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regular-article-logo Saturday, 15 June 2024

Lok Sabha elections: Caste cloud over BJP's repeat of 2019 sweep in Bihar

The NDA, made up of the BJP, Janata Dal United and the Lok Janshakti Party, had won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats five years ago. This time, even the diehard optimists in the ruling establishment are conceding that the tally might fall by at least a couple of seats

J.P. Yadav Jehanabad, Arwal Published 21.05.24, 06:17 AM
Saroj Sharma at his shop in Mehandia market in Jehanabad, Bihar.

Saroj Sharma at his shop in Mehandia market in Jehanabad, Bihar. JP Yadav.

A caste churn caused primarily by the "bad choice" of candidates can stand in the way of the NDA repeating its 2019 sweep of Bihar despite a palpable undercurrent of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The NDA, made up of the BJP, Janata Dal United and the Lok Janshakti Party, had won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats five years ago. This time, even the diehard optimists in the ruling establishment are conceding that the tally might fall by at least a couple of seats.

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The Jehanabad Lok Sabha seat, just 50km south of Patna, is among at least half-a-dozen seats that threaten to slip out of the NDA's grip this time. The reason is the simmering anger among the upper caste Bhumihars at the re-nomination of sitting MP Chandeshwar Prasad of the JDU, whom they consider an "absolute non-performer".

Jehanabad’s about 2 lakh Bhumihar voters would have anyway preferred a candidate from their own community.

"Does (chief minister) Nitish Kumar see Bhumihars as bonded labourers? He fields anyone and expects us to back him?" Saroj Sharma bristles at Mehandia market, a region that was rocked by a massacre of Dalits by the local landlords’ private militia, the Ranvir Sena, in the late 1990s.

“I will vote NOTA (none of the above) or stay at home but will not back the Chandravanshi of the JDU,” Sharma adds.

“Chandravanshi” is a reference to Prasad’s caste, one of the 100-odd Extremely Backward Castes in Bihar that Nitish has nursed as a vote bank.

Prasad won by just over 1,700 votes the last time against Surendra Prasad Yadav of the RJD, a known “bahubali”. This was partly because many Bhumihars, miffed at the NDA’s failure to field a candidate from their community, voted for Arun Kumar, a Bhumihar contesting as an Independent. Arun polled 30,000 votes.

This time, the Bhumihar anger seems deeper. The community is also upset with the BJP for welcoming Nitish back into the NDA.

“Amit Shah had said the BJP’s doors were closed to Nitish (after the chief minister left the NDA the previous time), then why did he open the window for him to sneak back in?” 60-year-old farmer Birendra Singh asks in Hasanpur village.

“What is the guarantee that he will not jump back to the RJD’s side before the Assembly polls (next year)?”

Singh says Prasad had adopted the Amra panchayat, under which Hasanpur falls, but not done anything for it. He claims that most Bhumihar voters would vote for Arun, this time contesting on a BSP ticket.

Arun, a party hopper, won from Jehanabad twice — in 1999 and 2014 — the first time as a JDU candidate and the second as that of the RLSP, an NDA constituent.

BJP managers in Patna acknowledge that the JDU is the weak link in the NDA but hope the undercurrent of support for Modi would help overcome the caste tensions.

Sure enough, at Mehandia market, Niranjan Kumar, a fellow Bhumihar, tries to argue with the adamant Saroj Sharma.

“This election is about re-electing Modi and saving Santan Dharma,” Niranjan, a man in his 30s, says. “No Prime Minister before him had the courage to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’.”

Sharma refuses to budge and later terms Niranjan an “agent” of Prasad.

Bhumihar voters across villages flanking the 40km road from Mehandia to Jehanabad appear upset with Prasad.

“In Modi’s name, 50 per cent could vote for the JDU but the others will vote for Arun Kumar and also another Independent candidate from their caste,” says Raghav Sharma in Kingar market.

A split in the Kushwaha vote also appears likely in Jehanabad, with some among the OBC community keen to dump the BJP-led NDA. This is tit-for-tat for a large segment of the BJP’s upper caste Rajput voters refusing to vote for NDA candidate Upendra Kushwaha in Karakat constituency, a little over 70km away.

Karakat too is witnessing a caste churn, blamed on the NDA’s choice of candidates.

Upendra heads the Rashtriya Lok Morcha. His chances are threatened by the popular Bhojpuri film star and Independent candidate Pawan Singh, who is drawing the support of his caste brethren, the Rajputs, in large numbers.

“The BJP leadership should have prevailed on Pawan to withdraw,” a leader close to Kushwaha said, obliquely alleging the BJP was plotting to have Pawan elected and then get him to join the ruling party.

The message from Karakat has travelled across many seats in Bihar and is believed to have split the Kushwaha voters, regarded as a Nitish support base.

Making up 4.21 per cent of Bihar’s population, the Kushwahas have a significant presence in over a dozen Lok Sabha seats.

The INDIA bloc, prominently Lalu Prasad’s RJD, has fielded seven influential Kushwaha candidates. The Opposition is highlighting the “neglect” of the Kushwaha caste, repeatedly underlining that the JDU has fielded only two members from the community and the BJP, none.

“Our ground reports suggest that Kushwahas have in large numbers backed us in constituencies that have already voted. The support will increase in the remaining two phases,” senior RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui said.

Jehanabad and Karakat vote on June 1

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