Muzaffarpur/Samastipur: The assembly polls in Bihar have been marked by sweeping resentment against chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Across the state, people from all age groups are raging against alleged corruption, the administration’s high handedness, high levels of unemployment, and absentee MLAs. All of these factors have led to a strong statewide anti-incumbency sentiment against Nitish’s government, but have not translated into a surefooted preference for the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance.
Interestingly, however, the attitude of ‘upper caste’ Hindu voters towards the state government differs significantly across various terrains of Bihar.
In south and central Bihar, the dominant Bhumihars and Rajputs come across as a scattered group of voters – mostly preferring a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government – and expressed their anguish against the Nitish Kumar government. Both the groups, who are known to be active campaigners in the run-up to polls, remained largely muted this time around. Their confusions came to the fore in conversations as most of them appeared to be undecided about their vote. They want Nitish out but don’t want to abandon the BJP, which is the junior partner in the National Democratic Alliance government.
In contrast, Brahmins who are influential, particularly in north Bihar, supported the Nitish government wholeheartedly. Over the last two weeks, as the RJD-led alliance’s campaign picked up pace drastically, Brahmin community members have come out on the streets to aggressively campaign against the possible return of “Jungle Raj”, a term that the ruling Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance has publicised to refer to the alleged misrule during Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi’s chief ministerial tenures.
They maintain that Nitish Kumar’s rule was much better than the previous regimes, although they reluctantly admit that his last tenure has been less than satisfactory.
Bhumihars, also an influential community in north Bihar, and Rajputs remain unsure about voting for the JD(U) candidates even in these regions, while strongly supporting those from the BJP.
In Baddhiyan village of Arrah (central Bihar), Shambhu Singh, a Rajput voter said, “Nitish hasn’t worked for us. He remained absent when we needed him. We are exploring Lok Janshakti Party as an option this time.” Most of the land in the village is owned by Rajputs.
In one of the Bumihar-dominated villages in the neighbouring Arwal district, Manish Rai said, “Nitish chacha ko paltana hai. (‘Nitish uncle has to be removed’). He complained that people belonging to his caste did not receive any benefits during Nitish’s rule. “Only Kurmis (Nitish’s caste group) got most business orders. Small farmers like us had to make do with whatever we have,” he said.
Another Bhumihar resident of Naarhi village in Bhojpur district said, “We have propped up the LJP candidate to counter Nitish. You will see, we will be the kingmakers.”
Upon pointing out that voting out Nitish would also mean a vote against the BJP, a Bhumihar voter in Gaya said, “Nitish ko hatana tatkal avashyak hai (‘Removing Nitish is the current necessity’).
Most of them envisioned a scenario in which the BJP would form a government with smaller players like the LJP and other parties.
“Lojapa hai, (Upendra) Khushwaha ji hai, Pappu Yadav hai aur bhi anek log hai. Nirdaliya bhi hongey. Sabhi ko lekar BJP sarkaar banayegi (LJP is in play. Upendra Khushwaha is there too, and many other parties. Some independents will also win. BJP will form a government with these parties,” said one Rajput voter in the Bikram constituency near Patna.
In the same constituency, The Wire found that many Bhumihars were actively campaigning for the Congress candidate Siddharth, also from the same community. “Is baar badlaav chahiye. Sarkaar jayegi. (We want change this time, the government will fall),” said an elderly retired teacher, Ram Vinay Sharma, who also belonged to the Bhumihar caste.
Brahmins in south and central Bihar are relatively smaller in number and do not exercise much influence. However, they clearly preferred a Nitish-led government owing to the lack of a credible alternative.
The mood amongst these groups changed slightly in favour of the government in the districts of Muzaffarpur and Samastipur but they still came across as highly fragmented groups. They voiced anger against the Nitish Kumar government but said they would vote for him nevertheless.
However, the terrain was characterised by marked aggression among a considerable number of Brahmins in favour of the JD(U)-BJP alliance. In several parts of north-west Bihar, where Brahmins have a stronghold, the BJP had performed exceedingly well despite the Mahagathbandhan pulling off a stunning win in the 2015 elections. The sentiment against RJD was also much more belligerent amongst them. They clearly felt an undercurrent of change. The largely Brahmin-dominated Congress leadership in the state has been unsuccessful in neutralising the antipathy against RJD within the community.
“Law and order situation in the state will deteriorate. Again, women will not be able to walk freely on the streets. People will get killed for no reason,” said one Brahmin voter in Muzaffarpur city.
“Once Modi ji addresses people here, winds will blow in favour of the BJP again,” said D.K. Dwivedi from a village near Motipur, an administrative block around 40 kilometres away from Muzaffarpur where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally on October 28.
The primary pitch they are making is against the RJD, while tactically staying away from discussing the Nitish Kumar government.
“Now, all communities stay with samanvay (coordination). With RJD coming to power, Bihar will again be pushed back to ‘forward versus backward’ politics,” said Mithilesh Jha, a priest in Muzaffarpur who was discussing electoral equations at a tea shop in the Darbhanga-Muzaffarpur highway.
The aggression shown by Brahmins in these regions is being countered by a similar consolidation among Yadavs and Muslims, who are considered RJD’s loyal vote bank. In other areas of the state, they spoke about “badlaav”, and a positive campaign to reduce unemployment, but here they sought to dispel RJD’s image as a rogue party.
“Bhatka rahe hai. Jungle raj bol bol kar asli muddon ki baaton se bach rahe hai (They are misleading people. By constantly talking about Jungleraj, they have cleverly deflected the real issues),” said Gautam Yadav in Kurhani village.
At the same time, vocal support for the state government by Brahmins has neutralised doubts amongst other upper caste communities, who appeared to be less scattered here than in other regions.
“Vikalp nahin hai. Isliye isi sarkaar ko vote denge, (We don’t have any option. So, we will vote for this government,” an apologetic Bhumihar voter in Bochaha told The Wire.
The lack of option or vikalp was a notion that appeared to have percolated down to upper and intermediary caste groups which have traditionally voted for the NDA.
Upper caste groups together form 15% of the state’s population, and therefore, have felt neglected ever since the Mandal era began in the 1990s. Their supremacy in both the social and political system was challenged and subsequently upended by backward class politics in this period. However, given their resources and relatively better educational qualifications, they have also disproportionately impacted political narratives in the state.
From time to time, they have used their social influence to bargain with ruling parties. The RJD attempted to ingratiate itself with the Bhumhars in its second tenure from 1995-2000. It fell from their good books in its third tenure until 2005, which is when the upper caste groups successfully imprinted the Jungleraj narrative in Bihar politics. Its government eventually fell when, particularly, the Bhumhars completely abandoned the party.
With Nitish largely out of favour among these groups, anti-incumbency against him is only growing stronger despite the last-ditch coordinated efforts by Brahmins. In areas which are considered their strongholds, they haven’t been able to consolidate themselves in the way they had in previous elections.
However, it remains to be seen whether the RJD-led alliance in the campaign becomes the default beneficiary of this tumult. Other fronts haven’t been able to make a mark in the campaign. In the days to come, much will depend on how firmly the Mahagathbandhan dispels the scare of “jungle raj” perpetuated by upper castes, while also campaigning on issues of unemployment and education.