Caste calculation

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

in Patna

ONE central question and several sub-questions. The election campaign for the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar and the popular debate that has come up around it could well be summarised thus. The central question relates to the two major players Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, who is heading the RJD-Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) alliance. The sub-questions relate to a number of smaller players such as the Congress which has chosen to plough a lonely furrow, breaking its fiveyear-long association with the RJD and the LJP in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left combination comprising the CPI Liberation (Marxist-Leninist), the CPI and the CPI(M).

The two big players are trying to make decisive gains in the elections to be held in four phases, with 13 seats going to the polls in each of the first two phases, on April 16 and 23. The smaller parties can make or mar the chances of the biggies in certain areas and in the process make some gains for themselves.

The central question in Bihar relates to winning caste and community combinations. It has its roots in the electoral history of the State. Caste and community combinations employed by various political formations have been the most crucial factor in all elections in Bihar in the past 20 years. In the majority of elections during this period, Lalu Prasad was the one who rustled up a winning combination. But in the previous Assembly elections held in 2005, Nitish Kumar upset Lalu Prasad by coming up with a new caste-community combination and a political agenda that hinged on development initiatives to take Bihar out of social and economic backwardness.

The RJDs victories depended basically on a socio-political concord of Lalu Prasads own Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav community and Muslims, which was supplemented by attracting the support of Dalits and communities classified as Extremely Backward Castes (EBC). This was the case in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections too, when the RJD teamed up with the LJP, which has a massive following in the Dalit Dussadh community in Bihar, and the Congress. The combination won 29 of the 40 seats (RJD 22, LJP four and Congress three).

The Nitish Kumar-led NDAs success in 2005 was essentially on account of the cracks that it was able to create in the long-standing Muslim and EBC support base of the RJD. Nitish Kumar utilised his development-oriented political agenda with the argument that the RJDs 15-year regime was responsible for Bihars socio-political backwardness. This argument found many takers in the Muslim community and in several EBC communities. This, coupled with the NDAs core vote comprising Nitish Kumars own OBC Kurmi community and the upper-caste communities owing allegiance to the BJP was enough to upset the RJD applecart. The fact that the RJD failed to preserve the broad alliance it had in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections also contributed to its 2005 Assembly election debacle. The LJP fell out with the RJD in that election while the Congress had only a partial alliance.

This time the RJD and the LJP have come together, but the Congress is not part of the alliance. Speaking to Frontline, RJD leader Jagadanand Singh pointed out that though the 2005 Assembly polls marked the worst-ever performance of the RJD in 15 years, it emerged as the party with the largest individual share of votes(23.24 per cent).

He said the LJPs average vote share over the past few elections has been approximately 12 per cent. Simple arithmetic has it that the cumulative vote share of the two parties is around 35 per cent. The NDA, in its best election in 2005, could only just about overcome this figure [The JD(U) polled 20.32 per cent and the BJP 15.49 per cent], said Jagadanand Singh. The good work done by Lalu Prasad and Paswan as Union Ministers has evoked appreciation across Bihar. Moreover, the cracks that Nitish Kumar was able to create in the Muslim support base of the RJD during the Assembly polls cannot be repeated now, basically because these votes would ultimately be used to prop up Lal Krishna Advani, the high priest of Hindutva politics, as the Prime Minister of the country. He also argued that the desertions from the JD(U) of senior leaders such as George Fernandes and Digvijay Singh, who were denied the ticket and are contesting as independents, would harm the NDAs chances.

The JD(U) leadership counters this by saying that the consolidation of EBC and Muslim votes has continued apace over the last three years. JD(U) leader Sivanand Tiwari said the biggest testimony of this was the fact that the NDA had not lost a single byelection in Bihar in the past three years. If these communities had started leaving us, we would not have won all these elections. The large number of welfare programmes and reservation schemes that the Nitish Kumar government has evolved for EBCs, Muslims, women and the Maha Dalits have, in fact, enhanced our support base. And the RJD has also seen desertions, even by a leader like Sadhu Yadav, Lalu Prasads brother-in-law, who left the party to join the Congress, he said.

According to JD(U) activists, Nitish Kumars leadership has proved that he is not bogged down by the BJPs position when it comes to minority welfare. They add that a further consolidation of Muslim support for Nitish Kumar can be deduced from the manner in which the Muslim leader Mohammed Nematullah resigned as the chairperson of the RJDs Muslim minority cell to join the JD(U). The arguments put forward by the leadership of the two main players make it amply clear that the Muslim vote is crucial to both sides. And it is here that the smaller players and the sub-questions raised by them come into play.

Travelling through a number of constituencies that go to polls in the first two phases, this correspondent gathered that a large number of Muslim voters had a problem in voting for a combination that would ultimately help the BJP to assume power.

Anisur Rehman, chairperson of Imaratiya Sharief, a Muslim social organisation with 8,000 units across Bihar, said the track record of the Nitish Kumar government vis-a-vis Muslims was not too bad, but still the NDA government had refused to accept the Rajinder Sachar Committees recommendations on improving the lot of Muslims, perhaps because the BJP had not accepted it. We shall look at the Nitish Kumar governments record positively when it comes to the Assembly elections, but this time around we would rather go with the RJD-LJP combine, Rehman said.

But not far away from Phulwari Shareif, the headquarters of Imaratiya Sharief on the outskirts of Patna, Frontline met Muhammed Ali, a rickshaw puller, who said that Nitish Kumar has an open line of communication with the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress, in case of a post-poll situation of alliance. The RJD and the LJP were not happy that the Congress was talking to the JD(U) about a possible post-poll alliance. That is why they created a situation where the Congress had to leave the secular grouping. But this also means that Nitish Kumar can cross over to a Congress-led alliance.

While Nitish Kumar himself rejects such projections, there are many RJD leaders who assert that the Congress was pursuing multiple post-poll options, including an understanding with the JD(U). How these contrasting perceptions within the Muslim community would finally influence its vote is for the moment unclear.

But what is clear is that the solitary path adopted by the Congress will harm not only the RJD-LJP combine but also the NDA in selected constituencies. Siwan, represented in the last Lok Sabha by the redoubtable young Muslim RJD leader Mohammed Shahabuddin, accused of several criminal offences and now in jail as a convict, is a case in point. His wife, Heena Sahab, is the RJD candidate here and the principal opponent should have been the JD(U) nominee Brishen Patel. But the presence of the upper-caste Congress candidate Vijay Shankar Dubey in the fray is expected to attract a large number of traditional NDA votes to him, depleting the NDA. In the process, the Left combines CPI(ML)-Liberation candidate Amar Yadav is steadily emerging as a strong contender. Similar pro-Left combine situation exists in constituencies such as Ara, where the CPI(ML) represents the Left combine.

The Congress presence in Buxar, too, is threatening the NDA more than the RJD. Here, five-time MP Lalmuni Choubey of the BJP is the NDA candidate. Apart from the anti-incumbency factor, Choubey has to face the challenge from an upper-caste Congress candidate, K.K. Tiwari. The threat posed by Tiwari to Choubey could help Jagadanand Singh, a Rajput RJD leader who has never tasted defeat in the Assembly elections in Ramgarh since 1985. While Congress candidates seem powerful enough to mar the chances of other parties in the first two phases, the party seems to lack the political and organisational strength to retain even its existing seats, including Sasaram, held by Meira Kumar, Union Minister and daughter of the late Congress leader Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit.

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