Caste comes to fore in Bihar ahead of May 19 vote

Chandan Rai, a middle-aged construction worker and resident of Bikram town near Patna, has decided to vote for the Rashtriya Janata Dal in the Lok Sabha polls to support and strengthen the hands of his caste's big leader -- jailed RJD supremo and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad.

"I have decided to vote for the RJD as people from other castes too support and vote for their caste leaders. It has been a practice here for years," Rai said. In chaste Hindi he says, "Sabhi yahan jati pe vote karte hai, hum bhi wahi karte hai" (Everyone here votes on the basis of caste, I also do the same).

Rai's village comes under the Patliputra Lok Sabha constituency, where Lalu's elder daughter Misa Bharti is the RJD candidate. Rai said he was not backing Bharatiya Janata Party candidate and Union Minister Ram Kirpal Yadav for the simple reason that the BJP was seen as a party of the upper caste.

Rai appears right. Suraj Sharma, a resident of Amhara village in Bihta, 30 kms from here, is vocal about supporting Ram Kirpal Yadav. "We are supporting him as he is the BJP candidate," Sharma said.

Rai and Sharma are divided on caste lines, which is common in Bihar. The caste factor plays a big role in the electoral battle in the state.

In Patliputra, one of the eight constituencies -- including Buxar, Patna Sahib, Arrah, Sasaram, Jehanabad, Nalanda and Karakat -- going to the polls on May 19 in the seventh and last phase of elections in the state, the fight is between two Yaduvanshis (Yadav versus Yadav) Misa and Ram Kirpal. But it's the caste equation that will decide the polls outcome.

"The caste factor is a reality. It's more important and powerful than any thing. Leaders of all parties play double standards in caste matters," politics watcher Satyanarayan Madan said.

The RJD-led Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) is confident of keeping its traditional social support base of the Muslim-Yadav combination intact and is hopeful of getting support of other castes, like Kushwaha, Manjhi (Dalit) and Mallah (EBC), on the basis of their loyalty to its allies -- the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) of former Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) of former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi and the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) of Mukesh Sahni.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is banking on its traditional support base of upper castes and is also counting on rising support from extremely backward castes (EBCs) and non-Yadav Other Backward Castes (OBCs) due to its new ally, the Janata Dal (United), its rival in the 2014 polls.

According to poll watchers, if the RJD-led Grand Alliance's traditional social support base of Muslims and Yadavs gains support from Kushwahas, an agrarian caste, Mallahs and Dalits, it would give the NDA a tough time.

Similarly, the JD-U and the BJP's support among EBCs, non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits would play an important role. Besides, the BJP is confident of the overwhelming support of upper castes.

Sensing that caste equations will play a dominant role, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah played the backward caste card during the campaign. To woo voters, Modi also projected himself as hailing from a backward caste and a poor background.

Modi addressed election meetings at Paliganj (Patliputra seat), Buxar and Sasaram constituencies and Shah held meetings in Arrah and a road show in the Patna Sahib Lok Sabha seat.

The situation is more or less similar in the Arrah seat where the BJP is taking on the CPI(ML), which has minimised the chances of split in either pro-BJP or anti-BJP votes.

The BJP's Arrah candidate is Union Minister R K Singh, an upper caste Rajput; and CPI (ML) candidate Raju Yadav, a Yadav, is backed by the RJD this time. Polarisation is pretty sharp among BJP supporters in upper castes, and CPI(ML) supporters among backwards, Dalits and Muslims.

In Karakat seat, former Union minister Kushwaha is relying on a new caste arithmetic in his favour. In 2014, he won the seat for the NDA. Now with the RJD on his side, Kushwaha is banking on Muslims, Yadavs, his own castemen Koeris, along with Dalits and Mallahs.

In Buxar, BJP candidate Ashwani Choubey, a Union minister, is banking on support of his Brahmin caste people who dominate the seat, along with other traditional social support base of parties and allies.

He won the seat in 2014, thanks to overwhelming support of his caste people. He is pitted against the RJD's Jagdanand Singh, a Rajput, who is hopeful of getting support from his party's traditional vote base along with his own castemen.

Choubey, known to be a vocal supporter of Modi and a champion of Hindutva politics, is trying hard to retain the seat. While he is confident of support of Brahmins, other upper castes, especially the Rajputs, are not in his favour.

In Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's home district of Nalanda, JD-U candidate Kausalendra Kumar, a Kurmi, is a sitting MP. Nitish, a Kurmi, is not worried. He is confident about the support of his caste people and combined with the BJP's upper caste base, of victory in Nalanda.