Bihar poll question: Will caste trump other factors? - Hindustan Times
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Bihar poll question: Will caste trump other factors?

Apr 28, 2024 10:35 PM IST

The land of Chanakya and Chandragupta appears to be filled with apathetic silence, but the same questions are resonating in the minds of every Bihari.

I’m writing these words from Bihar, whose political dynamics are key to understanding India’s intricate political landscape. Bihar’s politics is a play full of twists and turns, where characters emerge unexpectedly and recede into the shadows without warning.

Munger, Apr 26 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares a light moment with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during a public meeting for the Lok Sabha polls, as Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh and State Deputy CM Samrat Chaudhary look on, in Munger on Friday. (ANI Photo)(BJP) PREMIUM
Munger, Apr 26 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares a light moment with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during a public meeting for the Lok Sabha polls, as Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh and State Deputy CM Samrat Chaudhary look on, in Munger on Friday. (ANI Photo)(BJP)

This is why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not hesitate to support Nitish Kumar when he broke with the grand alliance and formed a government with the party ahead of the 2020 assembly elections. This alliance fought and won the 2020 elections, but after 24 months, Nitish returned to Lalu Prasad, breaking free from the “natural partnership” and returning to the “old family”.

Everyone knew then that the tide would turn again. Nitish Kumar, who had previously felt “suffocated” with the BJP, agreed to form a government with the party a few months before the Lok Sabha elections. He is now a member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and has stated, “Now I will not go anywhere; I will stay here.”

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and BJP also changed their tone on Nitish Kumar accordingly. Bihar is the only state in recent times where the chief minister (CM) has changed political partners four times. But why are the RJD and BJP collaborating with Nitish without learning from previous mistakes? The answer is simple. Among Bihar’s approximately 76.4 million voters, 8–10% choose to be with Nitish in all situations.

The reason behind such loyalty to Nitish Kumar is that after becoming CM for the second time in 2005, he took several revolutionary initiatives. His government gave away bicycles to girls in every town and village. This brought girls out of their homes to pursue education and ushered in a shift in society’s lowest classes. He also envisioned schemes for providing water and electricity to every household.

Furthermore, through liquor prohibition in 2016, he won the hearts of underprivileged women in villages. The experiment has also been criticised, though, because of the loss of lives caused by the consumption of illicit liquor. Liquor smuggling is also commonplace now. The prohibition law was so harsh that people started calling it “devilish”. It was softened to some extent as opposition mounted, but is still as hard as a tortoiseshell.

The opponents of Nitish Kumar argue that his recent shift has done irreparable damage to his reputation. Some of his recent utterances have also led to a great outcry. The current election will be the most significant test of people’s attitudes towards him.

It is necessary to mention Tejashwi Yadav here. He fought the 2020 elections with the Congress and the Communists. The RJD emerged as the largest party in the Bihar Assembly in that election. But five of his MLAs switched sides and the BJP became the largest party in the assembly with 85 MLAs.

Needless to say, the BJP plays political games carefully. The party knows when to be friendly and when to abandon someone. Its ties with the Paswans are an example. Ram Vilas Paswan died while campaigning for the 2020 election was underway, sparking a power struggle between his son, Chirag Paswan, and younger brother, Pashupati Kumar Paras. Five of the six Members of Parliament of the Lok Janshakti Party supported Paras, who split the party and was appointed to the Cabinet. This stunned Chirag, who calls himself “Modi’s Hanuman”. But prior to the current elections, the BJP pivoted back to Chirag, leaving Paras high and dry. Former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi is among those who have joined and left the NDA. He has been shifting sides throughout, which has been extremely beneficial for him.

The BJP has wisely balanced caste equations in the state. All its candidates intend to cross the river holding the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the most popular leader here as well. But the INDIA bloc will give the NDA a tough fight. In the first phase of elections in Bihar, votes were polled for four seats. But voter turnout for the polls was 5% lower, just as in other states of the Hindi belt. This has made the NDA more alert.

The people of Bihar are undoubtedly politically sensitive, but they remain obstinate about voting on the basis of caste. In such a situation, will the NDA be able to work its magic in the state, just as it had done in 2014 and 2019? Or, will caste equations become the overriding factor? When viewed from the top, the land of Chanakya and Chandragupta appears to be filled with an apathetic silence, but the same questions are resonating in the minds of every Bihari at this moment.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal

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