Bihar: In Third Phase of Polls, Presence of Minorities Sets PM Modi's Polarising Tune

The secret to PM Modi's Hindutva-laced speech in the campaign for the third and final phase of elections in 78 assembly constituencies in Seemachal, Kosi and Mithila of north Bihar lies in the demographic realities of the region.

Patna: Prime Minister Narendra Modi sang the Hindutva tune when he set in motion the campaign for the third and final phase of the elections in 78 assembly constituencies spread over in Seemachal, Kosi and Mithila regions of north Bihar.

Ye log Jai Shri Ram bhi sunana pasand nahin karte. Bharat Mata ke virodhi ek ho rahein hain, ek ho kar vote maang rahe hain (‘These people don’t like to hear Jai Shri Ram. The opponents of Bharat Mata have got united and are seeking votes’),” Modi said, goading the crowd at his rallies at Forbisganj and Saharsa on Tuesday to chant “Bharat Mata ki jai” in chorus.

A peep in the demographic reality of the three sub-regions provides some clues in decoding why Modi banked on these tactics to polarise voters on ostensibly communal lines rather than talking about vikas (development), poverty, livelihood and employment – all gnawing the electorate.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally ahead of the third phase of Bihar Assembly elections, in Araria district, November 3, 2020. Photo: PTI

The Seemanchal region comprises Kishenganj, Purnea, Araria and Katihar districts with heavy presence of the Muslims.

Kishenganj – divided in three Assembly segments, Thakurganj, Bahadurganj and Kishenganj – has about 60 to 65% of the Muslim population. Muslims constitute about 35% of the population in Purnea, Katihar and Araria districts too. The BJP traditionally banks on the division in Muslim votes and consolidation of the Hindu votes in the Seemanchal region – bordering Bengal, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Again, the Kosi region, comprising Saharsa and Madhepura has the Yadavs – the core electorate of Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) along with Muslims – in the predominant position. The Muslims too have fair presence in the Kosi region.

The Mithila region comprising Darbhanga and Madhubani too has more than 20% Muslim population. Traditionally, Mithila was a stronghold of Left politics with some towering CPI leaders including Bhogendra Jha and Chaturanand Mishra making their distinct mark in national politics in the 1980s and 90s.

Ironically, if the presence of Yadavs and Muslims gives advantage to the RJD-led mahagathbandhan, it also prepares the grounds for caste Hindus to suffer from a kind of minority syndrome.

A closer look reveals that non-Yadav backward castes – particularly the Panchpaniyas who are an extremely backward caste (EBC) group – unite the vote against the dominant Yadavs. Saharsa and Madhepura are the land of late B.P. Mandal, the pioneer of the Mandal Commission report. His father B.N. Mandal was the first generation of Yadav leaders in the land proverbially known as “Rome Pope ka, Madhepura Gope ka (‘Madhepura belongs to the Gope just as Rome belongs to the Pope).”

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Similarly, the Yadavs and Muslims make up the majority in Mithila too. But the Darbhanga and Madhubani regions have sizeable populations of EBCs and the Maithili Brahmins. Through his social engineering, Nitish has roped in the EBCs and combined them with the Maithil Brahmins – who had shifted from the Congress and Left to the BJP in 1990s – to break into the monolithic hold of Lalu over the backward classes.

The mahagathbandhan that comprises the enervated Left and an almost moribund Congress in the region are apparently a part  of the RJD, Left and Congress’s collective strategy to revive an old social equation that did not allow the BJP to make inroads in this region for a long period of time in the post Independence era.

The second most important reason for the prime minister to skip the real issues of development, employment and poverty and dwell on the Hindutva plank is the protracted misery of the people. The Kosi and seven other rivers, mostly emanating from the high hills of Nepal, maroon most of the village dwellers in the Mithila and Kosi regions every year.

Steeped in poverty with agriculturalists perennially battling for survival against nature, these regions have a maximum number of migrant workers. Since  these migrant workers – about 30 lakh of whom returned home in the lockdown – did not get the required help from the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government, Narendra Modi might have found discussing prevalent issues not the best possible route with them.

The Seemanchal, particularly Kishengang, is the sub-region where the AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who is known to pursue politics with Muslims the way the RSS-BJP does with Hindus, is trying to spread his party’s reach. His party won the Kishenganj assembly seat in a by-election, four years ago. But with Muslims getting assertive against the rising Hindutva forces, Owaisi appears uninterested in expanding his base beyond Kishanganj and adjoining Araria districts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves via chopper after addressing an election rally, in Samastipur, November 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

Given the demographic reality and the stewardship of Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the opposition alliance has a strong chance of faring better.

The BJP has done unexpectedly well in some Muslim-dominated pockets in the past. For instance, when the Lalu Prasad led Janata Dal had led a wave in the 1995 assembly elections, winning 167 seats on its own, the BJP won the three Muslim dominated seats, Thakurganj, Bahadurganj and Kishenganj.

This had happened because Muslims, suffering from a majority syndrome, were divided and fought on the basis of their castes, a predominant feature of the Hindu society. Kishenganj has three Muslim sub-castes, Kulahiya, Surajapur and Bhatt, who are known to be mutually opposed.

For instance, the late RJD MP Mohammand Taslimuddin had his following among the Kulahiyas, and the former Congress MP from Kishenganj, the late clergy Asrarul Haq had the same in the Suryapuri caste. BJP leader Shah Nawaz Hussein had won the Kishenganj Lok Sabha seat in 1996 because of the heavy division in Muslim votes and polarisation of the Hindu votes.

But the fact remains that the Congress’s Mohammad Javed was the lone winner from Kishengaj in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when the BJP-JDU combine swept Bihar, winning the rest of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. In the given situation, the RJD-Congress-Left alliance has an advantage in the Seemanchal-Kosi-Mithila regions going to the polls on November 7.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and author of Gopalganj to Raisina, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s autobiography. He has also authored The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.