While the Congress harps on what it says is the “exclusionary” ideology of the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi to turn the 2014 elections into a secular-versus-communal contest, people in Bihar seem to view Modi more as an agent of change than a face of aggressive Hindutva.
And his appeal appears to be transcending even age-old caste prejudices as a significant section of the OBCs and EBCs prepare to abandon their patron politicians to effect a change at the Centre.
Giving a haircut to one of his customers in his cramped, wooden salon in Gadhahani in Arrah district, Mahendra Thakur looked puzzled when asked about former home secretary R K Singh. “Who?” he asked.
He was unaware of the very existence of a union home secretary, not to speak of the bureaucrat who held the post previously and is now the BJP candidate here. Talk about elections and the barber was at ease.
“Oh, Modi ki chal rahi hai (Modi is leading). The BJP had brought the (donation) box. I also put a Rs 2 coin into it,” said Thakur, who voted for the JD(U) in the last Assembly election.
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A customer at a nearby cycle repair shop, Kamlesh Kumar Singh, explained this yearning for change in Sasaram, Aurangabad, Karakat, Arrah and other parts of Bihar.
“Diesel already comes for Rs 60 per litre and they increase it by 50 paisa every month,” he said, adding how the cost of getting one bigha of land ploughed by a tractor has gone up from Rs 600 from Rs 400 in the past couple of years. Fertilisers, he said, have become equally expensive. A 50-kg sack of DAP was Rs 500 just three-four years back; today it costs Rs 1,400.
There was simmering resentment about the state of affairs, ranging from scams to price rise to unemployment, among others. Except Yadavs and Muslims, who seemed inclined to go for the RJD-Congress combine, all other castes and communities appeared to be reconsidering their options.
While Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s social engineering through mahadalits and EBCs had helped him sweep the last Assembly elections, it seemed to be cracking now, just as Lalu Yadav’s base among non-Yadav OBCs.
While upper castes such as the Rajputs, Bhumihars and Brahmins voted for the BJP-JD(U) combine last time, they have abandoned the JD(U) now and have emerged as the most vocal supporters of Modi.
Yadavs had stayed with Lalu Prasad Yadav and Muslim votes had been distributed between the RJD-LJP combine, the Congress and, to a limited extent, the JD(U).
This time, the RJD-Congress combine seems to be getting the so-called M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) votes, although a small section of Muslims still seem inclined towards the JD(U). The non-Yadav OBCs and EBCs had largely gone with the JD(U) in the last election, although some sections had voted for other parties. It is this chunk of voters which seems to be getting swayed by Modi.
Shivshankar Pal, a Gareria – the community of grazers – from Pal Tola in Sasaram said, “We should see how Narendra Modi does as Prime Minister.”
“Kaaran kya hai? Waise hi! Badlaav hote rahna chahiye (What could be the reason? Just like that. There should be changes).”
“I bought sugar for Rs 40 (per kg) and onions for Rs 80. Something has to be done about it,” said his neighbour Lakshmina Devi, who voted for the Congress’s Meira Kumar in 2009.
Even communities known to be traditionally sympathetic to the BJP cite different reasons this time. Anand Kumar Verma from Bhabhua in Kaimur, for instance, did an MCA and became a teacher at a high school at a salary of Rs 5,000 a month. “The contract was over this March and the government has left us nowhere,” said Verma, 28, who is batting for Modi now. There are 5,000 such computer teachers in Bihar.
Many of those who have been loyal to Nitish Kumar were not so sure about their choice this time. Sudama Rajak, a dhobi in Sarenja village, about 10 km from Aurangabad, hasn’t made up his mind yet but would go with the majority opinion. “Everybody is saying that Modi is coming. Let’s see,” said Rajak.
Prabhati Devi of Baheri village in Sasaram, who belonged to the Bind community, was all praise for the Nitish Kumar government as it had given Rs 1,000 to her son studying in Class II. She was, however, non-committal this time.
“We will give our vote to whoever is winning this time. Nitish Kumar is not the PM candidate. Things will be clearer a couple of days before elections,” she said. Vipin Bhuyian, 35, a labourer at a construction materials shop in Obra in Karakat constituency said, “Let leaders come first. I am going to vote for the winner.”
Many of these fence-sitters, who were once a part of Nitish Kumar’s EBC votebank, could swing the BJP’s way given the momentum moving in Modi’s favour. It was evident from the account of Dharmendra Kumar Kushwaha, a furniture shop owner in Obra: “My seven-year-old son says I should vote for Modi because he can’t. I think it is because he watches Modi on TV. Whenever our prime minister speaks, he sounds so timid and shy. But when Modi speaks, even kids get impressed.”
The BJP has been showcasing Modi’s OBC status in the state and it seems to be resonating. Avdhesh Prasad Kushwaha of Shankarpur village in Karakat said, “You may think that we will vote for Upendra Kushwaha because of his caste but it is not true,” he said referring to the BJP’s ally Rashtriya Lok Samata Party candidate.
“We are not thinking on caste lines. Till now, all prime ministers have been of forward caste. For the first time, there could be a backward caste PM.”
Jitendra Kumar Sharma, a bangle-seller in Deo village of Aurangabad, had voted for Nitish Kumar last time and is still appreciative of the CM’s initiatives such as giving bicycles to school-going children. This time though, he wants to give “a chance” to Modi for the top job.
Modi has also been able to consolidate the BJP’s traditional upper caste votebank, especially Brahmins, Rajputs, and Bhumihars. Brahmins had largely voted for Meira Kumar in Sasaram in 2009 and the Congress was hoping to gain from what it projected as a slight to Brahmins when Murli Manohar Joshi was forced to leave Varanasi for Modi.
There were obviously larger considerations at play though.
Manoj Pande of Maldhaha village explained,”While the Central government always talks about the raise in minimum support price, the fact is procurement never happens on time. It starts only after we have sold our produce. When Atalji was there, we had supported him. Then we voted for Meira Kumar. We may try out Modi this time.”
While Modi appeared to be breaching Nitish Kumar’s stronghold among EBCs, the Bihar chief minister’s decision to part ways with the BJP may not pay him the expected dividends as Muslims appeared to be split.
“In the Vidhan Sabha election, most of us had voted for Nitish Kumar. This time, there is the Congress-RJD pact and some people are thinking of voting for them. Anything can be done to stop Modi. He is not good for the country,” said Mohammed Afzal Hussain of Jinoria village in Daudnagar.