Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is on a political mission to build opposition unity ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
In the past one-and-a-half months, he has met at least nine top opposition leaders, including Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Shiv Sena (UBT) president Uddhav Thackeray.
For all these in-person meetings, Kumar travelled outside Bihar and brought along his deputy Tejashwi Yadav to some of those meetings.
While several opposition leaders have praised Kumar’s efforts, his opponents have been mocking his aggressive outreach, especially considering that his home base Bihar remains electorally vulnerable.
“His own house is not in order, but Nitish Kumar is roaming around the world. If political unity could have been achieved by political parties sitting together, sipping tea and holding press conferences, this would have happened 10 years ago,” poll strategist and once a Kumar ally Prashant Kishor recently taunted, questioning Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan’s (MGB) electoral prospects in Bihar.
A closer look at recent political events in the state, as well as reviewing previous post-poll data, indicates that Kumar faces a challenging task in Bihar before he can assume the role of a torchbearer of opposition unity.
Coming from a caste with just around four per cent population in the state, Kumar based his politics, on what political scientists term, a “tripod”. The first pillar of this strategy involved garnering support from the Most Backward Classes (MBC), followed by innovating the concept of Mahadalits, which refers to the poorest social groups within the Scheduled Castes (SC). Lastly, Kumar relied on the Kurmi-Koeri or ‘Luv-Kush’ caste matrix, although not in the same order. His emphasis on ‘sushashan’ or good governance earned him the trust and votes of forward castes and women alike.
The MBCs or the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) consist of around 130 castes and account for around 28-30% of the state’s population. Kumar nurtured this grouping among the backward castes as a bulwark against the Muslim-Yadav challenge posed by Lalu Yadav.
Coming from numerically smaller castes like Mallah, Dhanuk, Kyot, Amaat, Naai, Maali, Kumhar etc., and spread thinly across the state, when clubbed together, they form a strong voting bloc. With the state patronage and protection, they soon became silent supporters and voters of the Kumar-led Janata Dal (United). However, with the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in national politics, their voting preferences started taking a ‘right’ turn, given their perceived nearness to PM’s ‘Teli-Ghanchi’ caste.
According to the CSDS post-poll findings, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 53 per cent among the MBCs voted for the NDA in Bihar, while the number was just 18 per cent for the JD(U). In June 2013, the JD(U) had ended its alliance of 17 years with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over the saffron party anointing the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi as its PM candidate. The trend has since continued.
Even in the 2015 state polls, when Kumar was in the CM race, 43 per cent supported the NDA, much more than the 35 per cent among the MBCs, who opted for the MGB candidates. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with Kumar back in the NDA fold, their loyalty was more profound, with 76 per cent voting for the BJP-led alliance. Now, with the JD(U) switching side again to the MGB, soliciting MBC votes becomes further challenging for Kumar, more so due to their social tension with RJD’s core Yadav votes on the ground.
Dalits provide another crucial support base for the JD(U). Comprising around 16 per cent of the state’s population, the SCs, influenced by the charismatic Lalu Yadav, shifted their allegiance to the Janata coalition around early 1990s. Disillusion soon set in with the disproportionate influence of Yadavs within the party. Recognising this discontent, Kumar, after coming to power, introduced a distinct social category called Mahadalits. The strategic political maneuvre not just disrupted the unified voting pattern of Dalits, but also resulted in the creation of a loyal voting bloc for Kumar’s JD(U).
THE MAHADALIT BLOC
The original list of Mahadalits in 2007, consisting of 20 sub-castes, excluding the Paswans (Dushadhs) and Chamars, formed approximately 6 per cent of the state’s population. Later, in 2009, Chamars (around 5%) made it to the list making it an impressive voting coalition of 11 per cent votes. The Mahadalits, under the state’s Bihar Mahadalit Vikas Mission, were recipients of targeted government welfare benefits, and this strategic move proved politically advantageous for the JD(U). In 2018, Paswans, too, made it to the category.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, however, the BJP forged an alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) which yielded significant advantages. According to the post-poll data shared by the National Election Study 2014, among all dalit castes, 42 per cent supported the BJP and its alliance, while only 20 per cent voted for the JD(U) and 10 per cent voted for the RJD-Congress alliance. NDA’s success was more profound within Paswan’s Dusadh community, where a significant 68 per cent of the voters, supported the BJP+, while only six per cent voted for the JD(U). Even among Kumar’s core Mahadalit voters, 33 per cent chose the NDA candidates, while 25 per cent voted for the JD(U).
Further, the departure of former CM and Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi from the JD(U) in 2015 led to more fragmentation within the sub-community voting patterns.
During the 2015 Assembly polls, when Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) (HAM-S) was part of the NDA, approximately 30 per cent of Mahadalits voted for the BJP-led alliance versus 25 per cent for the MGB, as per the Lokniti CSDS survey. Manjhi’s Musahar community represents roughly 2% of Bihar’s total population.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, an astonishing 76 per cent of Dalits in the state voted for the NDA.
