How Bihar was won

By Chinmaya Kumar & Abhishek Choudhary

The result of the general elections in Bihar has been to Nitish Kumar’s chagrin: out of 40 seats, the BJP-led NDA won 31 and the RJD-led UPA won seven; Nitish’s JD(U) could summon up barely two (the JD(U) gave two seats to the CPI, both of which they lost). Even in terms of percentage vote shares, the NDA, with 39 per cent of total votes, was far ahead of the UPA’s 29 and the JD (U)’s 16.

Why did the JD(U) do badly despite Nitish’s popularity as Bihar’s “development man”? If efficient governance could fetch the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD 20 out of 21 seats in Odisha, what explains Patnaik’s fellow special category status-demanding, sub-nationalism-evoking chief minister’s extraordinary failure in the neighbouring eastern state?

Caste — as with everything else in Bihar — gives the answer.

We need to begin with June 2013, when Nitish broke the NDA coalition in Bihar over Narendra Modi’s ascension as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The JD(U)’s supporters were a mix of non-Yadav backward castes (Koeris, Kurmis — to which Nitish belongs, and a few others) and a section of Dalits and Muslims; the BJP, on the other hand, relied mostly on the four Hindu upper castes. But since upper castes are less than 15 per cent of the population, the BJP, after the coalition collapsed, was desperate to find partners that could broaden its support base: the BJP formed an alliance with Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. The LJP was an insignificant entity and had nothing to offer to any coalition other than, perhaps, a palaver of secularism. But the LJP and the RLSP could transfer a significant number of votes of the sub-castes they represented to the NDA.

The post-poll survey by CSDS suggests that the BJP’s social engineering has paid off: 68 per cent of Dusadhs — the Dalit sub-caste Paswan belongs to — voted for the NDA. The NDA also wooed the Extremely Backward Castes, which constitute around 30 per cent of Bihar’s population and have traditionally voted the JD(U): 53 per cent of them reportedly voted for the NDA. This massive shift in the EBCs’ support to the BJP owes partly to Modi’s backward caste origins that the BJP kept trumpeting during its campaign in the Hindi heartland.
The upper castes, as expected, voted for the BJP en masse. The BJP could successfully build another “coalition of extremes” to their advantage.

Modi’s own persona played a role, too: the BJP’s vigorous campaign to project him as a leader capable of extricating India out of unemployment, inflation, and corruption that the UPA helped create, worked well. A unique combination of caste realignment, the word-of-mouth spreading of Modi’s achievements in Gujarat, and communal polarisation in rural areas has ensured the NDA’s historic victory in Bihar. The CSDS survey shows that a significant percentage of votes across castes went to the NDA: Upper castes: 78; Yadav: 19; Kurmi and Koeri: 26; Lower OBC: 53; Dusadh: 68; Mahadalits: …continued »