Bite Soldier

Inside story of how Amit Shah's redrawing Bihar's caste map

He knows that another Assembly poll defeat after the one in Delhi could imperil his plans to get re-elected as party president.

 |  Bite Soldier  |  14-minute read |   17-07-2015
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Two hundred and fifty one years ago, three beleaguered rulers came together to fight the English East India Company. The outcome of that historic battle, fought at Buxar on the banks of the Ganga, in 1764, changed the destiny of India. The 40,000-strong Indian army was drawn from three princely states, whose rulers were Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal; Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Awadh, and the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, Shah Alam II. The English, led by Major Hector Munro, had an army that was only 10,000-strong.

The Mughal army was four times the size of their English opponents, but their generals and soldiers were poorly coordinated. Lack of trust and one-upmanship was rife. Munro exploited the internal differences amongst the Indians to land a debilitating blow to the Mughals. The victory of the East India Company in Buxar decisively established the British as the pre-eminent power in India, a state of affairs that would take two centuries of bitter struggle to alter.

Sitting in the drawing room of his 11 Akbar Road residence in New Delhi, with the air conditioning on in full blast, BJP’s battle commander Amit Shah frequently refers to the Battle of Buxar while charting his party’s strategy for Bihar. The BJP president believes that the course of Indian politics over the next 15 years will be decided in the "Battle of Bihar" circa 2015.

Shah’s calculation is simple. If the wobbly secular alliance was to trounce the rampaging BJP army, the halo of invincibility built around Narendra Modi will crumble. His now-dispirited opponents will find a template they can hope to replicate in other states where elections are due over the next three years. However, if Modi’s army is able to withstand the three-pronged attack, it will shatter the confidence of the Janta alliance and show that the Modi wave is insurmountable even in the face of opposition unity.

Like Major Munro of the East India Company, Shah too realises that he is up against a numerically superior force. The combined vote share, after the 2014 general election, of the Janata Dal United [JD(U)], Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was 46 per cent while the aggregate vote share of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) combining the votes of the BJP, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) was 39 per cent. This means that the BJP rides into the Bihar polls with a seven per cent vote deficit. In a two-cornered fight in a caste-obsessed state like Bihar a seven per cent deficit can be difficult to surmount.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the NDA swept the Bihar polls, winning 31 out of the 40 seats in the state. The RJD-Congress-NCP alliance bagged seven and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) won only two. If this ratio was replicated in the Assembly elections, the NDA would be comfortably placed at 171 seats, while a fragmented opposition would have bagged only 68 in the 243-seat Assembly. But the scenario in Bihar’s battlefield changes completely once the opposition comes together under one umbrella. An extrapolation of the Lok Sabha trends on Assembly segments, done by Cicero for India Today, suggests that the NDA’s projected tally would crash from 171 seats to 86 while the Janata alliance's tally would surge to 148 seats with the RJD, JD(U), Congress and NCP fighting together, instead of the mere 68 leads that they would have managed separately.

The BJP realises that the only way to beat a united opposition is to split the caste alliance that the Janata coalition is hoping to forge through the coming together of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish and Rahul Gandhi. For the last ten years the numerically significant Yadav supporters of Lalu have been dislodged from the levers of power by the Kurmi and Koeri supporters of Nitish. While political compulsion has forced the chieftains to join hands, there is a lot of bad blood among the rival castes on the ground and this is the divide that the BJP hopes to exploit.

The last seven weeks have been bad for the BJP. The party that proudly proclaimed that there had been no scams in the first year of the Modi government has stumbled from one embarrassment to the next. It started with foreign minister Sushma Swaraj getting exposed for helping Lalit Modi get travel documents in the United Kingdom; and then emerged Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhra Raje’s questionable business dealings with the former Indian Premier League (IPL) czar. The Vyapam fire engulfing Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is only the latest embarrassment to tarnish the clean image of the Modi-fied BJP.

Shah knows that knives are out for him within and outside the BJP. Prime Minister Modi has firmly established himself as the first among unequals and his position at the top of the current BJP pantheon is unquestionable, at least for the time being. But Modi’s top commander is the one who is most vulnerable. Shah was able to craft, for himself, an image of the modern Chanakya after registering impressive victories in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha election and in the Assembly elections that followed in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and a better-than-ever-showing by the party in Jammu and Kashmir. But the embarrassing defeat of the BJP Goliath at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) David, in the Assembly polls in Delhi took some of the sheen off Shah’s impressive election record.

Shah survived the Delhi debacle, but he knows that another Assembly election defeat, this time in the crucial battlefield of Bihar, could imperil his plans to get re-elected as the BJP president. Shah is currently serving out the residual part of Rajnath Singh’s term as party president and elections for the party's top post are due in January, 2016. Shah knows that if he can lead the BJP to power when the Bihar polls are held sometime in September-October his re-election to the top job in the party would be a mere formality. However, if the BJP loses in Bihar, getting another term as the party president might not be all that certain.

