Talk of Bihar, talk about the caste – dozens of them, each competing with the other for a fair share in the power pie. Previous elections have shown as much, and traditional logic says this time too, caste will be the key factor. However, look at the campaign-emphasis in the run-up to the first phase of polling today (October 28). You would realize there’s much more than the caste at stake this time. All rallies, all manifestoes and all the highfalutin are focused on one thing: jobs, especially the pathetic treatment of jobless migrants in COVID-induced lockdown.
People’s memory is short, though that of politicians is like an elephant. The narrative of this campaigning was supposed to have been decided by the JD-U, the key element of the NDA. JD-U head Nitish Kumar, the CM, was too confident about his ‘Sushasan (good governance) babu’ image. He went on flogging RJD’s incarcerated chief Lalu Prasad and his family on corruption and law and order. He sought to compare the 15 years of his rule with those of ‘pati-patni (husband-wife: Lalu-Rabri Devi) ki sarkar’. He counted his achievements ad nauseam. To his adversaries, he looked tired, his assertions, jaded. And his principal adversary, the RJD, had a counter.
Lalu’s son and the spearhead of Grand Alliance’s chief ministerial face Tejashwi Yadav struck with a promise of 10 lakh jobs. And it threw a spanner in the works of the NDA. It immediately struck a chord amid a lackluster campaign.
“That’s bunkum. Where would he get funds from for employing such a large workforce?” said a flabbergasted Nitish. The BJP came in quickly to his rescue, promising 19 lakh jobs and free COVID shots for Bihar, setting astir the entire politics of promises.
Rush of job promises
Why was this sudden rush of job promises? The immediate answer to this lies in the migrant crisis following the lockdown. As per the Union Skill Development Ministry data, Bihar topped the six states with 23.6 lakh people returning to 32 districts since March when the lockdown was first imposed. And by all accounts, most of these migrant workers were jobless. It’s not that the unemployment issue is the by-product of lockdown alone. It was only amplified in the difficult Covid months, and it continues to send out its menacing echo across caste-conscious Bihar, and the rest of the country.
There have been frequent occasions when Tejashwi has harshly contested Nitish’s claims on development and the entailing availability of jobs. Nitish had announced a sum of Rs 100 crore from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to be utilized by the disaster management department for setting up shelters for rickshaw pullers and daily-wage earners who might be living away from their homes. Looking at the monstrous scale of the crisis, the Nitish government also announced skill mapping of the 16 lakh migrants. The crisis and the electoral challenge have come in so quickly that nobody in the state government can say for sure how far the steps to support the migrants have been successful. For the opposition RJD and Congress, all these measure were meant to be a failure.
The caste factor
On the caste side, Nitish is the architect of the State Mahadalit Commission, which he set up in 2007, on the inclusion of extremely weaker castes in the list of Scheduled Castes. The Dusadhs (Paswan’s community) and Chamars were kept out of the list of castes recommended by the commission to be categorised as Mahadalits. To date, despite the Mahadalit Commission coming out with two more recommendations, Dusadhs are still to find a place in the Mahadalit list, though the Chamars have made it.
The empowered Mahadalits comprising 15% of the vote share thus could consolidate behind Nitish the way they did in 2010 and 2015. Besides, add his traditional Kurmi supporters, the community he belongs to.
The RJD has gone beyond its Muslim-Yadav traditional vote bank. Tejashwi has refused to get into a debate on the subjects of Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Ram temple. His USP this time is jobs and controlling prices of essential goods.
As a part of the third front in Bihar politics, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi has accused Yadav of being silent on Muslim issues. The master strategist of the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign, jailed Lalu Prasad, must have calculated the risks of waking into a minefield laid by the BJP.
The RJD-Congress combine had polled 25.5% and the BJP’s share came down to 25% in the 2015 Assembly polls, contrary to poll projections.
The caste matrix this time appears to be transformed into settling personal scores. For instance, the Jamui Assembly constituency going to the polls on October 28: the main contest is between the BJP and RJD. However, with the entry of BJP rebel candidate Ajay Pratap Singh as RLSP candidate, the contest has become more intense.
The BJP has fielded ace shooter, Shreyasi Singh, the daughter of former Union minister late Digvijay Singh. She represented India in the Commonwealth Games and won Gold and Silver medals. Her main competition is RJD’s strongman and sitting MLA Vijay Prakash, who is the younger brother of senior RJD leader Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav.
While Shreyasi is a Rajput, her opponent Vijay Prakash is a Yadav. Both Rajputs and Yadavs are in almost equal numbers in Jamui, making the contest between the two leaders more fierce.
Again at Gaya’s Imamganj, Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) leader and former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi a locked in a contest with former Speaker of Bihar assembly Uday Narayan Choudhary. The Lok Janshakti Party led by Chirag Paswan has queered the pitch for the main contenders by fielding a former legislator’s daughter-in-law.
Uday Narayan Choudhary was defeated by Manjhi in 2015. Choudhary, who is in the fray on an RJD ticket, had as Speaker thwarted attempts by Manjhi, then the Chief Minister, to cause a split in the JD(U) upon being asked to step down to make way for the return of Nitish Kumar by disqualifying legislators loyal to him. Manjhi, in an apparent bid to get even with Choudhary before resigning, recommended a CBI probe into the murder of a former MP, killed about a decade ago, in which the Speaker’s hand had been suspected.
The former CM thereafter floated his own outfit HAM and contested the assembly polls as an NDA constituent while Choudhary remained with the JD (U), then a part of the Grand Alliance that also included RJD and Congress.