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.)