Monday, 30th October 2017

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Poised between two caste stools

Last month, the BJP unequivocally committed itself to a "backward" chief minister. Today, it is suddenly no longer sure. It was one stool, now there are two. And with two, there is always a gap to fall into.

By Sankarshan Thakur in Patna
  • Published 25.10.15
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who launches his campaign burst in Bihar on Sunday, with a delegation of artistes from the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi on Saturday.(PTI)

Patna, Oct. 24: Last month, the BJP unequivocally committed itself to a "backward" chief minister. Today, it is suddenly no longer sure. It was one stool, now there are two. And with two, there is always a gap to fall into.

The BJP has tied itself up in knots with constant prevarication on the caste question in Bihar. It cannot seem to decide how it wants to play it in this election - run with the core of its upper caste support base and hope that Dalit and EBC sections will provide enough additional numbers, or shift course and try to outdo the Nitish-Lalu combine at the Mandal game.

A classic symptom of its identity crisis is this: it tries to seduce backward communities but rewards the upper castes.

The BJP has showcased Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a backward protagonist, an underprivileged Ghanchi-Teli, and desperately tried to woo the Yadavs. There has scarcely been a rally where Modi has not let out a call to "Yaduvanshis" (Yadavs) to break ranks and join his "parivartan" effort in Bihar.

At the same time, the BJP has ended up handing more than a third of the seats to upper caste nominees. It has appeared to run with the hare and hunt with the hound.

Mid-course attempts at image-correction have only confounded vote confusion over where the party stands.

Set on the backfoot by RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat's discomfiting intervention on reservations last month, the BJP had recoiled to assert "only a backward" from its ranks will become chief minister should it win on November 8. But by that time, Lalu and Nitish had already taken the alarm to the Mandal constituency and secured palpable purchase.

Today, the BJP recanted, appearing to suggest it hadn't thought deeply enough on its future choice. "Whether our chief minister will come from a forward caste or a backward caste will be decided by the party's parliamentary board," BJP president Amit Shah told a Hindi daily.

What could have prompted this one-step-backward-one-step-forward from Shah? Mid-campaign jitters about erosion in its forward base as well, a ploy to keep them interested and consolidated behind the BJP?

This changed position could offer some hope to Bihar's 16 per cent upper caste ranks, which have not had a chief minister since Lalu Prasad came to power in 1990.

On the contrary, the state's influential and 50+ per cent backward communities may well turn more suspicious of the BJP's intentions: is Bihar going to be returned to upper caste hegemony if the BJP wins? Isn't there already speculation in the air that Rajendra Singh, the BJP's nominee from Dinara in Bhojpur, could be the man the leadership has in mind?

Singh, a Rajput, is a favoured RSS functionary from Jharkhand, and his recruitment to the Bihar poll stage is seen by many as a sign he could be the dark horse choice for chief minister, quite like Raghubar Das of Jharkhand and Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana.

The BJP may yet believe its ploy to keep the chief ministerial card opaque will keep caste cross sections and allies alike interested in pushing its effort. But it may yet suffer a backlash from the absolute clarity on the issue in the rival camp.