As the two major coalitions in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha election contest continue to prophesy a clear victory for themselves, we will know in a week the people’s verdict. In the meantime, predictably, the electoral battle has hinged broadly on three factors: (a) How the Mahadalits and the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) have voted? (b) Which way the majority of women has tilted? and (c) Whether or not the Prime Minister has retained his appeal to the younger aspirational generation.
Many reports suggested that the first two phases of the election didn’t go well for the NDA forcing the BJP to go to the drawing board to revise its strategy -- the party turned the focus more on the local leaders representing different castes instead of keeping the national leaders in the glare. However, so close to the election, or in the midstream, voters as a bloc in Bihar are sagacious enough to have made up their mind. Only episodic afterthoughts could change their decision; some of the voters could be bought away in the last hour as well. As the contestants mounted psychological warfare, we would know how different factors played out, how people voted.
The BJP relies a lot on the votes of dalits and EBCs. In several constituencies like Gopalganj, the Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded its candidates and dalits and mahadalits could be tempted to vote for them. But they too are smart enough in "strategic voting" and could vote for a member of their community only if he or she is likely to win. Otherwise, they will not waste their vote. Defection of dalit and EBC votes would harm the BJP.
In certain constituencies where the Communist parties are strong, win or lose, their cadre will vote for the party. All the Left parties have presented a joint candidate wherever they are fighting. This is a unique show of unity that hasn’t been covered much by the mainstream media. The Communists will make a dent only in the Grand Alliance bloc.
Another question to be probed is: How many candidates with substantial criminal background were fielded by the political parties or alliances? Just as the talk is that great sums of money have changed hands for buying nominations, reports go around that some criminal-politicians from jails still dictate or direct election campaigns.
Revival of Reservation Issue
In a caste-centric election, the issue of reservation has to make incessant rounds. The RSS chief’s demand for a review of the reservation policy delivered munitions to the GA to scare the OBCs, Dalits and the EBCs. However, this time around, revival of the reservation issue also put the Lalu-Nitish team in the dock. The new tremor came from early proclamations of Lalu and Nitish to the effect that five percent quota would be carved out from the social categories currently enjoying reservation and given to the deserving categories among the minorities. This was a policy leaf taken out of the Congress party agenda. Asked by the media, the team Nitish either denied or underplayed this proposal on the cards. It doesn’t want to anger its vote base now.
The BJP surprisingly sought to give this issue a communal twist. While the Prime Minister assured the OBCs, Mahadalits and the EBCs that the reservation they enjoyed wouldn’t be diluted, they were also told that the GA was planning to bite away from their quota a portion to be transferred to the religious minorities, meaning mainly the Muslims.
This episode has the potential of opening up a can of worms down the road. The OBCs and others wouldn’t like to part with what they have, and the deserving social categories among other religious minorities, in all fairness, also deserve quota in jobs and education. Add to this the push to have a fresh look at the reservation system and its revision.
If the BJP’s agenda had been to win over the hearts and minds of the religious minorities, especially the Muslims, the wise politics would have been to assure the Muslims that the EBCs among them would also receive a fair quota. But the BJP strategy in Bihar seemed to be consolidation of the Hindu votes (including those of the OBCs, Dalits, and the EBCs) to almost complete exclusion of Muslims. Will the BJP have a winning combination if Yadavs, Koeris, Kurmis and Muslims are solidly against them in Bihar?
Women are said to be inclined towards voting for Nitish because of his two term performance as the Chief Minister. His "a bike to every school going girl" program and fifty percent reservation to women in the Panchayat elections have been very attractive. The hypothesis of Nitish’s popularity among women, however, remains to be verified. Another side of the story is that women in Bihar held Nitish responsible for death and destruction in their families owing to escalating liquor consumption. Nitish’s licensing policy paved the way to opening up multiple liquor stores in practically every village. As women protested, Nitish was financially rewarded by contractors and shop keepers. As for the political representation of women, a noticeable trend is that they are usually sponsored by powerful men in or outside their family, mostly by their husbands. If true, this explains the weaker status of women because of higher rate of illiteracy among women and unequal social treatment. This gap will take decades to bridge.
The younger generation of voters seems to be identified more with the promises the Prime Minister has offered, and less with the traditional style of politics based on caste and crime. They might also be foreseeing a productive relationship building up between the center and the state. One encouraging news came from a polling booth in Raghopur Assembly constituency where the local youth chased away Tejaswi Yadav, the RJD candidate and Lalu’s heir-apparent. Tejaswi allegedly tried to intimidate voters. Definitely, large number of youth among the Lalu’s castemen has risen above the narrow caste consideration. Enthusiastic participation of this aspirational generation is considered to be the factor that drove up the overall voting percentage. Still it’s very low.
Once again, the preference of this generation is yet to be verified. However, regardless of the way they voted, the larger issue is that the aspiration of this generation has to be met. If that doesn’t happen, it would matter less which side wins -- we all will lose, Bihar will lose.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He has authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.