Gaya (Bihar): “Nitish nahin toh aur kaun (Who else if not Nitish),” said a Janata Dal (United) party worker Birender Bhuyian. Bhuyian interrupted a conversation amongst a group of men in the Manjhi tola of Churaman Nagar in the outskirts of Gaya.
The men, who were consuming country-made mahua liquor that afternoon, were discussing how chief minister Nitish Kumar “abandoned” migrant workers when they were returning from various cities during the initial period of the Coronavirus-induced lockdown. “Is tola mein sabhi mazdoor hai. Kisi ke pass paanch mahiney se koi permanent kaam nahin hai. Jaise taise gujara kar rahe hai. Daru bhi udhar ki hai (No one has found any regular work in the last five months. We are getting by somehow. Even the liquor we are consuming is borrowed),” said someone in the group.
“Kaam bhi nahin kiya is baar kuch (He didn’t even work properly in this tenure),” said another from the group about the chief minister’s performance.
This is when the visibly uncomfortable Bhuiyan interrupted him. “Teer ko hi dete aaye hai, is baar bhi sabhi teer mein hi dabayenge (We have always voted for the arrow – JD(U)’s election symbol. This time too, most people here will vote for the arrow),” he told The Wire.
Across Bihar, one finds committed JD(U) workers desperately defending the chief minister, recollecting his welfare schemes during his first two terms and comparing his government with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule. However, they haven’t found many takers.
South Bihar’s district of Gaya, which has 10 assembly seats, is no different.
“Much has changed in Bihar in the last 15 years. Earlier, there was nothing. Nitish ji’s Jeevika scheme (a Self-Help Group scheme for women) empowered the Manjhi community. Our conditions have changed,” said Bhuyian, even as people around him spoke about Churaman Nagar being one of the worst-affected villages by fluorosis — a disease that causes decay of teeth and permanent disability because of overexposure to water contaminated by fluoride.
JD(U) workers are aided by a different political line by their allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Supporters of seven-time MLA and state’s agriculture minister Prem Kumar, who is seeking another term in the assembly from Gaya town, recounted the poor law and order situation during the 15 years of Rashtriya Janata Dal rule before Nitish Kumar took over.
“Suraj dhalte hi ladkiyan ghar se bahar nahin nikalti thi. Aaj waisa nahin hai. Nitish ji is baar kaam nahin kiye, theek hai, magar pahle se toh behtar hai (Earlier women couldn’t leave their house after sunset. It’s not like that anymore. Nitish Kumar didn’t work this time, I agree, but the state of affairs is still better than before),” said Ramesh Chandrawanshi, a BJP supporter in Gaya town, who runs a tea cart.
The JD (U)-BJP combine’s on-ground campaign is precisely what Bhuyian and Chandrawanshi said. While Nitish supporters recount his achievements on the welfare front, those in the BJP focus on a possible deterioration in the state’s law and order if the RJD-led alliance is elected. The two-fold campaign, the NDA workers believe, will likely beat the palpable anti-incumbency sentiment against the state government. In certain pockets, the BJP is also using a Hindutva nationalist campaign.
Yet, both these parties have mostly relied on caste dynamics in the state. Bhuyian, who belongs to the Manjhi community, is a Mahadalit, while Chandrawashi is a Kahar, a community which has been a beneficiary of Nitish Kumar’s maneuvering of the economically backward classes (EBC) list. MLA Prem Kumar is considered to be a Kahar leader in his own right.
The EBC and Mahadalit factor
Much of chief minister Nitish Kumar’s indispensability in any pre-poll coalition in Bihar is credited to his consistent command over the state economically backward classes (EBC) and Mahadalits. If put together, these numerically-dominant but politically unassertive caste groups have largely voted in favour of Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) in the last few elections.
Former Bihar chief minister and stalwart socialist leader Karpoori Thakur first chalked out EBC groups from within the OBCs. But by adding some more OBC communities to the EBC list in 2007 — in his first term — and extending special welfare benefits to them, Kumar managed to consolidate these extremely backward communities in his favour. All OBC communities, including sub-castes from Muslims, were included in the EBC list except the dominant Yadavs, Kurmis, Khushwahas, and Koeris from the EBC.
By updating the EBC list in 2007, trading communities, such as Telis, Paneris and Sav, artisan communities, such as Kumhars, Tantis, Badhais, Lohars and Sonars, and non-agricultural labourers, such as Mallahs, Binds, Noonias, Patwas, Dhanuks, Kahars and Amats, were clubbed into one EBC category.
Around the same time, he also created a list of “Mahadalits” within the scheduled caste communities. In this list too, all Dalit caste groups were included barring the Paswan community.
By doing so, he effectively exploited the existent social fault lines amongst the backward communities to gain politically in the state. Before these newly-formed groups emerged as separate voting blocs, thanks to Kumar’s administrative intervention, EBC communities largely supported the Yadav and Muslim-dominated Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) while the Mahadalits were under the influence of Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
Kumar’s administrative masterstroke helped JD(U) emerge as a formidable political player, but also polarised backward communities on party lines. EBCs began to consolidate themselves against Yadavs while allying with Kurmis, Khushwahas, and Koeris, who had been traditionally supporting Kumar (he belongs to the Kurmi community).