Increasing murmurs are being heard within the BJP over Shah’s style of functioning. He has relegated seniors like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi to the wilderness of the Marg Darshak Mandal, which incidentally has not met even once since its inception. Shah has instead chosen to build a core team of rooted organisational workers, comprising old-time RSS swayamsevaks like him, who shun publicity and like to work from behind closed doors. His meetings exude the familiarity of an old boys RSS club and often stretch way past 1am in the night. Detractors in the party find Shah aloof and unapproachable. The president has strong likes and dislikes and many leaders have found it difficult to adjust to their boss’ demanding working style.

Shah knows the only way to counter his critics within the party and the opposition outside is to win the Bihar elections in style. He tells India Today that he has paid more attention to mapping the most micro details for this Bihar elections than in any poll before this. He says, "I have a plan for every block, panchayat and booth in the 243 Assembly seats of the state. For the last six months our panna pramukhs have been going door-to-door in each village and mobilising support for the party. In every village, we know which are the houses that are likely to support us, who is undecided and who is opposed to us."

Shah shows a detailed excel sheet which has a breakup of the caste composition of voters in every Assembly seat. Alongside every village name is a list of local and central leaders who are being sent to canvass there. Leaders are picked on the basis of their caste and their likely appeal among the dominant community in that constituency. Shah claims he has a plan for every seat for every day over the next two months. Every evening his office receives an update on the day’s activities and the response among the voters.

Shah’s backroom team has divided the seats in Bihar into three categories. The first are the seats where the BJP has traditionally dominated. Here the strategy is to spend minimal time and effort and to ensure that the morale of the cadre stays high and local leaders maintain a constant connection with the voters.

The second and most important category is of those seats that are likely to witness pitched battles. Here the NDA and the Janata alliance are equally strong going into the polls and the battle can go either way. Shah has rolled out a heavy bombardment of election resources and senior BJP leaders are being deputed on high frequency on these seats. Special emphasis is being given to candidate selection. Among the strategies being looked at by the NDA is to put up mostly non-Yadav candidates on Yadav-dominated seats where the RJD fields a strong Yadav candidate. Conversely, the party plans to put up Yadav candidates on Yadav-dominated seats which fall in the JD(U)’s quota and where Nitish may have put up a non-Yadav or Kurmi candidate. In a caste cauldron like Bihar the idea is to ensure that the BJP fields candidates whose caste unites voters opposed to the candidate put up by the Janata alliance.

The third category of seats is where the BJP has a little chance of winning. Here the party is working on a strategy to split the ranks of its opponents by propping up rebel candidates and by allying with frenemies like Pappu Yadav's Jan Adhikar Manch. Pappu Yadav is a former aide of Lalu and has over time built up a strong presence in the 37 seats of the Kosi-Seemanchal belt. Because of differences with Lalu, he has recently set up his own party and has been playing footsie with the BJP. While Shah cannot afford to ally publicly with the tainted Pappu Yadav, a behind-the-scenes alliance is very much on the cards, with the idea being to clandestinely support strong Yadav candidates of the Jan Adhikar Manch to eat into RJD’s vote share among the Yadavs. An enemy’s enemy is always a useful friend.

Shah feels that unlike the Lok Sabha election of 2014, religion is not going to play much of a role in the battlefield of Bihar. According to his calculation, religion comes into play only if the majority community feels that the minorities are being given preferential treatment and that their interests are being deliberately ignored. Because of the actions of the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, the majority community joined forces before the Lok Sabha election in the state. The polarisation that started in western Uttar Pradesh travelled eastwards along the Ganga and delivered a bumper harvest of seats for the BJP.

But in Bihar under Nitish’s rule there is no similar resentment among the majority community against the minorities. So religious polarisation, as an election strategy , is not going to yield results. The battle will be won or lost by the alliance that is able to stitch the more powerful caste combine. Broadly speaking, the BJP is assured of the support of the Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and other upper castes. The party is also hopeful of the strong backing of many of the middle castes like the Kayasths and the Baniyas. But taken together, these add up to only about 31 per cent of the voting population of Bihar. In a two-pronged contest, less than one-third the votes is hardly enough to be assured of a strong showing at the hustings.

The Janata alliance, on the other hand, is almost guaranteed the support of the numerically-significant Muslims who are estimated to be about 17 per cent of the voting population. Lalu is also banking on the support of a majority of his Yadav community who make up roughly 15 per cent of the state’s voters. Nitish is hoping that he will be able to add to the Janata alliance a majority of the Kurmi and Koeri vote bank, that taken together, adds up to about ten per cent of the total voters. The potential core vote bank of the Janata alliance is about 40 per cent.

The swing voters in Bihar will be the Dalits and the Mahadalits who constitute roughly 15 per cent of the voters. The multiple Mahadalit castes were given special treatment by Nitish through social and economic schemes and the Bihar chief minister is hoping that they will reward his effort with votes. The BJP, on the other hand, is hoping that with the help of Paswan and the newly-inducted Jitan Ram Manjhi, it will be able to wean away a large part of the Dalits and Mahadalits from under the Janata umbrella. The actual electoral pull of Manjhi will be a key factor in determining how the NDA performs at the hustings. As of now, his public meetings are being well received and he seems to have emerged as an icon for a large part of the Mahadalit community. The question is: can he turn that appeal into votes?

