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BJP bluster hits Lalu wall in Bihar bastion

- Despite ‘Modi wave’ buzz, caste equations continue to hold the key
Lalu Prasad

A month, as the cliché goes, is a long time in politics. In Bihar, it has taken less for the discourse to change, even if subtly and none too vocally.

Before the elections got under way in the 40-seat state on April 10, BJP leaders were confident of a “spectacular performance”. At least 30 seats, senior leader Sushil Kumar Modi, otherwise not known to brag, had said repeatedly.

Nitish Kumar, they had said, was a spent force after his break with the BJP in June last year. Lalu Prasad, convicted in the fodder scam and banned from contesting elections, no longer had the firepower to challenge the “Narendra Modi leher”.

The wave, BJP leaders cockily said, would demolish every old structure, and new political equations would be formed in Bihar.

“My estimate is that our victories in Yadav-dominated pockets will be stunning,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, key BJP playmaker in the state, had repeatedly claimed before the elections.

“The enthusiasm among them for Narendra Modiji is to be seen to be believed. The verdict from Bihar will be the most stunning one, mark my words.”

This wasn’t mere campaign bluster. The BJP was hoping that the quiet networking Sangh parivar activists had carried out among the Yadavs and the extremely backward sections — Lalu Prasad’s and Nitish’s core vote banks, respectively — while they were in government would pay off.

Now, with two-thirds of the polls over and two phases (accounting for 13 seats) remaining, the trend has shifted. And the man responsible is one the BJP had written off.

Lalu Prasad has somehow managed to consolidate his key vote bank of Muslims and Yadavs (“MY” in Bihar’s political parlance) and forced the BJP to rethink its strategy.

This consolidation has been visible from the third phase of polling in the state on April 24. A few days before that, BJP leader Giriraj Singh had sparked a controversy, saying that all those who opposed Modi should be sent to Pakistan.

“What Giriraj did was stir fear among the Muslims and Yadavs, who have been traditionally with Lalu Prasad but were wavering towards the BJP given the aggressive wooing by Modi,” a senior BJP leader said under the cover of anonymity.

“It’s after this that the MY closed ranks behind Lalu Prasad. They wanted to vote for a party that they thought had the best chance of stalling Modi.”

Whether this consolidation would affect the final tally is to be seen but across north Bihar — once Lalu’s bastion — the anti-Modi camp has a sudden spring in its step. As we travelled across the state’s north and northwest, parts of which vote on May 7, the divide appeared pronounced.

Bellicose Modi supporters sped down the spanking new highway that covers the Sonepur-Amnaur-Taraiya-Maharajganj-Siwan areas on motorcycles, flags with the lotus symbol fluttering amid loud cries of “Har har Modi, har baar Modi”.

But the voters on either side of the highway were contemplative, argumentative and at times silent. The BJP cadres’ exuberance on the streets notwithstanding, we found that the voters were still relying on caste equations rather than on any “hawa (wave)” the BJP claims is sweeping across Bihar.

Lalu bastion

Saran, around 100km northwest of Patna, is the heart of north Bihar and is also seen as the “heart of the heartland” because of its proximity to eastern Uttar Pradesh. The Saran commissionerate ends in Siwan and Gopalganj, bordering the Deoria and Padrauna areas of Uttar Pradesh.

The region is also known for the clout enjoyed there by Lalu Prasad, whose party won two of Saran’s four Lok Sabha seats — Saran and Maharajganj — defying the Nitish wave in 2009.

Lalu Prasad forfeited the Saran seat last October following his fodder scam conviction. He has fielded wife Rabri Devi this time. The BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who keeps challenging Lalu Prasad but is vanquished more often than not, is trying his luck again.

What seems to have strengthened the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the region is Lalu Prasad’s assiduous groundwork. Saran was once known for the bitter rivalry between the equally militant Yadavs and Rajputs.

“It was blasphemous to think of a Rajput voting for the RJD or a Yadav voting for a Rajput candidate for decades, particularly since 1977,” said Ritesh Singh of Saran, explaining how Lalu Prasad had slogged even when he was in jail to bring the Yadavs and Rajputs closer.

Lalu Prasad befriended Prabhunath Singh, a Rajput chieftain known for his protracted rivalry with the Yadavs, ahead of the 2010 Assembly elections and fielded him as party candidate in Maharajganj in a Lok Sabha by-election last year.

Prabhunath won by 1.37 lakh votes defeating Nitish’s handpicked candidate and Bihar education minister P.K. Shahi, the result coming days before the Janata Dal (United) formalised its split with the BJP on June 16.

Voters explained how Lalu Prasad had, in the run-up to the by-election, organised several rounds of day-and-night meetings between Yadavs and Rajputs.

“He moved door to door to persuade the Yadavs and Rajputs to get together, eventually succeeding in his mission. The Yadavs voted for Prabhunath in 2013, heralding a new era in Saran’s politics,” said Mritunjay Singh at Wazidpur. The Maharajganj constituency straddles parts of the Saran and Siwan districts.

Now, Prabhunath is using his clout to intensively campaign for Rabri Devi, particularly in Sonepur, a Rajput-dominated Assembly segment in Saran.

In Maharajganj, some 140km northwest of Patna, voters say Prabhunath, contesting to retain the seat, will benefit from the split in Rajput votes.

“Prabhunath is the leader of the Rajputs whereas Janardan Singh Segriwal (also a Rajput) is a BJP leader. The Rajputs will prefer Prabhunath over Janardan,” said Shatrughan Prasad Singh, 60, a dhaba owner at Taraiya Assembly segment in Maharajganj.

The unknowns

BJP leaders insist that they have enough votes to counter Lalu Prasad’s consolidation. A senior BJP leader, who spoke off the record, said the party had expected this consolidation to happen.

“The moment the Congress and the RJD formalised their alliance, we knew there would be a consolidation of Muslims and Yadavs against us. That is why we brought in Ram Vilas Paswan,” he said.

“The MY combination along with Paswan would have been a deadly combination (for Lalu Prasad). The MY combination (alone) is a formidable combination but not a winning one,” he argued.

Some other BJP leaders, however, privately conceded a setback to their expectations. “We had thought we would be getting about 25 per cent of the Yadav votes. In the first four rounds, we appear to have got less,” admitted one.

He, however, partly blamed Nitish, accusing him of fielding weak candidates (and thus failing to split minority votes).

“Araria and Katihar, which have a large concentration of Muslims, are natural seats for fielding Muslim candidates. Instead, the Janata Dal (United) fielded Hindu candidates,” he said.

The BJP hopes to split Nitish’s extremely backward caste votes. “We have to aggressively play up Modi’s backward-caste origins,” a party leader said.

But such a strategy would be fraught and could antagonise the Brahmins, especially in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, from where Modi is contesting.

Unlike the Yadavs and Muslims, the extremely backward castes and Mahadalits are conspicuous by their silence.

“Why should we tell you who we shall vote for?” asked Birendra Ram, 50, at Khori Pakar, a Mahadalit settlement in Saran. The extremely backward castes at Rup Rahipur too have kept campaigners guessing.

But Virendra Mahto of Khori Pakar provided a hint: “We’ll vote the way we have been voting.”

If the BJP fails to get votes from the extremely backward castes, the Modi juggernaut could well hit the brakes in north Bihar.

“If you don’t conquer north Bihar, you haven’t won India,” said Shatrughan Singh, the dhaba owner at Taraiya. “It would be like conquering India without getting to plant your flag in Delhi.”

Maharajganj and Saran vote on May 7; Siwan on May 12