Similarly, Mahadalit communities also drifted away from LJP towards JD(U), which explains why Ram Vilas Paswan and Kumar have often been at loggerheads. Barring the 2019 parliamentary elections in which LJP and JD(U) were part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), LJP and JD (U) have never contested any election together. Chirag Paswan’s decision to leave NDA and field candidates specifically against JD(U) in the upcoming Bihar assembly polls is a result of this historical tension between the two parties.
Nonetheless, Kumar’s command over an estimated 26% EBCs (18% Hindus and 8% Muslims) and 12% Mahadalits transformed Kumar as an enviable ally for any national-level political coalition.
However, a 15-year-old fatigue with the Kumar-led government, exacerbated by lockdown woes of common people, has had a visible impact on the social dynamics.
Is Nitish’s masterstroke now less effective?
Gaya is a case in point on how the existent caste-based political equations, which were largely stacked in favour of the NDA, appear scattered. The district has 10 constituencies — Gaya town, Belganj, Tikari, Gurua, Imamganj, Barachatti, Bodh Gaya, Wazirganj, Atri, and Sherghati.
Out of these, Gaya town, an urban seat in which BJP exercises considerable influence and is represented by Prem Kumar, an EBC Kahar leader, the NDA appears to be comfortably placed against Congress’s Akhauri Omkar Nath alias Mohan Srivastava, who also has a strongman image. In the upper caste-dominated Tikari, where both NDA and RJD-led Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) have fielded dominant Bhumihar candidates, the former is believed to be ahead in the race.
These perceptions cement the notion that the BJP, and resultantly the NDA, continues to be stronger than all in urban seats, and that upper castes prefer the BJP or its partners where they are in a position to influence the result singlehandedly.
However, in the remaining eight rural seats, prospects for the NDA look shaky. While Muslims and Yadavs are expected to vote on expected lines for the Mahagathbandhan, a significant number of communities among the EBCs and Mahadalits may desert the NDA this time around.
“Many of us are rooting for a change,” said Kundan from Panchayati Akhara hamlet, a part of Belaganj constituency. Kundan is a Kumhar, a sizeable community among the EBC groups. His sentiment was also echoed by a few in the region who belonged to Bind and Mallah caste groups.
Similarly, a Kahar, who sells tender coconut water outside the famous Bodhi tree temple in Bodh Gaya, rooted for change. “Is baar badlaav hoga (There will be a change this time),” he said.
A Muslim cybercafe owner in Bodh Gaya, who also belongs to one of the EBC groups, asserted his preference for the Mahagathbandhan. “Let’s see what happens. JD(U) should not have left the Mahagathbandhan. What was the point of us voting for Nitish Kumar,” he said.
At the same time, Teli, Sav, Dhanuk, and Badhai community members in Bodh Gaya seat are believed to be putting their faith in Kumar again. “We are not happy with Kumar, but we won’t vote for Lalu, Let’s see we may vote for nirdaliya (independent),” Chandraprakash from Teli community in Bodh Gaya told The Wire.
The anti-incumbency sentiment against the current government is more forceful among many Mahadalit communities. Apart from the numerically-influential Manjhi community, most other Dalit communities like Paswan, Pasi, Ravidas (Chamars), and Dom showed their inclination to vote out Nitish Kumar.
“Haathi bhi lad raha hai magar is baar Lalu ko hi denge,” said Parvesh Ram, a Ravidas community member in the outskirts of Gaya.
In the Pasi tola of Churaman Nagar, Shakuntala, mother of a disabled child, said, “Sab pareshan hai. Lekin yeh Vidhayak ji theek hai (Everyone is fed up. But this MLA (Surendra Yadav of RJD) is okay).
The larger disenchantment with both NDA and UPA among these groups have scaled up the candidacies of a few independents and LJP contenders. For instance, independents Kamlesh Sharma (Bhumihar) and Vijay Khushwaha, both of whom are relatively well-known leaders, have turned the contests into a triangular fight in their respective seats — Tikari and Gurua. Similarly, LJP candidates Krishna Mukesh Yadav from Sherghati and Shobha Sinha from Imamganj have also put their strongest foot forward in the elections.
It is believed by local observers that since Yadavs and Muslims appear to be firmly backing the Mahagathbandhan, the independents and LJP will likely undercut the NDA candidates. The chief minister’s warm welcome to his former party man Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha into the NDA at the last moment, after having been heavily critical of him in the last few years, is also being seen as his attempt to consolidate his Mahadalit support.
“Manjhi community of this region has always supported Nitish Kumar. They benefited from government schemes. But other Mahadalit groups are scattered this time. We have found many who will vote for the opposition this time. That is why Nitish buried his differences with Jitan Ram Manjhi to signal that he is with the Dalits,” a Gaya-based senior journalist who did not want to be named told The Wire.
He, however, added that Jitan Ram’s position in Imamganj seat looks very weak. “He never visited the constituency in the last five years. People from his own community are really angry with him. He didn’t want to contest this time but Kumar apparently insisted on his candidature. He is up against a strong RJD leader Uday Narayan Chaudhary, a Pasi leader,” he said.
Given the conventional voting patterns, the NDA still looks good on paper. However, the changing turf in Bihar ahead of the elections may throw an unanticipated result. Much will depend on how Kumar, and his allies, work a way out to retain its combined vote share, and also on how well the Tejashwi Yadav-led opposition manages to scatter the EBC groups and Mahadalits to its advantage.