Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bihar still votes on identity lines

Source: India Today
The electoral battle becomes even more complex when caste lines intersect with the politics of religion

Madhepura/Jhanjharpur: There is a saying in Madhepura: “Rome Pope ka, Madhepura gope ka (Rome belongs to the Pope, Madhepura belongs to the Yadavs).” Since 1967, Madhepura has proved this adage correct by reposing its faith in politics of social identity, voting for Yadav candidates in election after election.

The trend seems set to be extended this time. But not in favour of the incumbent, Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U). Instead, the odds favour Pappu Yadav of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Implicit in this fight is the narrative of the ongoing election in Bihar, defined, unlike in other parts of the country, almost entirely on the basis of social identity.
While the lead actors in the political narrative have been redefined, the faultlines remain unaltered—albeit redefined after a realignment of castes.

Eight months ago, the script read differently with the alliance of the ruling JD(U) with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still intact—it ended up forging a formidable caste combination of upper castes, backward classes and the bottom of the caste pyramid, the Mahadalits. It provided the political backbone upon which Bihar’s two-term chief minister Nitish Kumar scripted his now famous development story.

The political divorce between the JD(U) and the BJP virtually rebooted the state’s politics, coincidentally at a time when anti-incumbency had begun to creep up on Kumar’s nine-year regime. The caste alliance forged by the BJP and JD(U) collapsed, giving Lalu Prasad elbow room to script a return from political wilderness.

Simultaneously, the elevation of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate forced a religious polarization, with Muslims initially lining up behind JD(U), RJD and Congress. In a report published on 5 August (bit.ly/1tZ8Pcd), immediately after the split, Mint had captured this political realignment.

However in the last few months, the stock of JD(U) has dropped sharply and consequently the winnability of its candidates, forcing a further consolidation of Muslim votes behind the RJD combine—the party stitched a political alliance with the Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party. Politically, this has, by reviving the famous MY (Muslim-Yadav) alliance, made Lalu Prasad more than just a challenger.

At the same time, though, the so-called Modi wave seems to be triggering a similar consolidation among the majority Hindu community. Predictably, it is leading to a close contest between the two main political forces, in which the eventual outcome may be decided by the turnout. A higher turnout normally favours the BJP as it dilutes the minority vote,which typically goes against it.

Lallan Kumar Yadav, a 34-year-old small trader and panchayat volunteer in Birnhiya Mattahi village, said he voted for JD(U)’s developmental work in 2010 assembly elections but now he is going back to his “original” party.

“We cannot imagine our JD(U) saansad (Member of Parliament or MP) ever coming to our village, sitting with us and hearing our problems. We are the lower caste, and it is only Lalu who is concerned about us,” he said, adding that the “bureaucratic takeover” of Kumar’s government was also a factor.

Voters in the constituency claim that Sharad Yadav, a seven-time MP, is facing one of the toughest electoral battles in Madhepura against a rival from the same caste who has served a jail term after being convicted in a murder case.

Breaking from tradition in a state deeply entrenched in caste politics would be far removed from reality. Surendra Yadav, a voter in what is called “Yadav Tola (hamlet)” in the nearby village of Balam, said: “I will vote for Lalu. The Yadavs will never vote for anyone else.”
Ask him why his electoral choice is based on caste assumptions and he says: “Log mar jaate hain, lekin jaati nahi jaati (people die but their caste does not)”.

In Jhanjharpur, nearly 54km away from Madhepura, another voter, Anil Kumar Jha, a practising advocate from the town, says he would vote for the BJP candidate in his constituency and with clinical precision gives his own predictions about which caste is voting for which party.

“Yahan sab predictable hota hai, caste sab predict kar deta hai (Everything is predictable here, caste predicts everything),” he said.

The caste rhetoric is out in the open in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, primarily owing to the split in the BJP-JDU alliance, said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst and director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

“When the BJP and the JDU were together, the upper castes and the backward castes were clubbed together, complementing each other in a way. Even if there were minor differences, they were brushed under the carpet. However, there are three polarizations now—the RJD, the BJP and the JDU— because of which caste support and vocal caste rivalries are very visible this time,” he said.

Religion and caste
Sanjay Kumar added that while people from almost all the castes in the state criticized Nitish Kumar for breaking the 17-year alliance with the BJP, the most severe criticism came from the upper-caste Brahmins, which in turn led to the backward castes rallying for the chief minister.

“In this election, caste and caste-based rivalries would be very strong. It would have been much more strong if Nitish was doing well, which I don’t think his party is,” he added.

However, with the wave being in the favour of the BJP, the party is getting support from non-traditional quarters, too, like the Dalits.

“We have tried and failed with everyone. The JDU and the RJDspecially; this time we want to give Narendra Modi a chance, all of us in our community here would support the BJP,” Phool Devi, a 32-year-old mother of four from Jhanjharpur town, said.

The electoral battle becomes even more complex when caste lines intersect with the politics of religion.

JDU was hopeful that its split with the BJP over the issue of Modi’s secular credentials would help the party consolidate the Muslim votes. In retrospect it seems to be a strategy that has gone hopelessly awry. Nitish Kumar’s loss seems to be Lalu Prasad’s gain, especially since JDU candidates are no longer seen as winners.

Even more so after Akhtarul Iman, JDU’s candidate from Kishanganj, withdrew his nomination just before the polls, sending a strong message to Muslim voters ahead of polling in the last three phases beginning on 30 April that the RJD combine holds the best prospects.

According to the latest data made available in Census 2001, 16.5% of the population in Bihar is Muslim, compared with the national average of 13.4%.

“If Muslim votes consolidate in the favour of RJD, the Yadav votes would naturally get more strengthened as opposed to some division which may have been earlier. The perception of RJD looking winnable is helping this consolidation,” Sanjay Kumar said.

Source: Mint

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