On the fringes of Gangajal, the ancestral village of Dalit leader and former Bihar chief minister late Ram Sundar Das in Saran district, a daily wager Bhushan Paswan sits outside his pucca house, rubbing tobacco in his palms. He is upset with LJP MP and Union minister Pashupati Kumar Paras for having split the party and jettisoned his brother late Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag.
“Nobody has done as much for us as Ram Vilas ji. For us, Chirag is our leader. We will vote whichever formation he goes with,” Bhushan says, even as he praises Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his leadership. Chirag, who has floated his own party, is also aligned with the BJP-led NDA.
Barely two kilometres ahead, on the margins of Baurbani village, a small settlement of Dalits from the Ravidasi community, encompassing many thatched huts, sits right on the banks of the Ganga. Over the years, the local villagers have lost their land and homes to the river and have been struggling to reclaim their land rights.
“Modi has got Aadhaar for everyone. Doesn’t he know we have no land. We can’t even get housing. Under the BJP government, our grievances have not been heard. We hope it will happen now. We had voted for Modi in 2019. But now we will see what to do,” says Santosh Kumar, a 27-year-old Ravidasi daily wager.
It is these caste contradictions that the BJP is now hoping to manage as it faces the challenge from the formidable social coalition of the RJD and the JD(U) that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has sought to forge now. After snapping his ties with the BJP and taking oath as the CM for the 8th time at the head of the Mahagathbandhan government now, JD(U) supremo Nitish cast doubts on Modi’s re-election as the PM in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Amid the stunning Bihar setback, the BJP, which was buoyed by its recent scalping of the Maharashtra government in collaboration with rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde, seems to have been pushed to the drawing board early.
“The problem in Bihar is when Paswans come closer to you, Ravidasis begin to drift away. If you aggressively court Yadavs, other OBCs begin to move away. And striking a balance is easier said than done. It is still early stages, but there is a discussion within the party to focus on Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and non-Paswan Dalits, which Nitish has tried to consolidate over the years but which are also not averse to us. Our primary focus is on the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Strategy for 2025 Assembly elections will be drawn based on what we achieve in 2024 in the state,” a senior BJP leader said.
Dalits make up 16 per cent of Bihar’s population. Paswans and Ravidasis account for about 5 per cent and 4 per cent of the state’s population, respectively. Along with Musahars, these two communities constitute about 3/4th of the Dalit population in the state.
While Yadavs make up about 14 per cent of the state’s population and Muslims 17 per cent, the biggest chunk of voters, about 30 per cent, are said to be in the EBC group. Upper caste Hindus make up around 13-14% of the population and the rest are non-Yadav OBCs.
“Given the current caste arithmetic, we have around 40 per cent votes with us. But they (Mahagathbandhan) have 60 per cent as it is a big alliance. We have to find a way to get those extra 10-12 % votes. And for that we can’t just depend on Modi magic. We have been focusing on EBCs in the past few years. Renu Devi, an EBC leader, was appointed deputy CM in the previous government,” a BJP leader said.
Another senior state BJP leader, closely involved with the party’s plans for the 2024 polls, added, “In the days ahead you will see some restructuring in the state unit of the party. The faces that you will see then will tell you exactly what we are concentrating on.”
As per the arithmetic of votes garnered by various parties in each constituency in the last Lok Sabha polls, BJP sources said, the party may appear to lose more than 30 seats (the NDA had bagged 39 of Bihar’s total 40 parliamentary seats in 2019). “But then polls are not won by arithmetic alone. There was a Mahagathbandhan in UP which looked like it would sweep the state in 2019 and yet the BJP got 65 of 80 seats there,” a senior BJP leader said.
A part of the BJP’s challenge is that unlike UP, it is not easy to polarise Bihar on religious lines. “The state has no historical experience of Islamic oppression or atrocities. There is also no overbearing political narrative of Muslim assertion in the recent decades in the state. We tried this experiment in 2015 Assembly elections and it did not work,” said a party strategist.
Such an assessment found resonance among people on the ground. Many people The Indian Express spoke to did not express any apprehensions regarding the Muslim community. Some even expressed reservations over the narrative pushed by the BJP leaders at the national level.
When asked about Modi’s leadership, Jitendra Kumar, a 24-year-old Dalit from Hajipur, said, “He is doing good work for the country. But I don’t like the Hindu vs Muslim narrative he pushes all the time. I don’t see that narrative playing out in the society. The village adjacent to ours is of Muslims. There is no problem. I also don’t like that under the present regime, if you oppose the government and are not a Muslim, you are branded Naxalite.”
The JD(U)-RJD alliance is however also set to face its own challenges. There is a concern within the JD(U) over Yadavs’ assertion now that the RJD has returned to power as the senior partner in the coalition government.
“It is true that Nitish ji has influence over almost 65 per cent of the EBC votes and on paper we will rout the BJP in 2024 polls. But the challenge will be to tame the triumphalism of the Yadavs. If they start asserting themselves, especially at the local thana, both EBCs and OBCs will start running away from us. But I am sure Tejashwi (RJD leader and Deputy CM) is aware of this and will keep his cadres in check,” a senior JD(U) leader said.