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Why Bihar Elections is Based on Caste Politics and Not Developmental Politics

Parties firm up alliances driven by caste arithmetic; voters too prefer to follow their own community and caste leader

Published: 07th October 2015 03:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th October 2015 09:46 AM   |  A+A-

In popular parlance, both Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi, the leading faces of Maha Gathbandhan and the NDA in Bihar elections, are known to pursue development-centric electoral campaigns quite successfully, by making identity issues subservient to development agenda. Apparently, the poll campaign in the current Bihar Assembly election may appear to confirm the same trend as issues like special package and special status to the state as well as developmental claims are being prioritised by both the political alliances. However, a close observation of the ongoing electoral processes in Bihar would unambiguously expose the façade of development claimed by all the political parties as well as the electorates.

Playing the Caste Card

No sooner had political temperature in the election-bound state risen than caste-centric mobilisation emerged as the most preferred electoral strategy by leading political alliances in a two-stage process.

Firstly, the political alliances weaved by the two major claimants, BJP and JD(U), were primarily driven by caste arithmetic. Nitish-led JD(U) entered into an alliance with its bête noire Lalu Prasad-led RJD and Congress to recreate a Mandal-era type fault line with the aim of mobilising low caste and Muslim electorates in its favour and thereby, projecting the contest between BJP and the Maha Gathbandhan as one between upper castes and the rest.

>> Video: Battle Royale: Will Bihar Vote its Caste?

The BJP, which was already in alliance with LJP and RLSP-led by Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan and OBC leader Upendra Kushwaha respectively, was wary of such a scenario and roped in Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, who has a grudge against Nitish after being unceremoniously removed from the Chief Minister’s post. Thereby, the BJP intended not only to shun its pro-upper caste image but also to dent the low caste support base of the Maha Gathbandhan.

Secondly, once the major alliances, NDA and Maha Gathbandhan, were formalised, prominent leaders from both the camps laid bare their caste-centric campaigns. The refusal of the Modi government to make public caste census data concerning socio-economic status of OBCs came in handy for Nitish and Lalu, who attempted to paint the BJP as anti-OBC. Not to be left behind, NDA ally Ram Vilas Paswan attacked the duo by calling for the need to have an alliance of upper castes, extremely backward castes and Dalits against dominant OBC castes like Yadavs and Kurmis.

On part of the Maha Gathbandhan, there has not been a single public meeting wherein Lalu did not make a direct appeal to his own caste, Yadavs, as well as other low castes. Apart from naming and attacking the upper castes, he went on to declare the election as a war between ‘forward castes’ and ‘backward castes.’ Similarly, Nitish has been talking less about development and more about identity issues like Bihari pride, caste background of BJP’s speculated CM candidate and reservations.

Bihar.JPGSimilarly, in a striking mirror image, the BJP and other allies of the NDA resorted to a caste-centric appeal.

In his first major rally at Muzaffarpur in July, Prime Minister Modi began his speech by appealing to Yaduvanshis (Yadav electorates) to come out of the clutches of Lalu. Paswan went to the extent of claiming that Mandal discourse has not benefited Dalits as they were already the beneficiary of reservation policy. Jitan Ram Manjhi made vitriolic statements against dominant OBCs and their alleged anti-Dalit mind-set. Also, senior BJP leader Giriraj Singh claimed the BJP CM nominee would be an OBC or EBC rather than upper caste. Thus, caste has been catapulted to the centre of mobilisational strategy and development issues relegated to the margins in Bihar.

Voting for own community

While parties are busy appealing in the name of caste, the various strata of electorates are responding along similar lines. A majority, hailing from different castes and communities, would respond by claiming to make their electoral choice on the parameters of development and deliverance but, who and which party they consider the better harbinger of development would be determined by alliances that senior leaders from their respective castes have made. Therefore, Dalits and Mahadalits, despite being prime beneficiaries of welfare measures of the Nitish government, are decisively tilted towards the BJP this time as Paswan and Manjhi, senior Dalit and Mahadalit leaders, are aligned with the saffron party. Interestingly, the reasoning they invoke is selective when despite being the poorest section, they reject price rise as a momentary issue and blame nature rather than the central government for the same.

Similarly, there is complete consolidation of upper castes behind the BJP, which they justify in the name of choosing development over ‘Jungle Raj’ or economic advantage of having governments of the same party at the centre and the state. To them, Lalu is still a symbol of all the evils and the development record of Nitish has been made possible due to his alliance with the BJP. Among OBC castes, Yadavs and Kurmis are predominantly rallying behind the Maha Gathbandhan again for the apparent reason that Nitish has brought unparalleled development which makes him indispensable for the state. It doesn’t need an explanation that the real reason for their preference for Maha Gathbandhan is primarily on account of caste considerations as till recently, i.e., before the electoral alliance between Nitish and Lalu, a majority of Yadavs were not very fond of Nitish’s development record.

Confirming the same trend, Banias and Kushvahas/Koeris, the two better off OBC castes in Bihar, are inclined towards the BJP; one due to the old image of BJP being a pro-business caste party and the other, due to the political alliance of their senior caste leader Upendra Kushvaha with BJP.

Likewise, in spite of citing Nitish’s track record, the Muslims in the state are consolidated in favour of the Maha Gathbandhan on account of their preference for the avowed secular parties.

Interestingly, the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) have emerged as the undecided electorates as unlike Yadavs, Kurmis, Kaushvahas, Dalits and Mahadalits, they don’t have many senior political leaders from their respective castes whose political position would have helped them make clear electoral choices. Therefore, they are into a state of constant dilemma on account of their fondness for Nitish but fear of Lalu, eagerness to flirt with BJP but anxiety due to its pro-rich image. It seems they would go by the dominant trend in their localities and end up voting in a mixed manner.

Summing UP

Thus, the cliché that in India voters do not cast their vote but vote their caste happens to be true in the case of upcoming Bihar elections. It can be inferred that development politics is still mediated through the prism of caste and communities and the rising political consciousness of hitherto docile subaltern castes has led to their identitarian assertion in terms of preferring their caste leaders over developmental agenda. This may be just a transition phase at a time when old socio-political identities are getting fragmented and emergent units are aspiring for symbols that they can easily identify with. Nevertheless, this may not be a desirable trend for a state like Bihar.

(The author is a Doctoral Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for Political Studies, New Delhi)



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