How BJP is navigating Bihar’s caste maze to trump Lalu-Nitish combine

NEW DELHI: Forty-three candidates cleared by the BJP leadership for Bihar polls on Wednesday represent 17 different castes. If this challenges those who believe that the BJP is banking on upper caste polarization alone or, by implication, that the state is headed for an old-style “backward-forward” caste contest, there might be more to come. Sources in the party said by the time the BJP clears its last list for the 160 seats it plans to contest, the saffron slate will have a dozen more castes represented on it.

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The diversity is not just in keeping with the party’s successful plan to grow out of its ‘Brahmin-Bania’ roots, it also marks a deference to the complex maze of castes that makes up Bihar. With both RJD chieftain Lalu Prasad and chief minister Nitish Kumar seeking, differences in nuances notwithstanding, to revive the Mandal plank in a state where OBCs account for almost half the electorate, BJP chief Amit Shah has no plan to facilitate a caste polarization. Surely, higher representation of “backwards” of all sorts can help him buffer the party against the fear, being stoked by rivals, that a success for BJP will spell the resurrection of the raj of upper castes.

READ ALSO: NDA eyes big gains with its new Dalit-OBC partners

But in seeking to make the BJP more socially inclusive, that is, so far as the majority community is concerned, the current leadership of the party is only taking forward a process, if boldly, that got underway decades ago. Although scholars have traditionally lumped it with Uttar Pradesh to draw the ‘heartland’, Bihar as a political arena is different from its neigbour for important reasons, one of them being the huge difference in the number of upper castes. Conservative estimates suggest that in UP, Brahmins alone constitute close to 10% of the population while Thakurs make up another significant 7.5-8%. To add to the importance of the upper castes, Vaishyas, who have a share of 4.5%, are part of the category.

As against this, upper castes in Bihar — Rajputs, Brahmins, Bhumihars and Kayasthas — account for a meagre 12% of the state’s demographic or less than Yadavs who account for 14.6% (yes, the caste estimates for Bihar are considered to be more reliable by both psephologists and politicians). Kushwahas and Kurmis represent approximately another 8% of the electorate while Vaishyas, a conglomerate comprising trading castes, with a weight of more than 7%, are also part of the sprawling OBC behemoth that includes the “extremely backward” or “most backward” castes who have a weight of 25% in the caste basket.

Given that Muslims, with a share of approximately 15.5%, have no reason to support BJP, the party will not stand a ghost of a chance if Lalu and Nitish achieve even modest success in turning the elections into a straightforward “upper caste-backward” fight. In reality, however, things are far more complex to allow a cakewalk. Just like in UP where OBCs supplemented BJP’s support base drawn from among upper castes, the party, while being the first favourite of upper castes, has enjoyed pockets of support among “backwards”. The painstaking groundwork, under RSS’s aegis and as part of the larger plan to create a constituency of Hindus, has been helped by envy among large sections of OBCs over the way Yadavs monopolized the fruits of power during RJD’s ascendancy and the resentment of Kushwahas over Kurmis enjoying greater prominence under Nitish.

READ ALSO: BJP-led NDA will win simple majority in Bihar, pre-poll survey suggests

The party has also cashed in on the projection of Narendra Modi as the “first” OBC PM to reach out to backwards. The outreach is targeted especially at EBCs, a combination of impoverished castes who were service providers under the traditional ‘jajmani’ system who are increasingly envious of the clout of dominant OBCs like Yadavs and Kurmis, the so-called neo-feudals.

The tactical partnerships with Upendra Kushwaha, Ramvilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi are designed to fetch the support of Kushwahas, Dusadhs and Musahars for the BJP’s first serious bid to lead a government in Bihar. But even as it tries to build bridges with new constituencies, it is in no mood to annoy traditional supporters if only not to provide an opening to Lalu and Nitish who, despite the late recourse to Mandal rhetoric, are adept at politics of co-option, and hence the rainbow coalition of candidates.

Complete coverage: Bihar assembly polls

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