The BJP grapples for the crucial OBC vote in Bihar

17 April, 2019

The Bapu Sabhagar, a huge convention centre in Patna, was to host a two-day national convention of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s OBC cadre starting on 15 February. Thousands of party workers had gathered from across the country, all of them members of the BJP’s OBC Morcha—a party cell created in 2015 to organise and woo the Other Backward Classes, which many analysts concluded had been crucial to the BJP’s resounding victory in the general election the preceding year.

On the morning of the first day, participants gathered at a conference hall next to the Sabhagar. Each was given a welcome kit, with a jute bag, a notebook and pen, and a scarf printed with the party’s symbol—a lotus. Also included were brochures describing the efforts made specifically for the OBCs by the BJP-led central government, under Narendra Modi. But the gathering never really got going. By lunch, the participants were strolling aimlessly around the premises. The day before, over 40 paramilitary soldiers had been killed in a militant attack in Kashmir, and the country’s attention was fixated there. No one knew if Rajnath Singh, the home minister, would still be coming to inaugurate the event as planned. By 3 pm, the Morcha’s leaders gathered in the Sabhagar. Bhupendra Yadav, a member of the Rajya Sabha and the man put in charge of the BJP’s campaign in Bihar for the looming general election, announced that, in light of the events in Kashmir, the convention was being called off.

But the gathering was hardly a waste. A television journalist covering the BJP office in Patna told me that, just by organising the convention, the party had shown that it was paying serious attention to the OBCs. “Jo message tha sangthan ka, wo toh chala gaya” he told me—The intended message has already gone out.

The results of the socio-economic and caste census of 2011, the first attempt to tally the sizes of India’s castes in eighty years, are yet to be released in full. By most educated estimates, however, OBCs constitute around fifty percent of Bihar’s population today, and Muslims, the Scheduled Castes and the upper castes each account for something in the vicinity of fifteen percent each. To have any chance of electoral success in the state, political parties and coalitions must secure a substantial share of the OBC vote, and bolster it with support from some other, non-OBC electorates. Bihar’s OBCs comprise numerous caste groups, the largest of which include the Yadavs, Nishads, Kurmis and Koeris. Yadavs, who are thought to form around 15 percent of the state population, traditionally favour the Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav. Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s current chief minister and the leader of the Janata Dal (United), has a large base among non-Yadav OBCs, including his own Kurmi caste, as does the Rashtriya Loktantrik Samata Party leader Upendra Kushwaha, who has particular appeal among his Koeri caste. The BJP is said to have consolidated support among the Nishads since 2014—thought to form at least ten percent of the population, and so the largest caste group among the state’s Extremely Backward Classes, a sub-category of the OBCs.

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP won 22 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats, and its allies won another nine. This success owed in part to strong support among non-Yadav OBCs—including from the Nishads backing the BJP, and other OBC castes backing Kushawaha’s RLSP, a partner of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. This time around, the BJP is hoping for continued Nishad support, but the advantage to the NDA from the RLSP’s OBC backers will likely be diluted. The RLSP quit the NDA late last year, and is now with the opposition alliance, which includes the Congress and the RJD. (Several prominent RLSP leaders, however, have declared that they will remain with the NDA.)

The NDA can hope to make up some lost OBC numbers through the JD(U). Nitish Kumar’s party contested independently in 2014, and was trounced, but the following year it won power in the state, in alliance with the RJD. The advantage in the OBC vote was believed to have shifted firmly in favour of the JD(U)-RJD combine. But the JD(U) later ditched the RJD, and now rules Bihar in alliance with the BJP. That arrangement survives.

This leaves the BJP relying significantly for its own support on the Nishads and some of their fellow EBCs, as well as on the upper castes, which have long formed a reliable BJP vote bank. The party is also courting a section of the Scheduled Castes to diversify its appeal—and the Lok Janashakti Party, a constituent of the NDA headed by Ram Vilas Paswan, is expected to deliver support for the BJP-led alliance from the Paswans, believed to account for a third of Bihar’s Scheduled Caste population—but the partyhas historically found limited favour among this demographic. The BJP’s most notable play to diversify its appeal in Bihar is its effort to win more OBC votes—in part by breaking the RJD’s hold over the Yadavs.

