Bihar polls: Now the race is for getting the caste right for campaigners too

Under fire from RJD supremo Lalu Prasad over RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks against caste-based reservation, the BJP realises that it needs to be more connected than ever with all stakeholders in the reservation system.

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Inside the BJP headquarters in Patna, there’s a whitewashed but dusty space that could be called the “caste room”. Here, party workers are busy fielding campaign requests from the interiors of Bihar for community leaders belonging to various sub-castes.

Under fire from RJD supremo Lalu Prasad over RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks against caste-based reservation, the BJP realises that it needs to be more connected than ever with all stakeholders in the reservation system. But it’s not just the BJP. Once again this election season, it’s time for all parties to revisit the landscape of castes and sub-castes in the guise of “giving representation to all sections of society”.

The strategy: talk about serving the “pichada varg” (backward caste) but in reality, tap the “jaatiya samikaran” (caste consolidation).

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Among local caste experts, it’s taken for granted that Muslims and most of the Yadavs and Kurmis will remain with the “maha gathbandhan” (grand alliance) of JD-U, RJD and Congress. The upper castes — Bhumihars, Kayasth, Rajputs and Brahmins — and Dalits are likely to side with the NDA.

And so, as the elections pan out over the next three weeks, the focus of both sides will be to swing the balance by deploying leaders who can draw votes from the EBC (Extremely Backward Class) and Mahadalit segments — and the various sub-castes. At the JD-U office in Patna, a former MLA introduces himself with these words: “I am a Chamar leader but I have the Sahni and Gangota votes, too.”

What he means is that he’s a Dalit but has the support of two EBC segments. Members of the Sahni community are mostly engaged in fishing, while Gangota is an EBC sub-caste who reside along the banks of the Ganges.

The BJP has acknowledged the EBC factor by giving tickets under the category of Vaishyas to seven candidates from the Teli community (mostly engaged in pressing oil), three from Kanu (halwai) and two from Tamoli (paan leaf cultivators). Besides, one Chandravanshi — the community is also called Kahar — has been given a ticket. At the BJP’s “caste room”, requests are pouring from the party’s candidates in Lakhisarai, Rajauli and Govindpur to send state-level Chandravanshi leaders to address local voters.

In all parties, the more than 25 OBC groups, such as Dhanuk (Kurmi sub-caste), Noniya (traditional salt-makers), and Kanu, prefer leaders from their castes — “jaat bhais” — to address the voters over more popular faces. For instance, BJP’s Union Minister of State Santosh Gangwar, the Kurmi leader, is more in demand than its Bihari Bollywood icon Shatrughan Sinha for candidates in Chapra and Gopalganj.

All the parties have a long list of leaders who can address the Mahadalit segment, including groups such as Ravidas, Musahars, Dhobis and Doms.

“All caste-based speeches should be banned from politics. But what can we do?” said a local leader in charge of “jaatiya samikaran” for one of the parties in the fray.

Requesting that neither he nor his party be identified, the leader pulled out a file containing a long list of state-level leaders belonging to the Badhai and Nai groups, and some 20 sub-castes of the Sahni segment, along with their contact numbers.

He also revealed a chart on which over 100 constituencies were listed along with detailed demands for “sub-caste-based leaders” from candidates. “Urbanisation can subdue caste identity but in election time we come back to castes,” he said.

This “prabhari” (in-charge) is a triple degree-holder from urban universities but in the party office, he is juggling caste combinations and trying to reach leaders of the Mallah (fishing community), Chaurasia (paan-makers), Noniya, Tanti (weavers) and Kumhar (potters).

“Caste politics helps, in a way. In the end, it is focused on serving the poor. For instance, since the Farakka barrage was built in 1975 over the Ganges, members of the Mallah and Nishaad communities there, who were dependent on fishing and boating, became jobless. But it’s only during the elections that they are ever heard by their leaders. So let it be,” the leader said.