| Voters wait for their turn at a polling booth in Bettiah, part of West Champaran constituency, on May 12. Picture by Lokesh Bihari |
As counting day approaches, the question being asked in political circles is just how much of an influence traditional caste equations have in an election that has centred around the persona of one man.
In Bihar, caste equations have almost always played a key role in the electoral outcome. The doubts this time have crept in following the exit poll results, which have predicted the emergence of a BJP government at the Centre but massive variations in their projections for different states have underscored the inherent uncertainty that marks such estimation exercises.
Wild swings between their predictions in some key states highlighted the challenges in mapping the mood of several hundred million voters from diverse regions, communities and socio-economic backgrounds.
In Rajasthan, for example, where the BJP swept back to power last December, reducing the Congress to its lowest number there ever, CNN IBN and ABP News predicted landslide returns for the BJP. But Times Now projected just the opposite — a dramatic Congress revival barely five months after its burial, and a haul of 14 of the 25 seats the state offers to that party. The BJP, the Times Now poll suggested, would win just 11 in Rajasthan.
The variations in predictions for Bihar were even more puzzling. Reporters and commentators who have followed the campaigning and elections there this time have almost unanimously touted the contest as one between the BJP and Lalu Prasad’s RJD — an ally of the Congress.
The numbers projected by CNN IBN-Lokniti-CSDS and ABP News-Nielsen stayed true to this narrative. CNN IBN gave the NDA 21-27 seats while ABP News gave the grouping 21 seats. The Congress-RJD alliance will, according to CNN IBN, win 11-15 seats, and according to ABP News, get 14 seats.
But Times Now predicted that Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) — written off by most after its split from the BJP — is likeliest to give Modi’s party a run in Bihar. The JD(U), Times Now predicted, will win 10 seats and the NDA 28. The Congress-RJD alliance, according to this channel may manage just a measly two seats.
Political leaders admitted that parties often treat caste equations purely in mathematical terms. “Castes are like quicksand which can suck you in as they go haywire or when one fails to read them properly,” said an RJD candidate of north Bihar, who had expected a section of the upper caste votes but apparently did not get it.
On Monday, as the state was witnessing its last round of polls in six seats, former Union minister and RJD MP from Vaishali for the last 18 years, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, wore a dejected look. “The secular parties should have joined hands before the election,” he said.
“It was apparent that the caste calculations of Raghuvansh babu were not working,” said a political observer. There are several other candidates, cutting across party lines, who complained that they did not get the “expected” support from certain castes.
A JD(U) candidate from north Bihar recalled his frustration when interacting with EBCs.
“The entire focus of our government and party after the split with the BJP was on EBCs, Mahadalits and Muslims. But at the ground leveI, we found strong contradictions within the EBCs. One section of EBCs does not get along with the others. The sections got so strong that many of them shifted their loyalties to another party (BJP). I used to receive taunts from certain EBC sections that the Nitish Kumar government had surrounded so many Muslim graveyards with walls that it has left little space for them to walk. On the other hand, Muslims used to complain that Nitishji was not strong enough against Narendra Modi like Lalu Prasad,” this candidate told The Telegraph on condition of anonymity.
Social economist Shaibal Gupta said caste calculations by parties are always vulnerable. “Calculations based on caste can always go wrong. There are no watertight castes. They always shift from one coalition to another. The shifts are based on ideology, class and ethno-religious mobilizations,” he said.
That socio-political calculations can go awry is nowhere more evident than in the case of the JD(U), which relied heavily on the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), consisting of more than 180 castes and 27 per cent of the voters.
The JD(U) is already analysing why its EBC voters have deserted the party, as reports from the ground indicate.
“The EBC is not a homogeneous group. They live in small groups in villages and generally vote along with the dominant caste of the village they live in. The EBC card only works when it is backed by dominant castes. It worked in the 2010 Assembly and 2009 Lok Sabha elections because we had the backing of the Rajputs and Bhumihars,” said a senior JD(U) leader by way of explanation, stressing that the situation for Mahadalits — consisting of 21 Dalit sections and making up 12 per cent of the votes — is the same.
After the second round of polls in Bihar, the consolidation of Muslims and Yadavs (MY) behind Lalu Prasad had the whole RJD euphoric. However, a few seasoned RJD leaders still maintain that the celebrations may be premature. They point out that there are just five parliamentary seats in which the vote share of Muslims and Yadavs is above 40 per cent. There are another eight seats where the MY vote share is between 30 and 40 per cent. There are 15 seats where the MY vote is between 25 and 30 per cent. In nine seats, the MY vote share gets reduced to 20 to 24 per cent. Three seats have less than 20 per cent votes for this grouping.
“The fact remains that the RJD maximum chance of winning is in 13 seats which have a heavy concentration of MY votes because the party has failed to attract any other section of the society except the MY” said a senior RJD leader who did not want to be quoted.
Sceptics of the RJD revival theory also point out that Lalu’s vote percentage had dropped from 30.7 in 2004 to just 18.8 in 2010. “This time he does not have Ram Vilas Paswan, who has influence over five per cent of the Paswans in the state,” said the former RJD minister.