Despite the JD(U) leaving the NDA last year, HAM-S continued to support the Kumar government. However, in a recent media interaction, Manjhi, known for his frequent U-turns, stated that while he took an oath to stand by Kumar, such commitments hold little significance in politics. This statement is likely to unsettle the MGB.
Last month the HAM-S patron had met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi, ostensibly demanding Bharat Ratna for public figures from Bihar, but the political signals from this one-on-one did not go unnoticed. If the NDA manages to get HAM-S on board, it will eliminate a significant source of support from within the Mahadalits for the anti-NDA alliance in Bihar.
The Paswans (Dusadh), comprising approximately five per cent of the population, have remained loyal to their original leader, the late Ram Vilas Paswan, and now to his family in politics. A faction led by Paswan’s brother, Pashupati Kumar Paras, is constituent of the NDA and Paras is serving as a Union minister. Chirag, Paswan’s son and Jamui MP from the LJP (RV), is also seeking an alliance partner. It is highly unlikely that Chirag, whose party relies heavily on votes from his caste, would join an alliance where Tejashwi Yadav is the “prince” and CM-in-waiting.
Another critical voting bloc where Kumar needs to work is his own Kurmi-Koeri or the ‘Luv-Kush’ votes.
The coalition, constituting eight-nine per cent of Bihar’s population, has been vital to CM Kumar’s political runs since 1994, when he formed the Samata Party, challenging Lalu Yadav’s caste arithmetic. Kumar, a Kurmi, has constantly relied on this alliance to deliver political dividends. While Kurmis and Koeris generally share voting preferences, there have been instances of Koeris deviating from the coalition in recent years.
The Koeris or Kushwahas form the second largest group among the backward classes after Yadavs in Bihar. In recent times, there has been a growing sense of discontent among the community, which holds a larger vote share compared to the Kurmis. They perceive that despite their numerical strength, the Kurmis are the ones who reap the rewards of power.
This sentiment was reflected in the Lokniti post-poll numbers of the 2015 Assembly elections, where 71 per cent of the Kurmis voted for the MGB, while only 31 per cent of the Koeris supported the grouping in which Kumar’s JD(U) was a partner.
Further, in the 2020 assembly polls, 51 per cent of Koeris voted for the Kumar-led NDA in the state, while this number was 81 per cent for Kurmis.
Political observers anticipate a further shift of Koeri votes away from the JD(U) in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, primarily due to the BJP’s decision to appoint MLC Samrat Choudhary as the party’s Bihar unit president. 53-year old Choudhary is a prominent Koeri figure and a known critic of Kumar. Additionally, Upendra Kushwaha, former Union minister and another key Koeri leader who recently left the JD(U) and formed his own party, is reportedly contemplating joining the NDA alliance, which could significantly influence the voting preferences of the Koeris.
Last month, a day after meeting Shah, Kushwaha said that he sees no challenge to PM Modi in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The BJP, too, has reciprocated Kushwaha’s overtures by providing and later upgrading his security to ‘Z’ category from ‘Y’ he was given in March, a month after he resigned from the JD(U) to form the Rashtriya Lok Janata Dal. Furthermore, RCP Singh, an ex-close aide of Kumar, who hails from the same Kurmi caste as the Bihar CM and is from the CM’s native district Nalanda, recently joined the BJP. Singh, a former IAS officer-turned-politician, brings his own political influence to the saffron camp.
M-Y+UPPER CASTE VOTES
Given the RJD’s questionable track record in maintaining law and order during its tenure in government, it is highly improbable that the upper castes, constituting approximately 16-17 per cent of the state’s population and significant beneficiaries of Kumar’s administration’s law and order achievements, will abandon their support for the BJP. In the national polls of 2014 and 2019, 78 per cent and 76 per cent of the group, respectively, cast their votes in favour of the NDA, Lokniti post poll survey found.
The challenge will be no less for the RJD where its core M-Y votes are losing the voting sync. Muslims are around 16.9 per cent of the state’s population and Yadavs estimated at 14 per cent are known for voting as a unified bloc. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 64 per cent of Muslims and an equal percentage of Yadavs voted for the MGB, which included the RJD as a key partner alongside the Congress. However, there was a noticeable shift in their voting behaviour during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. While 77 per cent of Muslims chose UPA candidates, the number of Yadavs supporting the coalition dipped, with only 55 per cent favouring the Congress-led alliance and 21 per cent siding with the NDA.
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), led by Asaduddin Owaisi, could also have an impact on the party’s Muslim votes. In the previous Assembly polls, the Hyderabad-based party had secured 14.28 per cent of the votes in the 20 contested seats and successfully won five seats in the Muslim-majority Seemanchal belt.