NEW DELHI -- With three phases of voting left to go in the Bihar election, political parties are pulling out all the stops to woo the various permutations and abbreviations of "backward castes."
Spearheading an aggressive campaign since the summer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seamlessly transitioned from national leader to politician for every Bharatiya Janata Party rally in a battle which will shape destinies and seal fates. But the one ploy that Modi kept in reserve was reminding the electorate that he too belongs to the "Extremely Backward Caste" category.
Modi wears two hats: one as the nation's supreme leader and the other that of BJP's tallest leader. When one is prime minster, the need to balance both roles is critical. But with the election being seen as neck and neck, Modi seems to have been forced to embrace the rock bottom of caste-communal politics in Bihar.
In speeches ahead of voting day on October 28, Modi, who belongs to the community of oil-pressers - Ghanchi-Teli, has evoked his "extremely backward family" to win over the voters from the EBC category, who constitute 24 percent of electorate.
BJP leaders in the state have evoked Modi's caste to impress voters, but not often. They did use it liberally during 2014 Lok Sabha Election. When Modi talks about his humble beginnings as the son of a tea seller, he does it without bringing up caste. And so for the prime minister to do so now, observers say, is a desperate measure.
This is the first time that Modi has pointedly evoked his caste in a state election, according to Badri Narayan, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, who said that the strategy is unbecoming for the prime minister even while wearing a political hat.
"He is desperate, but he should not do it," said Narayan. "No prime minister should bring up caste. The prime minister belongs to everyone, represents everyone."
In the wake of the damage done by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, who said that it was time to reassess reservations, Modi has been forced to do damage control by evoking caste.
At a rally in Nalanda on Sunday, Modi described himself as the "son of tea seller, who was born into an extremely backward family."
At a rally in Buxar on Monday, Modi said, "I understand the pain of being born in an extremely backward family."
He also said that the Grand Alliance, comprising Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the Congress Party, are scheming to take away five percent of the quota from Dalits, Mahadalits, Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and EBCs, and give it away to a minority community (He did not say Muslims, but it was evident which community was implied).
Earlier this year, the Teli caste in Bihar was moved from the OBC category to the EBC. While the Lalu-Nitish alliance have their hands on the till of OBC votes, the BJP is investing time and energy to win over EBCs, who favoured the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha Election. But they are widely regarded as a fragmented bunch, susceptible to be blown in the direction of the strongest wind.
While both sides maintain that this election is about "development," political analysts say that victory or defeat boils down to caste calculations in a state like Bihar.
Narayan, an expert on caste, said that Modi has been forced to talk about his own caste because the BJP's original strategy of cracking the Nitish-Lalu alliance failed to work.
"He wanted to reinterpret the Yaduvanshi vote, but that didn't happen," he said. "This is the last capital, his last weapon, the bacha hua dhan, which he needs to take out in an emergency."
Modi's remarks in Bihar, which reflect an unfortunate tradition of exploiting caste for votes, also calls into question whether his declarations about unity and diversity, which he makes in his capacity as the nation's leader, is rhetoric.
"The mantra of unity should always be the medium of our thinking, our behaviour and expression," Modi said in his monthly radio programme 'Mann Ki Baat,' over the weekend. "India is full of diversity. It has different sects, different religions, different languages and different castes. There are so many diversities in our India and this diversity is our beauty."
Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Mumbai-based Observer Research Foundation, said that Modi doesn't wear his national leader hat, just one of a politician. "No prime minister before has campaigned so aggressively, addressed 200 rallies, for a state election," he said.
Misra pointed out that polarising remarks coming from a politician like Lalu Prasad Yadav, who neither occupies nor qualifies for a chair, doesn't import the same legitimacy to such tactics. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, he pointed out, has refrained from overtly brandishing his caste identity.
"I feel very awkward that my prime minister is talking like this. It is very unbecoming of a prime minister" he said.
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