PATNA -- The morning after Lalu Yadav made his infamous beef gaffe, we left Patna for Darbhanga in north Bihar.
We took a detour, going through the state highways and the inner roads, via Vaishali and Muzaffarpur. At the end of our journey, we met a daily wager in a Darbhanga village, Koeri by caste, whose first thoughts on the election were: “Lalu says Hindus eat cow meat.”
The man has access to neither Twitter nor TV, but the speed with which the beef discourse reached him was a lesson in mass communication circa 2015. It was equally an indication that beef was going to become central to the discourse of this election.
Yet, at the end of a five hours long journey where we stopped every few minutes to speak to people, it was only the first time we heard beef. Until we reached Darbhanga, we were learning another lesson in mass communication. We were seeing a silent form of communication, one that we don’t get to hear, because it is not shouting in our ears.
Modi wave in Lahore
If you stop in a village square or a rural market, a dhaba or the tehsil headquarters, you don’t have to try hard to know who’s winning the votes here. They say it upfront: we are kamal chaap, the lotus is winning, there’s a NaMo wave. They will count all the reasons why Nitish-Lalu are losing. Ask their caste, and they will say Rajput. Bhumihar. Brahmin. All upper castes, known to be supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in Bihar and beyond.
Sometimes they know what you are trying to do, and won’t tell you their caste. “We don’t care about caste,” they’ll tell you, a privilege enjoyed only by beneficiaries of a caste society. The swagger with which they walk and talk, it’s not hard to tell they are “Forwards”.
They count the usual reasons to not vote Nitish-Lalu: There will be jungle raj, there is 25 years of anti-incumbency against them, people are moving from caste to development, and so on.
Modi is so popular, a Rajput in a rural market in Vaishali told us, that there is a Modi wave even in Pakistan! Even in Lahore they want Modi, he proclaimed with a straight face.
The Goldsmith of Bojhaa
Change tack. Stop at quieter places. Turn the car into a small opening into a village and reach a “Backward” basti. There will be three people huddled under a tree, two men on bicycles, a woman tending to her children. In such a place, people are often hesitant to open up.
Here’s an example. In Bojhaa village in Muzaffarpur, we meet a man whose caste is Sonar (goldsmith). What he actually does for a living is to repair cooking stoves. He’s among the Backwards who are considered the floating, swing vote this election. He tells us he’s voting for Nitish Kumar, he’s always voted for Nitish Kumar, it’s a matter of principle for him. However, he adds, he’s the only one among 70-80 Sonars in his village who are voting for the BJP. Why are you differing from them, we ask. “Voting Nitish is a matter of principle for me,” he repeats. Your fellow Sonars who are voting for the BJP, what are their reasons to do so? “Just, NaMo NaMo.” By this time his elder brother arrives. We ask him, and he too says Nitish. We ask the junior Sonar, didn’t you just say you were the only Sonar voting Nitish?
“To be honest,” he says sheepishly, “since you arrived in a car I thought you must be BJP people. All backwards in my village are voting Nitish, not just the Sonars.”
Then he counts the usual things you hear from people voting for the Grand Alliance: Nitish built roads, gave us electricity and improved law and order.
On this journey, and on the journey back to Patna via Samastipur, we met a few of those listed as the Extremely Backward Classes who said they’d likely vote for the BJP. They were either unhappy with Nitish joining hands with Lalu, whose Yadav base they fear more than the Brahmin-Bhumihar-Rajputs of the BJP. We met a Yadav or two who planned to vote for the Modi-led alliance, because their religious guru says so or because they have become the BJP’s admirers as migrant factory workers in Gujarat. Yet by and large, the EBCs and the Yadavs tell you this election is becoming “agda-pichda-agda-pichda” – backward-forward, the Backwards vs. the Forwards.
You also hear from them praises of Nitish Kumar. Amongst the top reasons are roads, electricity and law and order. You also hear, especially from the poorer of them, growing disenchantment with the Modi government. They claim the Modi government has nearly halted the Indira Awas Yojana, the scheme to subsidise pucca houses for the rural poor. Food prices keep increasing and money isn’t dropping into our Jan Dhan accounts.
In Pokharaira village in Muzaffarpur, we stop to chat with a group of men sitting around a pan shop. On the bench is a copy of the day’s Dainik Jagran, beef occupying a good portion of the front page. They are from different backward communities. What’s happening in the election, we ask them. They also give us the by now familiar reasons for supporting Nitish Kumar. Even the Yadavs, supporters of Nitish’s bête noire-turned-brother Lalu, agree Nitish is the best chief minister. There is no leader in Bihar to match him, and Modi won’t be chief minister.
More importantly, they say, “Agda-pichda,” Forward-Backward. One Yadav says RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement calling for a review of reservations has been a wake up call for Backwards.
BJP leaders have already clarified that they won’t make an upper caste person the chief minister, why do you still say a BJP government will be Forward rule, we ask them. “How do we know?” a Yadav asks, “If most of the BJP’s winning MLAs are upper caste, do you think they will listen to Modi on this question?
He reveals that he is a worker of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party. He says if there was a Lok Sabha election today, Modi would win again. Despite being a worker of Lalu’s party, he says he himself voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections. Most Backwards say they voted Modi in 2014 to get rid of an unbearable UPA-2, but this one had a different reason. He was upset with the local RJD leader, who happened to be Rajput. “You see, a Rajput in power gives jobs and opportunities only to Rajputs. That is why this election is agda-pichra, backward-forward. The BJP is telling people to fear Lalu’s jungle raj, he says, but we are more afraid of a Brahmin-Rajput-Bhumihar raj.”
An American in Bihar
One of the men in Pokharaira belongs to the Tatwa Tanti community, weavers by caste profession, who were moved from the Backward to the Scheduled Castes category a few years ago. He is a school teacher, and says the Grand Alliance will win because of caste-based voting. I take him aside and he opens up further. “Backward-forward it is,” he says, “but vikas (development) is also an issue,” he says. If he were to vote on development and not caste, who would he vote for? “The BJP,” he says.
Exceptions like him confuse us. We are not sure whether there is really a Backward consolidation--that is, are the EBCs really enthused about voting with the Yadavs for the Grand Alliance? After two terms of Nitish Kumar, are they still enthused about him as a man who brings development and progress to the village? Or are they buying the BJP’s appeal for Parivartan, change? Are they more moved by the idea that they will get the best of the development pie if the state and central governments are ruled by the same party?
The BJP is trying to use beef to prevent a Backward consolidation, and the Grand Alliance is stoking the fear of a Forward raj to prevent the BJP from winning backward votes. Who’s winning the perception war, and who’s taking the larger chunk of the EBC vote?
The pan wala in Pokharaira was enjoying all the political talk from a distance. As we buy cigarettes from him, he tells us why it’s so difficult to tell this election yet. It’s because everyone in Bihar is a neta. He illustrates his sociological insight with an apocryphal story. Once an American arrived in these parts, and suddenly felt severe pain in his legs. Everyone came forward to help him, each one giving him a different solution. Nobody told him there was a doctor’s clinic next door.
On our return to Patna via Samastipur, we seek out people from EBC communities. One after another, we hear Nitish. Women refer to the benefits their children get in schools. One man who is initially reluctant to speak up, refers to Nitish’s party symbol, the arrow, with a hand gesture. An old Brahmin man stops us somewhere and betrays his anxiety, “Lalu says backward-forward! Are forwards fools? Don’t we matter?”
Such travelling is not a ‘scientific’ data-driven way of perceiving election trends. Yet, for what it’s worth, we felt the Grand Alliance has the edge.