At a press conference on the day before the convention, Dara Singh Chauhan, the national head of the OBC Morcha and a minister in the Uttar Pradesh cabinet, said that the convention would inform party workers about all that had been done for the OBCs under BJP rule, so they could go spread the news in their home constituencies in time for the general election. The brochures distributed at the event described nine “landmark decisions taken by the Modi government for the welfare of OBCs.” The first was to pass a constitutional amendment to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes—qualifying the body to hear and act on grievances related to the rights of OBCs, with powers equal to those of a magistrate court. Next was the constitution of a judicial commission to carve out, by May 2019, special quotas for the Extremely Backward Classes within the share of positions in central public employment and education already reserved for the OBCs. Other decisions included raising the income ceiling above which OBC families no longer qualified for reservations, from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 8 lakh per annum, and starting a scheme that gives OBCs, among other disadvantaged groups, access to entrepreneurial credit.

From what I saw and heard, however, these were not the things motivating the party’s OBC faithful. Outside the Sabhagar, I spoke to Dilip Bharati, a 35-year-old party worker from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district. He told me that he hoped Modi, if he returned to power, would increase the percentage of seats reserved for the OBCs in institutions under the central government, from the present 27 percent to a full 50 percent. This, though, is the main campaign promise of the RJD, and does not figure on the BJP’s programme. I had asked Chauhan at the press conference if there would be any discussion at the convention about raising OBC quotas, but he replied only that “all issues related to OBCs will be discussed in detail.” Bharati also hoped that Modi would reveal the country’s current OBC population as counted in the 2011 census. (OBCs made up 27 percent of the population at the time of the 1931 census—the last one to report caste before the 2011 socio-economic and census.)

Bharati, though, said he wouldn’t be bothered even if Modi did not expand OBC reservations in near future. He voted for the BJP, he explained, because he felt Modi was hard on terrorism and displayed strong leadership. He said that “there is something special” about Modi, and that, “at this time of ours, if somebody else comes to power then the country will decline.” After a pause, he added, “Ye jo thoda tight hai, sarkar tight hai ye”—this man Modi is a bit strict, and the government is strict too.

Satyendra Pal Singh, another participant and the OBC Morcha’s president for Gaya district, also said that he voted for the BJP because he felt Modi did “good for the country” and showed strong leadership. Singh didn’t much care whether Modi increased OBC quotas either.

My questions to party leaders and workers from other states drew similar responses about why they aligned with BJP. The answers revolved around Modi being a strong leader, a proud nationalist, a Hindu guardian, someone who raised the nation’s prestige at international platforms—all part of the manicured image of the prime minister projected by the pliable mainstream media. If the OBC party workers had local grievances or demands they wanted addressed, or were aware of fundamental OBC problems such as the lack of jobs and educational opportunities, they did not say it.

A couple of weeks later, in early March, Modi addressed a rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. He did not bring up any of the touted achievement for OBCs—not even the constitutional status of the NCBC—and did not say a word about increasing OBC quotas. He did, however, tell the gathering that his government had been the first to think about the poor among the upper castes, and had given them ten-percent reservation in central institutions, without cutting into existing reservation quotas for other communities. In February, Bihar’s legislative assembly passed a bill to create similar reservation in institutions under the state government. This, many believed, was a way to placate the BJP’s key dominant-caste constituency, angry with the central government for recently restoring the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

A few days after Modi’s rally, the BJP held another OBC gathering in Patna—this time at a smaller venue—to felicitate the NCBC’s chairperson, Bhagwan Lal Sahni. Appointed just the week before, Bhagwan Lal was a very deliberate choice for the post. He is a stalwart of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the BJP’s ideological overseer—and a Nishad, hailing from a community traditionally linked to fishing. The Nishads, an agglomeration of some 20 castes, mostly reside along and draw a living from the Ganga, which slices across the middle of Bihar from west to east. Sushil Modi, the BJP leader and Bihar’s deputy chief minister, announced at the event that his government had a number of plans to benefit the fishing community—including one to build them a thousand new homes. He added that the BJP had helped elevate several Nishad leaders to key positions, including in parliament and the state assembly. Among others, he named the late Jai Narain Prasad Nishad, who had terms in both houses of parliament, and his son Ajay Nishad, the current Lok Sabha representative for Muzzafarpur. What Modi did not say was that the BJP had had Jai Narain disqualified from the Rajya Sabha in 2008 under the anti-defection law, for switching parties.

