Jaati nahi jaati", says Munna Singh from Manpura village near Vaishali. Caste never goes away, he says, and it’s a common refrain in most parts of Bihar. Singh, a 25-year-old daily wage worker, lives near Vaishali, an ancient city considered one of the first examples of a republic dating back to the 6th century BC.
In Bihar, like in other states, the two major political alliances have built strategies around social groupings. Caste gains greater traction as the state has a history of political realignment through caste consolidation, and leaders draw support from specific groups.
“In an ideal social scenario, no one should vote in the name of caste. But nothing is ideal here. People say ‘apna aadmi hai’ (our person) and fall in the trap. One should vote in the name of work done but sadly that is not how Bihar works. Now slowly people are looking at the credibility of the leader, whether it is Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi," said Ram Ekbal Tiwary, a farmer near a village in Chapra.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has given more tickets to upper castes as well as other and extremely backward classes, the opposition is attempting a balancing act with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) fielding more Yadav candidates, and the Congress focusing on upper castes. The opposition mahagatbandhan is also appealing to smaller groups through caste leaders like Upendra Kushwaha, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahani.
This time, the mahagatbandhan’s caste arithmetic looks strong on paper with the RJD confident of drawing support from Yadavs (14%), Manjhi from Musahars (3%), Upendra Kushwaha from Kushwahas (6%), Sahani from Nishads (6%) and Congress from a section of upper caste voters (17%), going by estimates. The NDA draws its support from the BJP’s chunk of upper caste (17%) and non-Yadav OBC voters, JD(U)’s Kurmi (4%) and EBC support and Lok Jan Shakti Party’s Paswan base (5%), which are also estimates.
As elections become more closely fought contests, caste consolidation will have to go beyond vote shares and convert into seats to yield electoral success. For instance, in the 2014 general election, the BJP had less than one third of the vote share (29.86%) but won more than two-thirds of the seats it contested (22 out of 30). On the other hand, the RJD won just four seats with a 20.46% vote share and the JD(U) just two seats with a 16.04% share. With such a keen focus on caste, voters feel the outcome of the general election will depend on which alliance is able to consolidate more on a seat-to-seat basis.
“It is rare to find leaders who work for everyone. If we vote in someone not of our caste, they will not work for us. We vote for our caste because we have to choose from what political parties offer. Frankly, there is very little to choose from because parties decide candidates on the basis of caste," said Prem Kumar Rai, a farmer from Gopalganj who also runs a general store.
Rai went on to give the example of Madhepura, a Lok Sabha seat in the state, which has not had a non-Yadav parliamentarian since 1967. This time too, the trend is likely to continue because the top three contenders are all Yadavs —sitting MP Pappu Yadav, Sharad Yadav contesting on an RJD ticket, and Dinesh Chandra Yadav of BJP.
Even as caste is important, there is a growing sentiment against this cycle. The only way to do this, say voters, is to gauge politicians on the basis of their credibility.
With two popular leaders on its side—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Nitish Kumar—NDA gains an edge if one focuses on credibility. Both Modi and Kumar have created a constituency of voters across caste lines, particularly among the young.
“There was a time when Lalu Prasad was the voice of backward communities in Bihar. Now, our vote is for those who perform. The caste cycle should end. I feel Modi has done good work. His credibility is highest among all his opponents," said Dileep Manjhi, a first-time voter from Mashrakh in Saran district.
Analysts point out that a section of the youth rose above caste and voted for Modi during the 2014 general elections, but caste again played an important role in the assembly election in 2015. That year, the caste arithmetic between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar decimated the BJP in the state.
“While nationally there are a lot of issues dominating this election, in Bihar, caste will continue to be a dominant factor. In the 2014 general elections, a lot of first-time voters rose above caste considerations and voted for Modi. It would be interesting to see how much of that vote the NDA continues to get in this election," said Rakesh Ranjan, associate professor of political science at Patna University.
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