Bihar's Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?

25/10/2015 5:58 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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An Indian voter leaves after casting her ballot in the village of Banbira in Samstipur district on October 12, 2015. The first of five phases of voting in the state assembly elections in Bihar, one of India's largest and poorest states, begins on October 12. AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

First they said they have an OBC-EBC strategy. Then they gave away a large number of tickets to upper castes. The they said their chief minister will be from amongst the backward castes. Now Amit Shah says it could be from upper castes or backwards, we’ll decide after the elections.

The BJP’s shifting, confused, botched up caste strategy in Bihar can best be described with the Hindi proverb, Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka. By now the party finds itself between a rock and a hard place, sending mixed signals and confusing all voters.

In an interview to Dainik Bhaskar newspaper on Saturday, BJP chief Amit Shah said that the party’s parliamentary board will decide after the elections who the chief minister will be. He said that unlike the Nitish-led Grand Alliance, the BJP had no dearth of chief ministerial worthies. “Chunav baad taye ho ga CM agda ya pichda,” Bhaskar said in the headline.

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Until September, the party’s strategy didn’t seem so confused. In August, a number of media reports had outlined Amit Shah’s strategy in Bihar. All such reports highlighted how the Bharatiya Janata Party was attempting to stitching a grand social alliance of upper castes and Mahadalits with the Extreme Backward Classes, the EBCs, and even wooing Yadavs.

In September, this strategy was not reflected in the BJP’s ticket distribution. Of the 160 seats it is contesting, it announced tickets candidates for 153 of them by 20 September. It was clear in the names announced by then that a bulk of the tickets were going to the upper castes, way beyond their 13% population. This was the beginning of the end of the BJP’s idea of creating a broad-based coalition to win Bihar.

If backward caste voters had any doubt that the BJP was going back to its identity of an upper caste party, Mohan Bhagwat laid such ambiguity to rest. On 21 September, news broke that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had called for a review of reservations in an interview in Oragniser, the RSS mouthpiece.

It was immediately clear that the ticket distribution and Mohan Bhagwat’s statement were together used by the Nitish-Lalu Grand Alliance to make “backward vs forward” the key point of polarization in the election. Lalu Yadav said as much openly on 27 September, for which the BJP took him to the Election Commission.

The next day, Union minister Giriraj Singh, himself from the upper caste Bhumihar community, declared that the BJP would not make an upper caste person the chief minister of Bihar. He had first said this in July, but now it gained a new urgency. In response to a question, finance minister Arun Jaitley endorsed the view.

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However, ​former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, himself with chief ministerial ambitions, told the Indian Express on 5 October that these were personal opinions of some party leaders, and ultimately the BJP parliamentary board will decide who the chief minister will be, should the NDA win the election. “Any Bihari will be CM,” he said.

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On 12 October, the first day of voting, party leader Shahnawaz Hussain unilaterally announced that the party’s EBC leader Prem Singh will be chief minister.

Now, after two phases, the party’s national president Amit Shah has added to the confusion by saying that forward or backward, the parliamentary board will decide. In political circles, this statement is being interpreted by some as a way of stopping upper castes from voting for the Grand Alliance.

The BJP’s inability to decide the caste of their future chief minister, leave alone his name, is only a symptom of how its grand strategy of wooing all castes has gone awry. After the first two phases, it has stopped pretending that it is interested in wooing the Yadav vote, and is now trying to make it Yadavs vs EBCs and Dalits. But perhaps this has come too late in the day.

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While the BJP accuses the Grand Alliance of caste politics, Sushil Modi has said that Narendra Modi is India’s first EBC chief minister. (His caste, Teli, is in the EBC category in Bihar.) This is a correction over his earlier statement that Mr Modi was India’s first OBC prime minister. Nitish Kumar had responded by saying that that title goes to HD Deve Gowda.

READ: Why Red And Yellow Are Nitish-Lalu's Colours This Bihar Election

The BJP in Bihar has tied itself up in knots with its caste strategy. The root of it all lies in the NDA giving 90 odd tickets to upper castes – that is, around 37% tickets to a community whose population is 13%. This created a threat of upper caste ruled for the OBCs and EBCs, uniting them in favour of the Grand Alliance.

The BJP defends its ticket distribution by saying that the upper castes are their core vote-bank, but in saving the core-votebank it seems to be losing out on retaining the EBCs and OBCs who had voted for it in large numbers in 2014.

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