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Nitish reads Muslim signal in bypoll win - Socially dominant communities continue to back Lalu, backward groups see hope in CM

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By SANKARSHAN THAKUR
  • Published 19.12.11
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Patna, Dec. 18: A Janata Dal (United) heist on Lalu Prasad’s Muslim votebank is in the works.

Buoyed by reports from the recent Laukaha byelection, where the JD(U) beat the RJD by more than 22,000 votes, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s think-tank is putting in place a cross-Bihar strategy to slice away sections of the Muslim vote.

Micro analysis of the Laukaha bypoll has suggested that more than 50 per cent of the minority vote in the constituency went to the JD(U)’s Satish Sah even though the RJD had fielded an influential local Muslim in Mukhtar Ahmed.

“The pattern of Muslim voting was the most striking aspect of Laukaha,” JD(U) MP and the party’s arch poll strategist R.C.P. Sinha told The Telegraph. “More than half the minority voters turned to us and we believe there is a phenomenon here that can be replicated.”

It is known that sections of the minority vote had switched from the RJD to the JDU. This is part of the reason for the landslide victory of the Nitish-led alliance in last year’s Assembly election.

But Laukaha has probably demonstrated a quantum shift that the JD(U) is eager to consolidate and cash in on.

What the JD(U) strategists appear to have achieved is accelerated Mandalisation of the Muslim vote. More and more “pasmanda”, or backward, Muslim communities, are tilting towards Nitish, lured by targeted positive discrimination policies of the government.

So much so, that a bitter, and unlikely, caste divide has become visible among Muslims of Bihar. While the landed Sheikhs, Saiyyads and Pathans, traditionally the social counterparts of Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs, continue to back Lalu Prasad, “backward” Muslim communities like Raens, Mansuris and Ansaris are increasingly excited about Nitish.

The Laukaha election, in fact, saw a palpable Mandal divide among Muslims, with “pasmanda” communities aggressively campaigning in favour of the JD(U), often at the cost of confronting the socially dominant Sheikhs, Saiyyads and Pathans.

This is a divide that the JD(U) would want to accentuate in the coming days in order to loosen the RJD’s hold over the minority vote. Sources said the party was studying micro-demographic patterns with a view to employing booth-level teams in minority concentrations in order to consolidate the larger sections among Muslims behind it.

For a party that is comfortable in power, this suggests continued obsession with strengthening its political and social hold. The JD(U) need not worry about expanding its support base because it has another four years in power. But it is constantly on the lookout for opportunities.

The RJD, on the other hand, could do with a serious strategy rethink, but its leader doesn’t seem bothered.

The difference between the approach of the two rivals is this: Lalu Prasad drives solace from the fact that he remains the main Opposition in Bihar with a substantial voteshare, Nitish remains focused on ways of mounting his lead over Lalu Prasad, convinced that his margins of victory can be extended.

“We lose little by trying to make our opponents weaker,” said a senior JD(U) leader. “We are not terribly worried that upper caste Muslims may be upset with us, the fact is that the backward communities among them have the larger numbers and it suits us fine that they are moving into our fold.”

Equally, as one senior RJD leader reluctantly conceded, Nitish has succeeded in sending out the message that his alliance with the BJP “does not compromise his secular credentials”.

He conceded Nitish’s success in maintaining social peace and said: “Nitish is clearly doing this with votes in mind, but Muslims feel increasingly comfortable about him and sense that this government is interested in doing something positive for them. It is we who have to think how to respond.”