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‘Namak loyalty’ of silent voters could keep Nitish Kumar afloat despite massive odds

Extremely backward classes and Mahadalits make up over 40 per cent of Bihar's voters, the backbone of CM Nitish Kumar. They may be the swing factor in deciding his political fate.

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Patna/Saran/Jhanjharpur: There is a pattern in the answers Bihar’s voters are giving to typical questions: Are you happy with the (Nitish Kumar) government? No. Why? Well, there are no jobs (say the youth) … nothing happens without a bribe (says everyone) … need parivartan (change) after 15 years of Janata Dal-led government (say many).

Is Nitish Kumar corrupt? No, but he ‘cannot control’ them (corrupt government officials). Is Nitish Kumar incompetent? No, he has done a lot of things for the people.

Are you happy with Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Of course, yes. Have you got anything from Nitish Kumar/Modi? Yes, of course. We have been getting foodgrains (5 kg per person per month), Rs 500 per month in the account (Jan Dhan scheme), old age pensions, gas cylinders, flood relief (Rs 6,000) … much better power supply, roads, piped water.

So, why is there this yearning for a regime change, reflected in the large gatherings at Tejashwi Yadav’s election rallies? A majority of pro-change voters don’t really have an answer, except that change is always good and that one can try out a new person.

Do they think Tejashwi, the opposition’s chief ministerial candidate, is the ‘jungle raj ke yuvaraj’ — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scathing jibe aimed at reminding people of the alleged state of anarchy Bihar was in under Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi’s 15-year regime? ‘We can replace him if he doesn’t perform’ is the refrain.

“What jungle raj! What happened in Muzaffarpur (shelter home rape case)? Law and order situation is getting worse … You can’t punish the son for his father,” say others.

These responses have made it hard for journalists, pollsters and politicians to read the wind and predict which way the Bihar polls will go.

Also read: Why Bihar’s ‘Sushasan Babu’ Nitish Kumar risks losing his reputation even if he wins

Where the votes lie

After 28 October, the first phase of polling for 71 seats in the 243-member assembly, the ruling Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have felt confident of having put up a good show in what they consider ‘vulnerable’ areas in South Bihar.

While JD(U)’s estimate, according to senior party functionaries, is “30 plus seats” for the NDA (including Jitan Ram Majhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party), state BJP leaders are expecting “40-41 seats” — that’s what they told Union Home Minister Amit Shah in their virtual meeting after phase 1 polling. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) camp estimates “around 50” for the RJD-Congress-CPI-CPM-CPI(ML) gathbandhan. These figures have been keeping both camps hopeful.

However, the narrative about a possible change of regime in Bihar seems to have discounted a big factor — the so-called silent voters comprising the extremely backward classes (EBCs), a conglomeration of over a hundred castes that were earlier part of the other backward classes (OBCs), and Mahadalits, who initially comprised 18 Scheduled Castes but now include all.

Together, they constitute over 40 per cent of the total population and have been the political backbone of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whose community, Kurmis, is estimated to make up for just 4 per cent of the population.

The creation of EBCs and subsequently giving them reservation in panchayat polls and other benefits, was perceived as a masterstroke by the CM to marginalise the Yadavs who dominate the OBCs. Similarly, Nitish Kumar had created Mahadalits, excluding Paswans and three other sub-castes, giving them special treatment in terms of welfare schemes and incentives; others castes were later included.

“You are underestimating the silent population of EBCs and Mahadalits. Tejashwi’s vote bank (Muslims and Yadavs, who constitute around 30 per cent of Bihar’s population) is very vocal and that’s why the media has got swayed. The silent population is very large and you will hear their thunder on November 10 (the day of results),” said Sanjay Jha, a senior JD(U) leader and close aide of CM Nitish Kumar, to ThePrint Friday evening.

He may have reasons to feel confident, but there may be some chinks in Nitish Kumar’s votebank.

There are sections of people in the cluster of Musahar houses of Bakrera village in Saran’s Taraiya Vidhan Sabha constituency, who feel the government didn’t do anything for them, but there are many others who still swear by him.

In Godhia Bhagwanpur village of Lalganj assembly constituency in Vaishali, Manju Devi, a Dom (Mahadalit), had a lot of complaints about how she had to borrow money to build her thatched house and install a tube well, and how the Nitish Kumar government was of no help. Her husband, though, was quick to add that the family got 20 kg of food grains (5 kg per person) and Rs 5,000 as flood relief.

Jekar namak khaili, wokra sarait to debe ko hoi (We have to give credit to those who gave us salt).” Similar sentiments were expressed to ThePrint by EBCs and Mahadalits across regions — Rameshawr Thakur, a barber in Jhanjharpur’s Madhepur and Maya Devi at Mithanpura Chowk in Muzaffarpur’s Bochaha assembly constituency, among others.

The larger narrative is that PM Modi and CM Kumar are doing their best to help the people, but “the dalals (middlemen)” were corrupt, referring to grievances about the delivery system where middlemen denied access to government schemes.

Also read: ‘Murder, extortion, rape’ — 30% candidates in Bihar first phase have criminal records

Some benefits have reached, but voters non-committal 

Amongst some, there weren’t any grouses against Tejashwi or his father Lalu Prasad, but they were not bitter about Nitish Kumar either. Maya Devi’s family is yet to receive Rs 6,000 as flood relief, but she blames the local ‘mukhiya (village head)’ for the delay.

Her mother-in-law, busy peeling bamboos for baskets, was nonchalant. “All politicians are the same. They just make promises.” Her husband, however, added, “We do get (old age) pension and 20 kg of food grains. That helped us survive during corona lockdown. Namak khaaya hai, jhhooth nahin bolunha (We have eaten the salt given, we shan’t lie).”

About 100 km north-west of Patna, Mantu, an EBC paan-maker in Samastipur’s Gudaar Ghat village, was more forthright. “Jhooth nahin bolunga. Paani toh aata hai. Bijli bhi bees ghante aata hai (I won’t lie. I get tap water and electricity for 20 hours). I have nothing against Nitish Kumar but parivartan after 15 years may not be bad.”

Mantu, like Maya Devi and numerous other EBCs/OBCs/Mahadalits ThePrint spoke to, remained non-committal about their voting preferences.

“Will see what others (in their neighbourhood) decide on the voting day.”

In the meantime, Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav must keep their fingers crossed.

Phase two of Bihar’s assembly election takes place on 3 November, followed by phase three on 7 November. Counting of votes will take place on 10 November.

Also read: With each passing rally, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar is losing his ‘Mr Cool’ image


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