Will Kushwaha’s ‘Kheer’ Recipe Change Caste Arithmetic in Bihar’s Politics?

By Aakash Mehrotra

If Bihar’s political leaders are known to create a storm once in a while, Upendra Kushwaha, president of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP), is capable of creating small typhoons of his own. Once considered close to Nitish Kumar of JD(U), Kushwaha formed the RLSP in 2013 and joined forces with the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary elections. His party won three parliamentary seats, and he became the Union minister of state for human resources and development.

Kushwaha is rumoured to have started feeling uncomfortable with the National Democratic Alliance ever since the JD(U)’s return last year. His one-on-one meeting with RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav at AIIMS in New Delhi this March had set the political pots boiling in the state. After the meeting, Tejashwi Yadav extended an olive branch to Kushwaha to snap ties with the NDA and join the mega-alliance shaping up in Bihar. It is no secret that Kushwaha has for long been miffed with Bihar chief minister and JD(U) president Nitish, whom he has accused of playing the role of ‘big brother’ in the alliance.

Upendra Kushwaha with Lalu Prasad Yadav at AIIMS, New Delhi. Credit: Twitter.com/UpendraRLSP

Hinting at a possible caste-based political realignment, Kushwaha recently made a statement that “a delicious kheer can be prepared with milk from the Yadavs (RJD’s vote base), rice from the Kushwahas (RLSP’s vote base) and “dry fruits from EBC groups.” [Kushwaha has since clarified his stance, claiming on Monday that he is neither asking for milk from the RJD nor sugar from the BJP.]

Earlier, much to the surprise of the BJP, the RLSP had demanded that Kushwaha be declared the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate for the Bihar assembly polls in 2015. According to sources, the RJD chief has assured Kushwaha of the ‘respect he deserves’, possibly hinting at agreeing to project Kushwaha as the CM face in the 2020 state elections.

Bihar’s caste arithmetic

In Bihar, politics is incomplete without solving the caste arithmetic. By possibly bringing Kushwaha on board, the RJD has just made a major political realignment in Bihar’s caste-ridden politics. It is experimenting with a new kind of social engineering by wooing Kushwaha, a powerful Koeri leader, the largest OBC caste group after the Yadavs. Koeris form around 7-8% of voters in Bihar. With Muslims and Yadavs (MY) already on its side, and now possibly the RSLP, the RJD is expecting to garner Koeri votes and some support of Kurmi and Dhanuk (extremely backward class) votes. Together, the three castes constitute 20% of voters, a small portion of which could also change the political arithmetic in the state.

NDA on a dip in Bihar

The 2015 state elections saw RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservation go viral, virtually making backward vs forward fight the main electoral plank in the state. And of late, the NDA’s popularity has suffered from a series of incidents like the Bihar shelter home case accompanied by the CM’s silence, gangrape cases, atrocities against minorities and deteriorating law and order situation. It is no secret that Bihar’s backward classes have lost trust in the BJP, and Nitish’s credibility has eroded significantly after his political somersault and silence on mob violence.

Tejaswi Yadav, for his part, has silenced naysayers by emerging out of his father’s shadow, carving out an identity for himself. In recent times, he has brought the Bihar shelter home rape cases to national attention, upped the ante against Nitish Kumar and held a mega rally in Delhi. Lalu Prasad’s sickness, coupled with the establishment’s less-than-deserving treatment of him, has also helped consolidate RJD’s vote bank and earn the sympathy of the Bihar populace.

With his relentless attack against Nitish Kumar (R), Tejashwi Yadav has of late presented himself as a formidable leader in Bihar. Credit: PTI file photo

With Bihar being on the boil, getting negative media for wrong governance moves, it is not too difficult to guess that the NDA is on a dip in Bihar. And it is not difficult for a political veteran like Kushwaha to figure that out. Kushwaha’s inherent dislike for Nitish Kumar, the latter’s decision to not have an RLSP candidate in the cabinet and the BJP keeping mum on the issue proved the last metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back.

The RLSP’s exit from the NDA could leave the latter with just figure heads in the name of coalition. After Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party, with a host of other smaller parties, and signals of dissent from Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the NDA is now more about confrontation than coalition. More than about electoral strength in the house, the RLSP’s possible exit will be more about optics. A losing NDA signals a loss of credibility on ground, not only sending mixed signals to the existing and possible alliance partners but also proving the theory that the Modi-Shah duo’s autocratic style of functioning is miffing the alliance partners.

A new grand alliance in Bihar

With the RJD’s formidable MY (Muslims-Yadav) vote share and the Congress and smaller parties like the RLSP and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) adding to the kitty, the formation of a mega alliance looks more real than ever. The dice, thus, has been rolled to form an alliance against the NDA (reading only the BJP and the JD(U) here). In addition to the MY vote base, with smaller castes like Koeri and Kurmi, the alliance could cause a huge dent in the Dalit vote base of the JD(U) and the LJP. The rise of various Dalit parties and fronts, and years of subsequent politicisation and instrumentalisation of Dalit votes into various divisions of Dusadhs and Mahadalits, has made the split easier. The state elections have also shown that voters tend to concentrate their vote strategically towards strong contenders.

The bigger question now is: How will the party look like if the RLSP jumps the ship? The RJD is likely to offer not more than four seats to the RLSP; Congress has already hinted at nine to ten seats; and Manjhi’s HAM will be accommodated in the RJD’s quota, leaving almost 25 seats to the RJD. In terms of vote-share, the alliance could bank on an assured 40-50% vote share, possibly sweeping more from the NDA’s kitty. The recent elections have shown a free fall in the vote share of independents, rebels and candidates of smaller parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Shiv Sena and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. This means that the final contest will be between the mega alliance and the NDA, without any smaller party playing spoil-sport. If the configuration remains, the expected mega alliance will be at an advantage.

The 2015 state elections were indicative of interesting continuities, marked by a fragmentation of political space, the rise of the backward castes and a marked return to the status quo from a pro-Modi wave in 2014. The next thing will now be to see the unravelling of an original political alliance in Bihar which will not only determine the success or failure of social engineering in the state but may also have implications beyond the state’s borders.

Aakash Mehrotra is a researcher, writer, blogger and observer of contemporary politics. His debut novel, The Other Guy, is published by Juggernaut Books.

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