The EBC factor

Print edition : November 27, 2015

One of the most important electoral tasks of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before it headed for the Assembly elections in Bihar was to cobble up a strong alliance to take on the formidable Mahagathbandhan, the secular alliance comprising the Janata Dal (United) led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad, the two biggest parties of the State, and the Congress, which is a minor player in the State. This was the first time the BJP was leading an alliance in Assembly elections in Bihar. The confidence it drew from its success in the 2014 parliamentary elections helped it to launch a vigorous campaign on the ground but did not give it the courage to take forward its “development agenda” without forging caste-based political alliances.

Throughout the election campaign, the BJP kept accusing the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, of advancing caste politics as opposed to its own politics of “development”. Yet the BJP, too, tried to pad its upper-caste support in the State with the backing of Dalits and extremely backward classes (EBCs) by forging tactical alliances with leaders of these communities. As a result, the BJP fought these elections with pre-poll alliances with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and renegade JD(U) leader Upendra Khushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP). It was clear that the electoral plan for the alliance was to consolidate support among the caste groups represented by these three parties to counter the Mahagathbandhan’s support base among Muslims and Yadavs. In this context, EBCs, who constitute almost 24 per cent of Bihar’s population, became crucial to the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) electoral strategy.

The EBC communities are considered to be the most backward among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Former Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur had formed these groups within the OBCs. In his efforts to expand his support base, Nitish Kumar in his first term as Chief Minister added some more OBC groups to the EBC list, but not the politically powerful Yadavs, Kurmis, Khushwahas and Koeris. The EBC communities’ support for the JD(U)-BJP combine was seen as one of the most important reasons for Nitish Kumar’s second straight victory in the Assembly elections of 2010.

The EBCs can be divided into three groups. There are the trading communities such as Telis, Paneris and Sav. Artisan communities such as Kumhars, Tantis, Badhais, Lohars and Sonars comprise a major chunk of the EBCs. The third group comprises non-agricultural labourers such as Mallahs, Binds, Noonias, Patwas, Dhanuks, Kahars and Amats.

These communities have had negligible political representation in the State. When Nitish Kumar took policy decisions that were perceived as empowering them, they rallied behind the JD(U)-BJP combine in the last Assembly elections. In the previous Assembly election, too, they had backed the combine.

The BJP, which was until 2013 an ally of the JD(U), and also the rest of the Sangh Parivar, have consistently been working on garnering EBC support. This persistent wooing led to most EBC groups voting in favour of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Many political analysts have also felt that the Sangh Parivar’s interest in the EBC communities in Bihar has communalised the group.

The supposed support of EBCs gave the BJP the necessary impetus to challenge the RJD and the JD(U). Largely seen as a State that channelled Jayaprakash Narayan’s legacy of socialist politics into the politics of social justice led by Yadavs, Bihar has also, however, witnessed tensions among various backward castes. Aryama, a political analyst based in New Delhi, said: “EBCs, initially, were drawn to Nitish Kumar as he became the sole powerful challenger to the RJD. Among the backward-caste groups, Yadavs were the first to become politically conscious under Lalu Prasad’s regime. Yadav Mahasabhas were instituted in Bihar in the early 20th century. The Yadavs are only a notch below the upper castes if we weigh them in terms of land ownership and education. Yadav dominance under Lalu Prasad led to tensions between Yadavs and other backward-caste groups. Political consciousness among the EBCs came only in the last two decades, during which they jostled for political representation and competed with the Yadavs. This helped the JD(U)-BJP combine consolidate them in the last decade.”

When Nitish Kumar ended his decade-long alliance with the BJP in 2013, EBCs sided with the BJP as they believed it to be the best bet against the dominant Yadavs. However, the results of the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, after a year and a half of the NDA’s rule at the Centre, have thrown up interesting trends which show that the EBC vote is fractured between the BJP and the Mahagathbandhan.

Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti, a New Delhi-based organisation that does election analysis, said: “The EBCs have always been politically volatile. In the last few elections, the majority of the EBCs preferred the BJP. In the post-poll analysis of the 2014 parliamentary elections, we saw a massive shift of EBC votes towards the BJP. However, in these [2015] Assembly elections, their vote looks fragmented. The majority of EBCs have voted in favour of the Mahagathbandhan. The apparent reason, according to my analysis, for the EBC looking away from the NDA is the strong polarisation of opinion on the reservation issue during the campaign. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s statement asking for a review of the reservation policy did not go down well with many communities among the EBCs.”

But even if the BJP lost much of its EBC support, a section of EBCs did vote for it in these elections. Their support helped the BJP, which was also backed by the upper castes constituting 15 per cent of the State’s population, to win a number of constituencies and secure a vote share of around 24.4 per cent. It is clear from the election results that Dalits and Mahadalits did not vote for the BJP. The NDA’s performance was poor in the 40 reserved constituencies in the State.

According to some estimates, only a few EBC groups voted for the NDA and even these groups weighed in the electoral factors specific to every constituency. For instance, the Telis, who work mostly as shopkeepers now, are a traditional BJP support group as they see their interests aligned with the Baniyas, one of the strongest supporters of the BJP in northern India. So the Telis voted for the NDA. But the Sav and the Halwais, other trading communities among EBCs, voted for the Mahagathbandhan. Similarly, Mallahs, who are traditionally engaged in fishing, and Chaurasias, who are betel-leaf sellers, seem to have supported the NDA, according to some reports. Other EBC communities such as Lohars (ironsmiths) and Badhai (carpenters) and Kumhars (potters) favoured the secular alliance. Unlike in previous Assembly elections, the EBC factor has clearly not worked in a consistent way in this election.

The political churning within the EBCs that some election experts had expected to swing the election results one way or the other has clearly not quite worked in that way. The BJP, which tried to use caste tensions among the backward classes in Bihar to its own advantage, has not succeeded in consolidating the EBC vote. The party’s strategy of aiming for Dalit and EBC support to counter the Mahagathbandhan’s social support base was in fact the best possible electoral tactic. But it did not get the support of Dalits, nor could it make a monolithic vote bank of all the EBC communities. The party’s successful consolidation of the upper castes and the communal and casteist rhetoric of its leaders during the election campaign were among the factors that prevented EBC communities from wholeheartedly supporting the BJP.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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