How the BJP is courting the Rajput vote in Bihar

The BJP is trying to woo the Rajput community in Bihar ahead of the state elections. Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
26 October, 2020

On 22 September, the prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted a letter by Harivansh Narayan Singh, the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, to Ram Nath Kovind, the president of India. Modi urged all Indians to read Harivansh’s letter. In the letter, Harivansh expressed anguish that Members of Parliament tried to intimidate him by flinging the house rule book at him. The incident he was referring to was the uproar in the upper house against two contentious farm bills that were passed by voice vote on 20 September.

Harivansh is a Rajya Sabha MP of the Janata Dal (United), and represents Bihar. The JD(U) is an ally of the BJP in Bihar’s ruling coalition and at the centre. Harivansh was previously a journalist and has worked with the Times of India group, the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, the Hindi weekly Ravivar and as chief editor of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar. More significantly, Singh is from the Rajput community—an upper caste based predominantly in north India. 

The incident in the Rajya Sabha and Harivansh’s letter quickly gained traction among BJP’s leaders from Bihar. “Harivanshji is respected in Bihar and all over the country,” Sushil Modi, a BJP leader and Bihar’s deputy chief minister, said. “The uncalled for incident which occurred with him in parliament yesterday has hurt the people and pride of Bihar. The people of Bihar will give a befitting reply to the opposition.” BJP Bihar president Sanjay Jaiswal also posted Harivansh’s letter on twitter and urged people to read it. 

The day after the uproar in the Rajya Sabha, eight MP’s, who were suspended for their conduct during the voice vote, protested against their suspension and the farm bills by camping out on the laws on the Parliament. The next day, Harivansh went to the lawns carrying tea for the suspended MP’s. While they refused to accept the tea, Modi tweeted about Harivansh’s gesture invoking Bihar. “For centuries, the great land of Bihar has been teaching us the values of democracy,” he said in a tweet. “In line with that wonderful ethos, MP from Bihar and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Shri Harivansh Ji’s inspiring and statesman like conduct this morning will make every democracy lover proud.” In a second tweet, Modi continued, “To personally serve tea to those who attacked and insulted him a few days ago as well as those sitting on Dharna shows that Shri Harivansh Ji has been blessed with a humble mind and a big heart.” The BJP’s vocal support for Singh is one example of how the party is trying to woo the Rajput community in Bihar ahead of the state elections.

Another example is a controversy over letters that the JD(U) and BJP claimed were written by Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, one of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal’s senior most Rajput leaders, shortly before he died on 13 September. At the time, Raghuvansh was undergoing treatment at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, in Delhi. A few days before Raghuvansh’s death, a letter surfaced in the media, which Prasad purportedly wrote to RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav on 10 September. “I have stood behind you for 32 years … no longer. Pardon me.” More letters surfaced, in which he wrote to Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister about carrying forward specific development projects.

The RJD has cast doubts on the authenticity of these letters, and questioned how Raghuvansh could write them while he was seriously ill. However, as reported in The Wire, the JD(U) and BJP interpreted these letters as Prasad’s resignation from the RJD and a sign that the party had neglected him. Modi paid tribute to Raghuvansh in a tweet, and urged Kumar to fulfil Raghuvansh’s wishes by executing the development projects Raghuvansh wrote about in his letter. In trying to court the Rajput vote, the JD(U) and BJP attempted to project Raghuvansh’s letters as a sign of his unhappiness with the RJD before he passed away.

The BJP has also aggressively been at the forefront of an online and offline campaign that claims to seek “justice” for Sushant Singh Rajput, a Hindi-film actor from Bihar, who died by suicide in June. The party printed 30,000 posters and an equal number of masks with a photo of the actor and the message “Na bhoole hain, na bhoolne denge”—We haven’t forgotten, nor will we let anyone forget. A common thread in all these three cases is the attempt by the Hindu-nationalist party to portray itself as a defender of Rajputs and their pride.

“Rajputs are an influential caste in Bihar and the BJP wants to consolidate its hold over the community,” a Bihar-based Rajput politician told me on condition of anonymity. “Harivansh is from the Rajput community, and so are Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Sushant Singh Rajput.” He added, “Bihari Rajputs are a community for whom pride matters a lot. Whether it is projecting Sushant as a son of the soil, or the shabby treatment of Harivansh, the BJP is projecting itself as the upholder of Rajput pride.”

