The verdict of the Bihar election could alter the political influence of the upper castes in the state. A BJP victory would most likely be accompanied with an increased representation of the upper castes in the assembly. This caste group in the state largely consists of Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas.
These four sub-groups with other, relatively small upper castes comprise about one-sixth (15%) of the electorate. This analysis of upper-caste voting patterns is based on various post-poll surveys by Lokniti-CSDS.
Like most other states in the Hindi heartland, in Bihar too the BJP has dominated among the upper castes since the 1990s. In the late 1980s and the early ’90s, when the Janata parties mobilised the OBC voters through the Mandal movement, the BJP was successful in a counter-mobilisation of various sections of Hindus, especially upper castes, through Kamandal.
Between 2000 and 2010, the upper castes mainly supported the JD(U)-BJP alliance. The BJP has consistently been the biggest recipient of the upper caste vote. This consolidation of upper-caste votes reached a new high in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as the BJP got close to two-thirds (63%) of the upper-caste votes. Support for the JD(U) among upper castes was largely due to the alliance with the BJP. When it contested on its own in 2014, the JD(U) could not manage even one-tenth of the upper-caste votes.
The performance of the Congress amongst the upper castes shows sharp swings. In 2000, the party secured a decent 22 per cent vote share.
This came down to 5 per cent in October 2005. In 2010, it improved to 14 per cent, but in 2014, only 1 per cent of the upper castes voted for the Congress. It is interesting to note that the Congress has performed relatively well among the upper castes whenever it has contested alone. There could be two reasons for this, one that whenever it has allied with the RJD, the Congress has contested fewer seats and hence the lower vote share, or this could also be possible due to an aversion among a section of upper castes towards the RJD. The RJD has never got much support among the upper castes. Its vote share among them has been in single digits, the highest being 9 per cent in 2000.
There are hardly any differences in the voting pattern of various sub-groups within the upper castes as the BJP dominates among most. Support for the Congress among the upper castes seems restricted mainly to the Brahmins and to some extent the Rajputs. The BJP’s success among all sections of the upper castes is reflected in the fact that its top leaders in the state come from various upper caste sub-groups — MP Ashwini Kumar Choubey and state unit president Mangal Pandey are Brahmin, C P Thakur and minister Giriraj Singh are Bhumihars, ministers Radha Mohan Singh and Rajiv Pratap Rudy are Rajput while minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Shatrughan Sinha are Kayasthas.
In a recent interview to The Indian Express, Congress leader C P Joshi discussed the possibility of accommodating poor upper castes in Mandal 2.0. Earlier this year, the state government had even appointed a committee for recommending steps for providing financial assistance to poor upper castes. These reflect a clear political strategy of making inroads into the upper-caste support base of the BJP. Class is being used as an alternative identity for mobilising voters. The success of this strategy is doubtful when we look at upper-caste voting patterns disaggregated by economic class. Contrary to popular perception, more lower-class voters among the upper castes voted for the BJP in 2014 as compared to upper-class voters among them. Close to 7 out of 10 poor/lower-class, upper-caste voters had voted for the BJP as compared to a little over half the upper-class upper-castes (see graphs above).
In all likelihood the BJP will retain its upper-caste vote and the consolidation could be similar to that of the 2014 polls, especially if the grand alliance continues to talk about reviving Mandal. In this election, the BJP is trying to build a coalition of extremes — upper castes and Dalits/Mahadalits — and is looking at making inroads among EBCs. This is not going to be an easy task for the party as this would mean accommodating demands that are often contradictory. The BJP must walk a tightrope and ensure it doesn’t remain trapped in its traditional image of being a Bania party but builds a broadbased social coalition similar to that of the 2014 elections.
The authors are associated with Lokniti-CSDS
This article is part of a series from Lokniti-CSDS that analyses various dimensions of Bihar politics using evidence from surveys conducted by Lokniti over the last two decades.