One of the other key area of focus for Shah is to chip away at the Yadav vote bank of the RJD. During the Lok Sabha election, CSDS post-poll data showed that almost 19 per cent of Bihar’s Yadavs voted for the BJP while almost two-thirds voted for the RJD. Prominent Yadav leaders like Ram Kirpal Yadav have been encouraged to defect from the RJD and given ministerial berths at the Centre to bolster the BJP’s appeal among the Yadavs. After the break up of the alliance with Nitish, another Yadav chieftain, Nand Kishore Yadav, was made the leader of the opposition in the Bihar Assembly.

Re-crafting Bihar’s caste calculus is an audacious strategy that is drawing a mixed response. Leading Patna-based political analyst Shaibal Gupta, founder member and secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, told India Today, "BJP’s strategy to consolidate and micro-manage backward castes in Bihar is absolutely unprecedented. This strategy will not only change the power configuration within the BJP but it will also build bridges with other power centres. In the new scheme of things Brahmins are being marginalised and persons from Other Backward Castes being brought into centrestage by the party."

The opposition, though, is far from impressed. Senior leader of the JD(U), Pavan Verma, hit out at the BJP for playing what he calls a blatantly casteist game before the polls. "The BJP claims that Modi’s appeal transcends caste politics but in reality it is the most casteist party in India. Before the Lok Sabha polls they suddenly projected Modi as an OBC face and entered into a completely opportunistic alliance with an ideological foe like Paswan. Now the BJP realises that the sheen of Modi is wearing off because they have not been able to deliver on their promises, so they are forced to play the caste card. What Nitish is doing instead is using the lure of development to appeal to people beyond caste."

The recently-concluded Bihar legislative council poll results, which were being touted as the semi-finals before the big Assembly polls later this year, show the NDA in front, but the gap is too narrow for comfort. Of the 24 legislative council seats the BJP won 12, its ally LJP won one, while the Janata alliance members won ten.

Rarely has the course of national politics been so dependent on the results of a state election. The time for strategising is drawing to a close and a battle royale is about to begin. Like in the Battle of Buxar, the numbers on paper may count for little once the battle begins.

Different castes (percentage) in Bihar

(Source: different media reports)

Muslims 14.7
Yadav 14.4
Mahadalit 15
Baniya 7.1
Koeri 6.4
Brahmin 5.7
Rajput 5.2
Kurmi 5
Bhumihar 4.7
Kayasth 1.5

 Castes with NDA

Brahmin 5.7
Rajput 5.2
Bhumihar 4.7
Kayasth 1.5
Baniya 7.1
Koeri 6.4

Castes with Secular Alliance

Muslims 14.7
Yadav 14.4
Kurmi 5

Castes NDA is eying for

Mahadalit 15
Yadav 14.4

Castes Secular Alliance is eying for

Mahadalit 15
Koeri 6.4
Brahmin 5.7
Rajput 5.2

Bihar Lok Sabha 2014 segment-wise seats (Old Alliance)

Party Seats lead Vote share (percentage)
BJP+LJP+RLSP 171 38.77
INC+RJD+NCP 50 29.75
JD(U) 18 15.78
Others 4  15.70

Bihar Lok Sabha 2014 segment-wise seats (New Alliance)

Party Seats lead Vote share (percentage)
BJP+LJP+RLSP 89 38.77
INC+RJD+JDU+NCP 148 45.53
Others 6 15.70

Lok Sabha 2014 election results

Party Seats won Vote percentage
BJP 22 29.86
LJP 6 6.50
RLSP 0.12
INC 2 8.56
NCP 1 1.22
JD(U) 16.04
RJD 4 20.46
CPI 0 1.17
CPI(M) 0 0.30
BSP 0 2.17
Independent 0 4.34

 Takeaways from the Lok Sabha election 2014 in Bihar

1. JD(U) + RJD + SP+ Congress: Anti-Modi force vs NDA (BJP + LJP + RLSP, former chief minister Manjhi and Former RJD leader Pappu Yadav may join NDA as of current scenario.)

2. Vote per cent for NDA (BJP + LJP + RLSP) is around 36.5 per cent.

3. Anti-Modi force: JD(U) + RJD + SP + Congress is around 46 per cent (Lok Sabha 2014 poll percentage).

4. With 15 per cent Yadavs, 16 per cent Muslims, 3 per cent Kurmis and 22 per cent most backward castes (MBCs), the anti-Modi alliance, with backing of the Congress may be unbeatable in Bihar.

5. The RJD-JD(U) alliance together polled around 30 lakh votes more than the NDA. From nearly 3.37 crore votes polled, the BJP and its allies got 1.31 crore votes while the RJD won just under 1.02 crore and the JD(U) 61 lakh, nearly 70 lakh behind the NDA.

2010 Assembly polls in Bihar

Party Seats Vote percentage
JD(U) 115 22.58
BJP 91 16.49
RJD 22 18.84
Congress 4 8.37
Lok Janshakti Party 3 6.74
Communist Party Of India 1 1.69
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha 1 0.61
Independent 6 13.22


Rahul Kanwal Rahul Kanwal @rahulkanwal

Managing Editor, India Today TV.

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