Bihar: Congress Choice of Upper Caste State Leader Raises Eyebrows
Patna: Is a weak Congress in Bihar, a state known for its caste-ridden politics, now relying more on upper castes instead of Other Backward Classes, Extremely Backward Classes, dalits and Muslims, unlike the strong Opposition coalition and BJP?
Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress party high command on Monday naming Akhilesh Singh, who belongs to a powerful landed upper caste – Bhumihar -- as the new Bihar Congress president is being widely seen as the party’s bid to woo the upper castes that have been overwhelmingly supporting the Hindutva politics of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for over two decades.
The speculation was that Congress would select a leader either from OBCs, EBCs, dalits or Muslims as its new party chief in Bihar to expand its social support base in view of next general elections. But it has done the opposite.
Singh has replaced Madan Mohan Jha, a Maithil Brahmin, as state Congress chief. This has surprised many within the party and outside. Though no Congress leader is ready to speak on record against this move, off the record, dozens of Congress leaders privately expressed their unhappiness over the decision and indicated that sooner or later they would speak up.
Singh, a Congress MP in Rajya Sabha, is a former Union minister. He was also a minister in the Rabri Devi-led coalition government in early 2000 and is considered close to Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad.
“Look, the party has wrongly named Singh as state party president. The party could benefit more by naming a leader other than upper caste to make a dent among OBCs, EBCs, dalits and Muslims. As of now, no Congress leader will speak against it, wait for three to four months and many voices would be heard” a senior party leader, known for championing the new social engineering to widen party social support base, told NewsClick on the condition of anonymity.
Another Congress leader, a former MLA, said: “The party’s strategy to rely on upper castes will not be fruitful because it will not convert into votes. Congress should focus on EBCs, dalits and Muslims if the party is keen to strengthen its support base.”
Both the Congress leaders pointed out that the party should have promoted leaders from marginalised and weak social groups instead of powerful ones to make a dent to counter BJP. “At present, the party’s structure is dominated by upper castes leaders. This suggests that the party is trying different social engineering, contrary to BJP that is now trying to hard to make a dent among OBCs, particularly yadavs, kurmis and keoris, EBCs, dalits and Pasmanda Muslims. The BJP is confident of its intact support base among the upper castes and doing everything to woo others.”
The two leaders pointed out that the present state party president is a Bhumihar, the Congress legislature party leader is Ajeet Sharma is also a Bhumihar and two of four working presidents of the state party -- Shayam Sunder Singh Dhiraj is a Bhumihar and Sameer Kumar Singh belongs to another powerful upper caste – Rajputs. Similarly, all three MLCs of Congress are upper castes.
”Congress has neglected others and preferred upper castes when it comes to Rajya Sabha and Bihar Legislative Council. This is known to all. But this has hardly changed anything on the ground, as a majority of upper castes vote for BJP in parliamentary and state Assembly polls”, said a party leader.
A Congress MLA early this year sent a long letter to the party high command to focus on social engineering to widen its base in Bihar. The letter highlighted the fact that roughly 85% population of Bihar consists of OBCs, EBCs, dalits and Muslims and urged the party high command to take care of their fair representation in party ticket distribution and for elections to party posts.
Some political commentators in Bihar have also raised eyebrows over Congress’s preference for an upper caste state chief. “In Bihar, identity politics dominates political space. Congress has failed to learn any lesson. Unlike communists, who never play identity politics whether they win or lose polls, Congress in the past had played identity politics by mobilising different social groups in its fold,” said DM Diwakar, a political commentator.
Diwakar, former director of A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, told NewsClick that now leaders and leadership are emerging from below as aspirations of different social groups have been rising. Sensing this, BJP is eyeing to make a dent among OBCs, EBCs, dalits and Muslims.”Unlike Congress, which appears to me has derailed somewhere, BJP has already made a significant dent among yadavs to counter the ruling RJD and has promoted yadav leaders at national, state and district level in recent years.”
Diwakar further said it was the responsibility of Congress top leadership to practice inclusive politics in state like Bihar if it is keen to strengthen its support base. ”I fail to understand why Congress is ignoring minority politics. As becasue of that BJP is gaining by putting Owaisi’s AIMIM politics ahead to polarise voters. Congress should not forget that political aspirations among Muslims increasing, like other backward and disadvantage social groups. This is the reason for Owaisi getting votes”.
In recent years, election outcomes in the state have indicated that Congress no longer enjoys support base among the upper castes who constitute about 14-15% of the state’s population. Upper castes are now seen as BJP’s traditional support base.
Incidentally,Congress is part of the ruling Mahagathbandhan comprising RJD,Janata Dal-United,Left parties and Hindustan Awam Morcha.
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