The key to understanding the BJP’s aggressive courting of Rajputs lies in the adversarial relations between the Bhumihars and the Rajputs, the two dominant upper-caste communities in Bihar. The Bhumihars, a land-owning community, are traditional BJP voters. The Rajput vote, on the other hand, is splintered, with a chunk of it loyal to Lalu Prasad Yadav. The community’s importance to the BJP can be gauged by the fact that in the 2019 general elections, the BJP and its allies fielded eight Rajputs among 40 candidates in Bihar, the largest number of tickets any single community garnered. Five of the BJPs 17 MP’s from Bihar are from the Rajput community—Radha Mohan Singh representing East Champaran, RK Singh from the Ara constituency, Rajiv Pratap Rudy from Chapra, Sushil Singh from Aurangabad and Janardhan Sigriwal from Maharajgunj. 

“Bhumihars, Brahmins and Kayasths are with the BJP, however Rajputs are not completely with the party because among the upper castes, they were the only community who voted for Lalu Prasad Yadav,” Rakesh Ranjan, who teaches political science at Patna University, said. Ranjan is also the Bihar coordinator for the Lokniti Network, a research arm of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a social science research institute. “All these moves are an indication that the party wants to win the sympathy of the Rajput community. With the passing of Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the RJD could lose this votebank and the BJP is positioning itself as a beneficiary of this drift.” He estimated that Rajputs constitute around six percent of Bihar’s population.

 “Rajputs are not numerically significant,” Prabhakar Kumar, senior editor of News18 Bihar-Jharkand, a regional television channel, told me. However, he explained, “Upper-caste votes are not to be viewed numerically, they are more like influencers. If there are 200 Rajputs in a village, they will bring in an additional 400 votes, because they have that kind of influence, most of them are land owning families and they have people working under them”. He noted that Rajput votes have traditionally been divided between the BJP-JD(U) combine and the RJD, and continued, “In fact, Lalu Prasad Yadav would field many Rajput candidates, much more than NDA.” In the 2009 parliamentary elections, three Rajput candidates from the RJD became MPs—Raghuvansh from Vaishali, Jagadanand Singh from Buxar and Uma Shankar Singh from Maharajganj.

I asked Prabhakar what narratives were driving the election agenda in Bihar. “When the election buzz started we thought that coronavirus would be a key issue,” he said. “Then we thought migrant labour would be the issue. But interestingly now, in election mode, nobody is talking about it.” He added, “Sushant became a matter of Bihari pride and even non-Rajputs became attached to the idea of justice for SSR. It wasn’t caste specific, but became a pan-Bihar issue.” 

A recent report titled “Anatomy of a rumour: Social media and the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput” by a team of researchers led by Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor of information and communications technology at the University of Michigan, sheds light on how prime time coverage and the social media frenzy around the Sushant Singh Rajput case has shaped the public narrative. A key finding is that politicians were instrumental in changing the course of the discourse by referring to the case as “murder” rather than a “suicide.”

The report analysed 103,125 tweets by 7,818 politicians between June-September and found that the use of hashtags by politicians shows a “systematic targeting of the Shiv Sena,” the ruling party in Maharashtra, with hashtags such as #ShameOnMahaGovt and #UddhavResignOrCBI4SSR, referring to Uddhav Thackeray, the Maharashtra chief minister. It added, “This shows that the hashtag usage by politicians is dominated by those inimical to the present Maharashtra government, largely the BJP”.

Ravi Tiwari, a BJP member, originally from Bihar, has been actively tweeting on Sushant’s death. Tiwari was formerly a national executive member of the BJP’s communication cell. When I spoke to him, he insisted that Sushant was murdered, refusing to entertain the possibility of suicide. In early October, a six-member medical team at AIIMS had ruled out murder. “The day Sushant Singh Rajput died, I started tweeting that this is a murder,” Tiwari told me. “This gained traction and within ten days 10,000 people joined. We started a social media campaign on Twitter and Telegram.”

I asked Tiwari why Sushant’s death was such an important issue for him. “Aspiring young men from small towns who go to Bollywood have to face a lot of problems, we are fighting for these people,” he said. “Their story is just like Narendra Modi’s.”

Prabhakar pointed out that the issue of Sushant’s death still trends on social media. “Both the ruling and opposition coalitions in Bihar try and make the right noises to appeal to the youth vote,” he said. “Right now, Nitish Kumar’s campaign is about ‘My 15 years vs Lalu’s 15 years.’ But the first time voter, a big chunk, has no memory of Lalu’s regime. Sushant Singh Rajput appeals to the aspirational youth, hence political parties are playing up the issue.” 


Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.