N K Rai of Bettiah, the headquarters of West Champaran district in Bihar, is in a dilemma. A Bhumihar with over 100 acres of land, Rai feels Nitish Kumar is out there to ruin them. “If he (Nitish Kumar) returns to power, he will again try to bring the Bataidari Scheme (giving excess land of the rich landlords to the poor). He has given reservation to extremely backward castes in panchayats, further sidelining us politically,” he argues. However, he agrees Nitish Kumar has helped them to live in peace during the past five years by improving the law and order situation.
Standing at the Babunia crossing of Siwan, Md Hussian, a Bahujan Samaj Party worker, is in a similar situation. “Yes, Nitish Kumar has Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as his partner. But it is also true that he has done many things for my community. I don’t know whom to vote for in this election,” he says.
The upper castes in Bihar are mainly the Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas. The backward castes are divided into two categories — extremely backward classes (EBCs) and other backward classes (OBCs). The EBCs consist of 109 groups and are 32 per cent of the voting population. The OBCs, including Yadavs, Kurmis, Banias and Koeri, have 32 groups and are 20 per cent of the population.
In addition, there are the backward caste Muslims in the OBCs. According to the 2001 Census, Muslims make 16 per cent, 13 million, of the state’s population of 83 million.
In the erstwhile Lalu Prasad kingdom, the Muslims showed unstinting support to the Yadav leader. Prasad’s famous “MY” (Muslim-Yadav) vote bank seems to be losing its shine, as Kumar’s charisma is on a rise from 2005 among the Muslim voters.
The Congress, which had all along supported Pati Patni’s (Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi’s popular name coined by Kumar) politics, has decided to go alone in Bihar, and this is likely to take away some crucial Muslim votes from Lalu’s bank.
Kumar’s own Kurmi community won’t even account for five per cent of the state’s population register. During the last five years, Kumar has meticulously tried to get a larger chunk of support across the caste and community lines. He focused on Mahadalits (all Scheduled Castes except the Paswan) and tried to woo Muslims through his social schemes.
“A few months ago, we had gone to meet the CM to demand that salary structure in minority schools and colleges to be made at par with constituent and government colleges. It was immediately done,” recalls Zafar Ahmed Ghani, a top Congress leader of Siwan, who joined JD(U) on Saturday.
Prasad is continuously harping on the JD(U)’s alliance with Narendra Modi’s BJP. Even Rahul Gandhi is mentioning this fact in his rallies. Some opposition leaders had expected the Ayodhya verdict to play a major role. “But it’s totally a dead issue in the Bihar elections. No one is talking about it,” says Aftab, a local of Gopalganj.
The upper castes, the main support base for the BJP, are not comfortable with Kumar, as he is promoting more backwards classes politically and has an eye on the land of the upper castes. The main issue for them is reservation of EBCs in Panchayats.
“But we are also worried that Lalu’s victory means return of the jungle raj in Bihar,” says Prakash Rai in Bettiah.
The Congress pins hopes on this votebank, apart from the Muslim votes, and is likely to dent the support base of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Politics in the state is changing. So, is the dilemma in the political loyalty of the two prominent groups — the upper castes and the Muslims. In the triangular fight between the Congress, RJD and the NDA, perhaps these two sections will finally decide how far Kumar will go in his Vikas Yatra.