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Why BJP Will Struggle to Make Bihar its Playground

Nalin Verma |
The saffron party cannot upend the social dynamics that disfavour it in Bihar.
Why BJP Will Struggle to Make Bihar its Playground

Representational Image. (File Image)

Let them [central agencies] first send Tejashwi Yadav to jail. His votes will swell and annihilate the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar,” says Krishna Yadav, 50, a former Indian Army soldier at Daraili Mathia village in the Siwan district of North Bihar. It is a remote village four kilometres from the Deoria district of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Krishna, a security guard in Gujarat, is home on leave. A mobile phone in his hands, he was reacting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the India Today conclave held on 18 March.

He has Phuleshwar Ram and Haridwar Bhagat at his under-construction home surrounded by a plot of wheat, corn, mustard, tomato and chilli crops. Phuleshwar, 70, is a Dalit and voted “for Modi” in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But he concurs with Krishna today. “Tejashwi jahaan giraftar hua, Bhajap ka safaya ho jaayega—the moment Tejashwi is arrested, the BJP will be wiped out,” Phuleswhar says, smiling wrily.

It is interesting to hear people in this remote village weigh into an issue with an undeniably national import—the central government’s use and misuse of investigation agencies. They are four kilometres away from small-towns Mairwan in Bihar and Mehrauna in Uttar Pradesh, but thanks to democratising technology, ordinary citizens can discuss the Prime Minister’s speech at an elite function in faraway Delhi. And it’s the same for a wide section of rural Indians from Sonepur to Siwan, a roughly 150-kilometre stretch. Their conversations these days indicate how the political weather is changing quickly.

Krishna, Phuleshwar and Haridwar (from the backward Koeri caste) speak in favour of Bihar’s youthful Deputy Chief Minister, longtime former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son, in a slightly patronising way. But what stands out is their questioning of the Prime Minister and his party’s ‘policy’ towards the Opposition in and outside Parliament. The use of investigation agencies to target non-BJP leaders is drawing so much flak from the public that it is even making BJP cadres anxious. “Will Modi-ji return to power in 2024?” asks Ramesh Giri, 65, a Brahmin and a BJP sympathiser at Daraili Mathia. He is filled with doubts about the party’s prospects, a sentiment writ large on his expression.

Be it the supporters of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, his Mahagathbandhan, or the BJP’s supporters—all now share the belief that the CBI, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax (I-T) Department—are targeting Tejashwi and his family at the behest of the BJP’s “top leadership”. No one seems to believe the Prime Minister is driven by a genuine desire to end corruption. Ordinary villagers talk about the BJP’s patronage to Himanta Biswa Sarma, Narayan Rane, Suvendu Adhikari and others who had the investigating agencies hot on their heels but turned “clean” and are enjoying power and pelf after joining the BJP.

Modi’s vs Nitish’s Welfare:

The BJP seems massively disturbed at Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) returning to the Mahagathbandhan. And what has made this grand alliance of the Rasshtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal (United) or JDU and Congress bigger today is the presence of the three Left parties, the CPI (ML) Liberation with 12 MLAs and a strong base among the Dalits, backwards and minorities in North and South Bihar.

It will be virtually impossible for the Hindutva party to impregnate the backward classes once combined with the Dalit and Mahadalit voters and the minorities, for they account for over 75% of Bihar’s voters. The only caveat is that the grand alliance should remain intact. The CBI cracked down on Lalu and his family in 2017 as well. It enmeshed Tejashwi in corruption charges, after which Nitish Kumar dropped the Mahagathbandhan and returned to the BJP.

The ploy is the same this time around too. The central agencies are relentlessly carrying out raids and searches on Lalu, Tejashwi and their other family members since August 2022, when Nitish deserted the BJP and joined the Mahagathbandhan. The CBI petitioned to cancel Tejashwi’s bail, but the court rejected it. Central agencies also questioned Tejashwi’s wife, Rajashree and three sisters for hours around the Holi festival.

But Nitish has refused to budge. “No way…no question of returning to the BJP. They used the agencies to break our alliance in 2017. They are doing the same when we have come together. It won’t work”.

The BJP leadership knows it would be impossible to succeed against the Mahagathbandhan’s extensively larger social base in Bihar. And the Centre’s welfare schemes—like five kilograms of food grain to the poor and direct cash transfers under the Kisan Samman Yojana—won’t work in Bihar since Nitish has a more extensive grassroots network of benefits delivery.

It is hard for the BJP to break into the backward-extremely backward-Dalit combination in Bihar because Nitish has involved members of these communities in democratic governance. For instance, the Bihar government has reserved 15% of local body positions for the extremely backward, 12% for the Other Backward Classes and 33% for women. It has also promised 10 lakh jobs to the youth.

The Bihar government has introduced scholarship schemes for students and provided free bicycles, uniforms and mid-day meals to school students for over a decade. There has been marked attention to improving health facilities since Tejashwi took charge as health minister. He has regularly inspected and monitored health facilities, and there is a consistent improvement in roads, electricity and other civic facilities.

Moreover, the Bihar government is conducting a caste census, whose report will likely be released in May. It will consolidate the backward sections behind the Bihar government in the run-up to the 2024 General Election.

Ease for BJP in Uttar Pradesh:

However, cross the rivers Saryu, Jharhi and Gandak and enter the Ballia, Deoria and Kushinagar districts of Uttar Pradesh, and the atmosphere is undoubtedly different. If the BJP enjoys reasonably good support from the Kurmis, Koeris, and Sainthwar [non-Yadav OBC] communities in eastern Uttar Pradesh, it also enjoys the support of the Sainis, Gangwars and other backward sections, besides the Valmikis and the non-Jatav Dalits in the central and western parts of the most populous State.

Moreover, the Yogi Adtiyanath government appears to have patronised hate-mongers and bulldozed the homes and establishments of the minorities, which has consolidated his support among caste Hindus. Uttar Pradesh Police are accused of arresting minorities on a bigger scale and letting loose trouble-mongers of the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other militant Hindutva outfits. But the situation is nothing like it in Bihar, where the police are vigilant about troublemakers, irrespective of their community or religious affiliations.

The author is a senior journalist, media educator and independent researcher in social anthropology. The views are personal.

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