There is a sense of looking through the eyepiece of a microscope in Vaishali, where Bihar’s complex transactions of caste seem magnified. The main fight here is between three castes — Yadav, Rajput and Bhumihar — that do not see eye-to-eye and of which the first two have been coming together to defeat the third.
There are four main candidates in Vaishali which votes on May 12 — Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of the RJD, Rama Singh of the LJP which is in an alliance with the BJP, Vijay Sahni of the JD(U) and Independent candidate Annu Shukla. Conventional wisdom would say the RJD would get the Yadav votes while the BJP walks away with the Bhumihar and Rajput ones. However, RJD’s Raghuvansh Singh, who is seeking a sixth consecutive term, is a Rajput and Annu Shukla, Lalganj MLA, is a Bhumihar.
“We want Modi sarkar, but we also want Raghuvansh babu,” said Sekhar Singh of Dhanaiya in Paru block of Vaishali, going directly to the heart of the Rajput dilemma. RJD’s Singh has won here since 1996 by bringing together the Yadavs and Rajputs. The constituency has always elected either Bhumihars or Rajputs, who, barring a few instances, refused to back the same candidate. “We Rajputs will not vote for a Bhumihar. If they want to, let them come and vote for us,” said Chandrabhushan Singh of the same village, referring to the fact that the LJP’s candidate is also a Rajput.
This is where the “Hindu unity” idea of the BJP breaks down. Vaishali is symptomatic of what has been seen all across Bihar — despite the BJP’s projection of Narendra Modi, the local candidates and their castes matter. So while the Bhumihars in Muzaffarpur are all set to vote for Congress’s Akhilesh Prasad Singh, a Bhumihar, in Vaishali, they favour Annu Shukla. Again, while the Mallaahs of Muzaffarpur will mostly vote BJP, in Vaishali, most of them will stick with the JD(U)’s Mallaah candidate. The Rajputs, out to defeat RJD’s Rabri Devi in Chhapra, are rooting for Raghuvansh Prasad in Vaishali.
Candidates of major political parties in each constituency are almost always from the most populous castes. The BJP will need its candidates to deliver their caste votes while hoping Narendra Modi can bring over a good number of voters from the opposing candidates’ castes.
At Chainpura in Paru block in Vaishali, Anil Kumar Singh, a Rajput, said his vote will be for Narendra Modi. “No one knows Rama Singh. We are voting for NaMo.” However, Singh does not rule out the possibility of the Rajputs voting for Annu Shukla to keep out the RJD. “If Rama Singh is going to lose, we BJP cadres will vote for Annu Shukla, the Independent candidate. If she wins, she will be going over to the BJP, after all,” he said. Annu is the wife of Vijay Kumar “Munna” Shukla, a former JD(U) MLA currently serving a life sentence for murder.
“We forward castes want Modi, but at the end of the day, it is all about caste… We will say “Modi, Modi” but finally, we will all go and vote against Raghuvansh Singh,” said Pankaj Kumar, a Bhumihar of Vaishali village, which lends its name to the district and the Lok Sabha seat.
“People from our caste advised Annu Shukla not to contest and to let Modi win. But she has chamchas around her who will grow in importance if she contests. Now that she has decided to contest, I have no choice but to vote for her. It has become a question of astitva (identity),” said Kumar.
However, mere vote transfers by adding raw caste numbers won’t ensure victory. “We Bhumihars don’t vote. My family has 16 electors; not more than four vote,” said Vaishali’s Surender Singh. These are villages which were once famous for booth captures.
The men consider women as being part of a backup plan, to be used in case they need additional votes. “The women used to stay at home on polling day even though the booth is adjacent to the village. Now, they have begun going on their own. This time, we will ensure all of them goes and votes for Modi,” said Anil Singh of Chainpura.
Reminding his audiences that he had arrested L K Advani during his 1990 Rath Yatra, Lalu Prasad has positioned himself to take credit if the BJP falls short of its target in Bihar. While Prasad has been leading the charge, it is ‘caste’ against which the Modi wave has been lashing. “If it wasn’t for these regional parties that split us according to the castes of their leaders, Modi wouldn’t have had to work so hard,” said Satyendra Prasad Singh, a Bhumihar, of Gokula in Paru block.