Will development trump caste?

Will development trump caste?

Gaya/Buxar, Bihar: As the gruelling month-long election campaign in Bihar enters its sixth and final leg, it is more than apparent that incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar has succeeded in making development the central agenda in the 15th elections to the state assembly of Bihar. If nothing, it is the talking point among most voters.

“We are hoping this government comes back to power since it has done a lot of development work. Vikas (development) is most important and Nitish (Kumar) has built roads, schools and improved law and order (situation). Before that, for 15 years, we thought whatever was happening around us was development but now we have understood what development really means," says 45-year-old Chamanik Mandal, a resident of Chandpur village in Gaya’s Imamganj constituency, which is part of the Naxal-affected area.

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Now, if indeed voters do walk the talk, then Kumar will be the first politician in Bihar to have relied on something other than caste to win political power.

On Saturday, 26 constituencies, more than half of which are Naxal-hit, spread over five districts go to polls. Counting will take place on 24 November.

Also See Bihar Assembly Polls: Phase VI (PDF)

Even in the state’s heavily Naxal-affected Gaya and Buxar districts, it is apparent that development has firmly entrenched itself, even while caste undercurrents continue to be a significant factor. Despite the election boycott call by Maoists, voters seem determined to cast their ballot.

“The way the entire election was choreographed, Nitish has managed to put the development agenda on the forefront," said Bihar-based political analyst Saibal Gupta. “While development might not have completely taken over other issues like caste, it has certainly emerged as a very crucial election issue. And it’s not esoteric development but actual development that people are talking about," he added.

However, the Naxal imprimatur cannot be missed. Imamganj assembly constituency, known to be a Maoist stronghold, lacks the usual colours of pre-election campaigning. They have given an election boycott call and imposed a gag on campaigning. There are groups of personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) manning stretches of roads at intervals of less than 300m in all three blocks in this constituency. In an indication of the seriousness of their threats, armed Naxalites blew up the headquarters of the Banke Bazar block on 8 November.

“We are manning the entire area closely because there is a serious Naxal threat. But people are not scared and we are there to protect them. Voting will be successful," said Virendra Chaudhary, a CRPF personnel.

Locals, however, though quick in denying any Naxal presence or influence, are not shying away from airing their political views.

Says 21-year-old Shravan Singh, “The government has made roads so now I can do my own small business of selling things since travelling to the town has become easier. There is no threat, we will all definitely go and vote."

Some even admit caste is no longer a critical electoral issue. “People think Yadavs will only vote for Lalu (Prasad) Yadav. But that is no longer true to a great extent because we have now seen some development, and we know how important it is," says Rajendra Prasad Yadav, who says he always voted for Lalu Prasad earlier.

Even though Prasad’s election rally here, where he attacked Kumar, on Monday drew huge crowds, people were not swayed. “Nitish has not developed the state, he has destroyed it... I will brighten the future of Bihar like I did for railways," Prasad said in his speech.

“What does he mean? Why didn’t he do that in his 15 years in power? It is only rhetoric since he has nothing to say," said Om Prakash Paswan who attended the rally.

The groundswell of desire among people for development may, however, not be sufficient in the key constituency of Imamganj, where assembly speaker Uday Narain Chaudhary, who had earlier enjoyed rebel-support for over two decades, is now facing severe hostility from Maoists. He also has to battle the anti-incumbency sentiment since he has represented the seat for 15 of the last 20 years.

“Chaudhary is going to have a tough time. Nitish’s development platform cannot always work. One can’t discount local conditions and atmosphere," said a JD(U) leader who wanted to remain anonymous.

Usamaan Khan of Jaibhiga village in Gaya district’s Gurua assembly constituency agrees. “While Nitish has done some good work, one has to vote according to the local candidate and his individual performance. Caste, party are secondary, local issues are the criteria," he says, even as his neighbour Umesh Paswan praises Kumar for running a “focused administration".

Similar concerns are there in the district’s Sheraghati assembly constituency as well. A red banner by the Bharatiya Maoist Party (a banned Naxal outfit) calling for “boycotting elections" in the constituency’s Ahuri village does not seem to deter the electorate from claiming they would vote, even while they seem wary of admitting to any Naxal threat.

“We are under no threat, no fear. And why should we not vote? It is our right, we own our vote," said Ganagarajat, in front of whose shop the banner has been put.

“Nobody will talk about them (Naxals), we are too scared. But yes, we will definitely vote and the criteria is development as well as work done by our local MLA," said a voter who did not want to be identified.

However, in Buxar district’s Dumraon assembly constituency, residents of Mehrora village can’t stop complaining about the government.

“What has Nitish done? He has made some roads outside, but how do they help us? Our village remains the same, we have no water, no electricity and we continue to remain poor. In my 55 years, I have seen no development," said Ramnarayan Rai. Agrees Surendra Kumar, “There is no development in our village even now, so we might as well not vote at all. How does it matter to us whether there is any development outside our village?"

“Development might be important but how can we abandon our caste? Nitish has made roads but he has also done some negative things. Like giving cooked meals to our children in school. At least Lalu gave ration, which the children could bring home and share with everyone. We will vote for him since he understands us better," said Sudhama Yadav of Pakadi village in Buxar’s Rajpur constituency.

In these situations, caste could play a decisive role and Kumar is hoping to mitigate some of the damage by his own brand of social engineering.

After constituting separate commissions for the extremely backward castes and Mahadalits and announcing benefits for them, Kumar has hoped to emerge as the main leader of the backward castes in the polls. Mahadalits represent a medley group of 21 castes from the scheduled caste category.

“Of course caste continues to remain an important electoral factor in Bihar, that simply cannot be denied. Development has not completely overtaken it," said Gupta.