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Patna: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s latest decision to call for an all-party meeting to discuss the possibility of beginning work on a caste-based census soon has fuelled speculations about a possible widening of the rift between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).
Kumar has been a consistent supporter of having a caste-based census while the BJP has only been giving mixed messages on the issue.
“We have started talks with every party. Everyone is not on board. We are waiting for their response,” NDTV had quoted Kumar as saying, with the Bihar chief minister hinting that the BJP may be resisting such a plan, since all opposition parties have been advocating for Other Backwards Classes (OBC) census.
A few months ago, Kumar had also partnered with the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav to meet Prime Minister Modi and discuss the possibility of an OBC census.
All parties whose primary support bases comprise OBCs have been demanding such a survey in order to incorporate progressive changes in policy-making and resource allocation.
Kumar’s remarks, thus, are also being considered a snub for his ally – currently a bigger legislative party than the JD (U) in Bihar – and a move to increase his own influence in the alliance.
Kumar’s history with the BJP
“Rajneeti mein mujhe koi bewakoof nahin bana sakta; mujhe koi jhansa nahin de sakta (No one can fool me in politics; no one can bluff me),” Kumar had said while talking informally to some journalists – including myself – at a wedding function after becoming the chief minister of Bihar in 2005.
The A.B. Vajpayee-L.K. Advani-era BJP, with Arun Jaitely in charge of the party in Bihar, accepted Kumar’s supremacy in Bihar’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which had replaced the 15-year-old Lalu-Rabri regime and come to power in the state. Kumar was relatively easy-going, friendly and informal at that time.
Over 15 years down the line, the scenario has changed dramatically. Kumar’s JD(U) performed poorly in the 2020 assembly elections, winning only 43 seats against the BJP’s 74. The ‘domineering’ duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah took the opportunity to tighten the noose around Kumar’s neck.
Although the saffron party let him become chief minister, it did everything it could to let Kumar down – it foisted its own assembly speaker, Vijay Kumar Sinha, on him; replaced Sushil Modi, a suave leader friendly with Kumar as his deputy, with two others more loyal to Shah; cluttered Kumar’s ministry with new faces loyal to the high command; and appointed Bhupendra Yadav as the party’s Bihar in-charge.
Yadav is believed to be more interested in nurturing Nityanand Rai – an Amit Shah acolyte – as a “replacement” to Kumar and lobbying with the BJP’s anti-Nitish camp, issuing embarrassing statements against the chief minister.
The BJP’s emphatic victory in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh this year and return of chief minister Yogi Adityanath to power cornered Kumar further, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP stepping up attack on the minorities and making it obvious that they would use militant Hindutva as the main weapon for their strength and expansion.
Kumar’s deft understanding of Hindutva fault lines
A deft operator in socialist politics, Kumar understands the caste conundrum better than anyone else. He has very systematically embarked on the exercise to carry out a caste census in Bihar – an exercise the BJP is frightened of in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP’s fear is rooted in three broad reasons: first, despite its much vaunted social engineering, the upper castes constitute the nucleus of the RSS-BJP’s power structure; secondly, the BJP has credible evidence that it will lose the 2024 polls in Bihar if OBCs and Muslims unite against them (the Lalu-Nitish-Congress Mahagathbandhan had defeated the BJP massively in 2015); and thirdly, despite staying in power for quite long now, the BJP has no one to match Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and now, Tejaswhi Yadav, in terms of a larger acceptance among the backward classes of the state.
The RSS has generally had Brahmins occupy its chief position and top cadres – that too, Brahmins belonging to a particular clan in Maharashtra – with the notable exception of Rajendra Singh, its fourth Sarsanghchalak. The BJP – which is the Sangh’s political progeny – too, has mostly ‘upper castes’ representatives in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
Importantly, while these ‘upper castes’ constitute the nucleus of the BJP’s leadership, the party has expanded its base massively among OBCs and Dalits.
The BJP strategists have even argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is technically an OBC himself and that the party has given larger representation to OBCs and Dalits. However, the BJP’s massive inroads into the OBC and Dalits make things complicated for its Hindutva project.
Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and law scholar Pranav Dhavan in their recent article in the Indian Express established that 43% of the BJP’s MLAs in Uttar Pradesh come from ‘upper castes’ which constitute only one-fifth of the state’s demography. The OBCs, who make up 50% of the state’s population, have only one-third of the BJP’s MLAs among them.
In fact, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly talked about the “revision” of the reservation policy, annoying OBCs and making the Modi government uncomfortable. Bhagwat had done so ahead of the 2015 polls too, which Lalu had exploited to the hilt. It is still widely believed that it was Bhagwat’s anti-reservation rhetoric that had cost the BJP the win in Bihar in 2015.
Though Modi occasionally brings up his backward class identity during election campaigns, he sticks largely to his Hindutva persona, built around the segregation of the minorities. Modi’s verbiage stands rooted in anti-Muslim rhetoric and the RSS’s faith in a ‘Brahmanical order’. It is difficult to maintain the delicate balance between the OBCs and ‘upper castes’, which have been locked in a fierce battle for power for centuries.
Sensing that Kumar was uncomfortable with the present crop of BJP leaders and was getting closer to his main rival, Tejaswhi Yadav, on the caste census and other issues, the BJP high command suddenly dispatched a Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan to have a dialogue with Kumar at the latter’s home.
The BJP can not afford to antagonise Kumar, particularly ahead of the 2024 elections. Sources say that Pradhan convinced Kumar that the Prime Minister and Home Minister were very much “for him” and that they would take action against the ones “who make him uncomfortable”. Pradhan also told Nitish to keep the caste-census issue under the rug till the 2024 polls.
However, Kumar is perhaps not convinced by Pradhan’s exhortations. Many believe – to use Nitish’s own words – he would not “fool” himself to wait for the BJP to win the 2024 elections comfortably and wait for the door to be shown.
“Nitish has 2024 elections on his mind; he is at work, wait some more days”, said a source close to Kumar.
But Kumar has, of late, acted in a manner that has fuelled speculation. He announced that he would hold an all-party meeting on May 27 and begin the process of holding a caste census; he recently met Tejaswhi Yadav at his residence; and Yadav suspended his padtrya to Delhi on the issue after Nitish assured him that the government was going to do it.
Moreover, Kumar has not yet cleared the candidature of R.C.P. Singh – the lone Union minister from the JD(U) – for the Rajya Sabha. Kumar is thought to be peeved at Singh getting closer to Modi and Shah and supporting the BJP’s stand on the caste census and uniform civil code.
Singh’s Rajya Sabha term is ending in July and in the event that he does not get a ticket, his ministerial position will be under threat. Bihar governor Phagu Chouhan has flown to Delhi while Kumar is reviewing development schemes in Nalanda, away from Patna, at the time of writing this report.
Patna is rife with speculation regarding the JDU-BJP relationship. Maybe the elections to the Rajya Sabha, followed by the same for the President and vice-president in the coming months, will give more clarity.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh