As the Mahagathbandhan takes heart from the crowds flocking to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is banking on his “silent voters” — women and EBCs. The Nitish government has assiduously courted both, and believe that though not as vocal or visible as the others and hence not registering in the various poll analyses, they continue to stand by it.
At rallies, the JD(U) leader talks about the incentives by his government to girl students, including the much-lauded bicycle scheme, the Rs 55,000 grant and other benefits till graduation, and the 50% reservation to women at the panchayat level and the 35% quota for them in government jobs. “The fertility rate among educated girls has come down over the past few years,” Nitish pointed out at a recent rally.
The 15 years of Nitish government also saw the setting up of over 10 lakh women self-help groups, with a combined membership of one crore.
Rukmini Devi of Kochas in Rohtas says they are loyal NDA voters. “The Ujjwala Yojana of Narendra Modi has made our lives easier, Nitish has also done a lot for us. My daughter got a bicycle in school.”
At the Banka Assembly segment, anganwadi worker Munni Kumari, however, says many of them have not voted for the NDA this time as they are angry over their meagre salaries. Tejashwi’s promise of an increase in honorarium has been a big draw, splitting some of the votes down caste lines. Munni Kumar calls Nitish paying them only 25% extra after promising a hike of 50% over Rs 4,500 per month as a “betrayal”.
Jaya Devi, a social activist at the Jamalpur Assembly segment of Munger, says, “There has been a definite dent in the women vote base of Nitish. My village Saradhi has about 350 women voters. Of them, 200 would have normally gone to Nitish. While Scheduled Caste and EBC women are still with Nitish, there is not as much excitement among them for him as was during the 2010 and 2015 Assembly polls.”
The two polling phases are believed to have seen a dip in women’s voting percentage compared to the last Assembly polls, but this could also be due to Covid fears. The period between the 2005 and 2015 Assembly polls had seen women voters’ participation increase from 42.51% to over 60%.
The EBCs, comprising a massive 25% chunk, are a conglomerate of over 100 castes and sub-castes, including Dhanuk, Teli, Sahani (Mallah), Nonia, Lohar, Nai, Bind, Chandravanshi and Kevat. While they are spread across the state, there are areas of concentration such as Darbhanga, Madhubani and the entire Kosi region of Supaul, Saharsa and Madhepura. One of the NDA’s allies, who joined at the last minute, Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party commands significant support among the Mallahs, particularly in the Kosi region.
Says a top BJP leader: “The EBCs are more or less committed to the NDA… They are not comfortable with the dominance of OBC Yadavs… Even if there is a more than 25% shift among them towards the Mahagathbandhan, we will still manage. If the slide is more, we are in trouble.”
The NDA believes that in the second phase of voting, held Tuesday, the alliance did well and would have an equally impressive tally in the final round due to the support of EBCs.
A JD(U) leader admits some worry. “The party leaving the NDA and joining the Grand Alliance in the 2015 Assembly polls eroded its vote base among upper caste Rajputs. Later, when Nitish left the Grand Alliance and joined the NDA back, the EBCs were angry. There is also anger over the prohibition law, under which most of the people arrested were EBCs and SCs.”
Both the JD(U) and RJD have fielded nearly equal number of EBC candidates — 25 and 24, respectively. The VIP has three EBC candidates in the 11 seats it is contesting from. Pramod Kumar, a Muzaffarpur resident, says: “Mukesh could not get better candidates, but he is a voice among the Sahanis and several sub-castes. He has drawn good crowds, and this election will show if he is able to convert that into votes.”2
Senior JD(U) leader Udaykant Choudhary, former chairman of the Bihar EBC Commission, asserts, “What I have gathered from field visits and inputs is that there is not much erosion of our EBC votes, though wherever other parties have fielded EBC candidates, some may drift away… Nitish Kumar has given them 20% reservation in panchayat and local bodies, 21% in judiciary and opened 100-bed hostels for EBC students in 33 of 38 Bihar districts.”