Economically Backward Kingmakers to Go With the Wave

After touring Bihar and spending time with the community represented by 28 MLAs in the outgoing Assembly, Bathula Suresh Babu, supported by data from Peoples Pulse, finds that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has done much to bring the marginalised group out from under the Yadav shadow of suppression, cannot yet count on a clear backing from them

Published: 16th October 2015 04:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th October 2015 04:25 AM   |  A+A-

One of the beauties of democracy is that pretty often the voiceless section determines the one who ought to get the mandate. This was best seen when Peoples Pulse toured Bihar to assess the situation for the 2015 Assembly elections. It is clear that the battlelines were fully drawn on the basis of caste. The upper castes like the Brahmins, Bhuminars and Rajputs along with Banias, Kushwahas, Paswans, and Mushahars have predominantly decided to back the NDA - BJP, LJP, RLSP and ex-Chief Minister Jitin Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha.

The Yadavs, Kurmis, Muslims and some sects of the Maha Dalits are openly with the Grand Alliance or the Maha Gathbandhan constituting the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress.

Despite this, the only section that is refusing to give a hint, let alone open up are the Economically Backward Classes. They form a solid 24 per cent of the electorate. The race over the past three weeks has been nerve-wracking, with the NDA and Grand Alliance headed for a photo finish. Therefore, it is the EBCs that hold the key to these keenly and fiercely fought elections.

The EBCs became an electoral power only because of Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar. Though the EBCs have been defined and re-defined since the 1950s, Kumar carved them out as a key political constituency with a collective political identity by devising for them specific policies like reservations in Panchayat Raj elections, educational institutions, health schemes and jobs. He embarked on this soon after winning his first term in 2005 and over time the EBCs became a well-defined electoral power and electoral constituency.

The EBCs are different from all other social groupings. At a basic level, they are too dispersed in every Assembly seat and at another level they have no leader. Therefore they are not a dominant community like the Yadavs or Kurmis. The variance can be further seen as they are referred to as Panchpanias in one place, Panchporna elsewhere and Solhkan in yet another place. This being so, they acknowledge that Kumar is the only leader who fulfilled their aspirations and recognised their legitimate rights, and point to 28 EBCs MLAs in the outgoing Assembly as proof. The huge misconception among many political observers is that EBCs voted overwhelmingly for Narendra Modi in last year’s Parliament elections and are therefore expected to vote similarly now. Nothing can be farther from the truth, as the EBCs said then and even now that they voted so because that vote was “not for or against Kumar” but “for Modi”. And herein lies the debate whether they would continue to back Kumar or seek a change and tilt in NDA’s favour.

It is precisely for this reason that Peoples Pulse adopted a scientific method and on paper segregated the EBCs into three groupings. The first are the small business traders, like Teli, (oil pressers ), Paneri, (betel leaf sellers), Sav, (small shop keepers) and so on. The second are the artisan castes like Kumhar, Tanti (weavers), Badhai (carpenters), Lohar (blacksmiths), Sonar (goldsmiths), etc. The third are the labouring castes like Mallah (fisherman), Bind (Salt-tappers), Noonia, Patwa, Dhanuk, Kahar (formerly palanquin carriers), Amat, and others. Kumar, ahead of the elections, ordered a re-categorisation of the Teli community, to nip the chances of Modi striking a chord with them.

The common thread that runs through these groupings is that they are fond of Kumar. The other binding factor is that they are fearful of Lalu Prasad Yadav. That’s because if the Grand Alliance comes to power it might lead to a throwback to those days when the Yadavs were dominant and sometimes militantly so. It’s largely for this reason that Kumar empowered the EBCs a decade ago. When Peoples Pulse specifically asked them if Yadav would become more powerful if the Grand Alliance came to power, their response was that Kumar would be the Chief Minister and not Yadav. They are emphatic that he is not pliant. They cite a variety of reasons to substantiate this view.

The EBCs are equally wary of the NDA, particularly the BJP. They view the BJP as an upper caste party and are disinclined to see upper castes in power as that would mean a return to their days of suppression.

What’s worse, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent remarks on reservations could not have come at a more inappropriate time for the BJP. His remarks have become an election issue, with the Grand Alliance focusing sharply on this. The EBCs’ worry is compounded by fears that if the BJP-led government comes to power, they stand to lose all those benefits, which Kumar has extended to them.

When Peoples Pulse began to sift through this complex and interesting picture and spent time with the EBCs, a section of the small business traders and artisan castes were found to prefer the NDA. Yet a majority of them are keeping their views to themselves. However, a decisive outlook was found among the labouring castes, numerically the strongest among the EBCs. They view themselves as the greatest beneficiaries of Kumar’s schemes for EBCs. Also, they are not averse or disinclined towards Yadav.

This being the EBCs’ perception, by and large, Peoples Pulse reiterates the basic point that they are scattered. It means that a homogenous, cordial atmosphere needs to prevail between them and the other communities from today till the date of polling.

During our 6,000-kilometre tour, the most interesting reply to our prodding was, “Jiski lehar dikhti hai uske saath ho jaate hain. Fir hum sab ka mann chahe kahin bhi ho, ek mann ke ho jate hain, kharbooja kharbooje ko dekh kar rang badalta hai.”  (We go where the wind is blowing. Then, irrespective of our personal preferences, we back the winning horse. A couple of days before the election we decide whom to vote for, according to the wave and we get along with the candidate/party that we perceive as winning. We may have different electoral preferences but merge our preferences to suit each other in the same way as a melon changes its colour in the proximity of other melons.)


The writer is a Doctoral Research Scholar, School of Economics, University of Hyderabad. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based Research Institute that specialises in field work based political and electoral studies.


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