Whatever incentives the BJP might offer the Nishads, its grip over them is likely to be challenged. The Nishads’ strong support for the party in 2014 had much to do with Mukesh Sahni, a young leader who campaigned to unite his community’s vote and throw it behind the BJP. But Mukesh later made known his disappointment with the party—particularly for not acting on his demand that the Nishad castes be added to the lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, giving them access to SC/ST reservations—and has now severed ties with it completely. Late last year, he announced that his own political outfit, the Vikasheel Insaan Party, was joining the opposition alliance for the 2019 election, after agreeing a deal with the RJD.

The BJP’s need for a wider OBC base, including among the Yadavs, became especially apparent after the 2015 state assembly elections. With the JD(U) and RJD, each with strong OBC backing, allied against it, the party was very soundly beaten. It had probably seen it coming: the OBC Morcha was established soon after the JD(U)-RJD alliance was announced in the months before the election, when it became clear that the BJP needed a new strategy to gather OBC numbers on its side now that it could no longer depend on them coming via the JD(U), earlier its partner in Bihar for a decade.

Besides the work of the Morcha, the BJP’s effort to diversify its OBC appeal has also involved strategic promotions of OBC leaders within party ranks. In 2016, it appointed Nityanand Rai, a Yadav leader representing Ujiarpur in the Lok Sabha, as its president for Bihar. This was done at the orders of the BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, despite reported anger among the party’s upper-caste state leaders. Rai was the first OBC in over a decade to hold the post, following a string of upper-caste state presidents, and oversaw a sharp rise in the number of OBC and EBC figures in the Bihar leadership. Last July, the state unit appointed four new vice-presidents: Samrat Choudhary, a Koeri; Anil Verma, a Kurmi; Nitish Mishra, a Brahmin; and Putul Singh, a Rajput.

After Upendra Kushwaha took the RLSP out of the NDA last year, Choudhary has been projected as an alternative to Kushwaha in an attempt to fragment the Koeri vote. Last August, at a public function in Patna, Kushwaha hinted at an alliance with the Yadav-dominated RJD when he said, “If Yadavs’ milk is mixed with Kushwahas’ rice, it will make a good kheer.” The quip relied on Yadavs’ traditional association with raising cattle, and Koeris’ with cultivation. The same month, Choudhary remarked that the kheer would taste spoilt if it were sprinkled with lantern kerosene. The RJD’s election symbol is a lantern.

The BJP’s strong showing in Bihar in the last general election was partly the result of its alliance with Kushwaha’s RLSP. This time, with that pillar of support gone, it has been careful to strengthen its present partnership with the JD(U). Under the seat-sharing agreement between the two parties, the BJP has conceded several constituencies where it was earlier competitive. Though it won 22 seats in 2014, this year it will contest only 17. The JD(U), which won only two seats the last time around, is also now contesting 17 for the ruling alliance. The remaining six of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats will be contested by the third partner in the alliance, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party.

The BJP’s concession to the JD(U) also has to do with its acknowledgement that it lacks any figure who can serve as the face of its campaign among all communities in the state. “Nitish Kumar is the only face to project as the chief minister, and the BJP acknowledges that it doesn’t have one,” a senior political reporter told me.

The BJP has put forward OBC nominees for five of the 17 seats it is contesting itself—three Yadavs, and two leaders from the EBCs. The rest have gone to upper-caste nominees—five Rajputs, two Brahmins, two Vaishyas, one Kayastha and one Bhumihar—except for one seat, in Gaya, reserved for a Scheduled Caste candidate. The predominance of upper-caste candidate is not unusual for the party, but even so there has been a marked shift. There are more Yadav than Brahmin candidates on the BJP’s roster, for instance, and the Bhumihars, a large and loyal BJP constituency, have only one candidate from their fold. The OBCs have as much representation as Rajputs. This mix, too, is a sign of the evolution of the BJP’s strategy in Bihar, and a sign that the OBCs will be central to the party’s electoral fate, whatever that may be when the votes are counted.