governance record transcended all castes and communities in Bihar.
Secondly, the strategy of BJP hinged too much on the assumption that the negative image of Lalu Yadav would eclipse the positive image of Nitish Kumar leading to the shift of a majority of pro-Nitish low caste votes to the BJP due to their fear of revival of Lalu Yadav and Yadavisation.
Guided by this assumption, they went for all round attack on Lalu Yadav, invoking the imagery of the Jungle Raj to the extent that it became a cliché. The fence sitters and swinging voters like EBCs and Mahadalits who were oscillating between the twin dilemmas of ‘love for Nitish and fear of Lalu’ needed a thick representative profile in terms of social background of the candidates rather than majority of BJP candidates projected as upper caste saviours from Jungle Raj.
Thus, in the battle of perception, the BJP confused a section of anti-Lalu OBCs in general and EBCs in particular by failing to make its candidates’ profile representative of the caste diversity of Bihar.
On the other hand and at a symbolic level, one needs to take into account that Lalu Yadav’s RJD fielded just one Brahmin candidate and corroborated his strategy of projecting the election as a fight between ‘forward castes and backward castes.’
A proper contextualisation of Bihar results and a comparison of the same with 2014 Lok Sabha elections would categorically point out that despite having all the advantages, namely, presence of a magnetic leader like Nitish Kumar, the consolidated support of two most numerous castes/communities, Muslims and Yadavs, the alliance of all the three anti-BJP parties and finally, the relative disenchantment of the poor with Modi due to unfulfilled promises and soaring price rise, the Mahagathbandhan couldn’t prevent a 3 per cent plus decline in its vote percentage which is slightly higher that of the NDA.
Conversely, despite all the demographic and contextual disadvantages apart from committing the tactical blunder of fielding more than 40 per cent upper caste candidates, the BJP and its allies superseded Mahagathbandhan in expanding their support base among the non-Yadav-non-Kurmi low caste electorates in Bihar. The consolidated support of just two castes/communities, namely, Yadavs and Muslims, accounting for almost a third of the electorate could not be taken as representative of all the lower castes in a state where the total number of low castes happens to be more than two hundred.
A significant share of the 34.1 per cent vote share of BJP and its allies had come from these multiple low castes whose support got eclipsed by the triad of KMY (Kurmis, Muslims and Yadavs. Hence, analysed in terms of social support base, the Bihar’s electoral debacle must not be treated as rejection of the BJP and its politics in Bihar.
(The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based Research Organisation)