A recent statement by union minister and BJP ally Upendra Kushwaha is being seen as a hint of a possible political realignment in Bihar.
New Delhi: Union minister Upendra Kushwaha set more than a few tongues wagging when he invoked an inspired kheer analogy recently to urge a caste collective that included the Yadavs, the core vote bank of rival Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Kushwaha, chief of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), one of the BJP-led NDA’s Bihar-based allies, is said to have been ill at ease since the return of fellow satrap Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) to the coalition.
The statement, made just months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, was seen by observers as a hint that a political realignment may be in the works in Bihar.
“As I can see, a number of people of the Yadav samaj from across the state have gathered today in this meeting,” Kushwaha said Saturday, 25 August, at an event in Patna to commemorate the birth centenary of Mandal Commission president and former Bihar chief minister B.P. Mandal.
“I can say for sure that, with the presence of people from the Yaduvanshi samaj, there will be no dearth of milk in this Ganga. If the milk of the Yaduvanshis and rice of the Kushvanshis are mixed, it will take no time to prepare kheer,” he said.
“We will get sugar from Brahmins, tulsi from Choudharyji (RLSP Bihar chief Bhudev Choudhary), and can make delicious kheer with dry fruits from the backward classes and the Dalits,” he added. “Then we can relish the delicious kheer together.”
The message immediately delighted the UPA camp, which has given Kushwaha an open invitation to join its ranks. Former Bihar deputy chief minister and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav was quick to tweet in response, saying “kheer prepared with love and affection is delicious, full of nutrition, and gives one energy”.
नि:संदेह उपेन्द्र जी, स्वादिष्ट और पौष्टिक खीर श्रमशील लोगों की ज़रूरत है। पंचमेवा के स्वास्थ्यवर्धक गुण ना केवल शरीर बल्कि स्वस्थ समतामूलक समाज के निर्माण में भी ऊर्जा देते हैं। प्रेमभाव से बनाई गई खीर में पौष्टिकता, स्वाद और ऊर्जा की भरपूर मात्रा होती है। यह एक अच्छा व्यंजन है। https://t.co/cfBR3bBePm
— Tejashwi Yadav (@yadavtejashwi) August 26, 2018
“Upendraji’s statement just shows that his displeasure with the NDA has reached its threshold,” said senior RJD leader and MP Manoj Jha. “He may deny it now, but it is a clear that he wants to be with the Bahujan and masses of Bihar, who are against the BJP.”
If the Kushwahas side with the Yadavs, the UPA will find itself numerically much ahead of the NDA in Bihar.
Kushwaha has since denied reports of any fracture in the NDA, saying all he meant to do was to emphasise the importance of caste unity.
“I didn’t ask for sugar from the BJP or milk from the RJD,” he added, but fervent caste calculations were already underway among observers to determine the possible contours of a fresh alliance.
The caste arithmetic
The Kushwahas or Koeris claim their origin from Lord Ram’s son Kush, with his other son Luv said to have initiated the Kurmi caste, to which Nitish belongs.
The Kushwahas are a largely farming community engaged in growing vegetables across Bihar. In recent years, they have heavily invested in growing paddy and wheat crops as well, which explains Kushwaha’s reference to taking rice from the community.
The group accounts for an estimated seven to eight per cent of the state’s population, the fourth largest caste group after Muslims (17 per cent), Dalits (15 per cent) and Yadavs (14 per cent). They hold sway over 15 to 20 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats.
The Kurmis, on the other hand, form around four per cent of the population, which is largely concentrated around Nitish’s hometown Nalanda and nearby areas.
In the last four years, the RLSP has inducted several noted community leaders, and become a full-fledged Kushwaha party.
“It is for the first time after Independence that the Kushwahas have come together in Bihar, under the umbrella of the RLSP and the leadership of Upendra Kushwaha,” said Nagmani, RLSP national working president.
“Right now, the way Yadav votes are intact with the RJD, the Kushwahas are going to be with the RLSP,” he added.
The political journey
The Kushwahas have always been a part of Bihar’s social equality movement. In the early 1990s, they voted first for the Janata Dal and then Lalu Prasad’s RJD.
However, the Lav-Kush combine, as the Koeri-Kurmi voter bloc came to be known, gradually started drifting away from the RJD once Nitish formed the Samata Party in 1994 along with George Fernandes.
The shift became evident when Nitish allied with the BJP in Bihar in 1996, emerging as a strong player. At the time, Kushwaha was a close aide of Nitish, and the latter made him the deputy leader of the Samata Party in the Bihar assembly.
In 2003, the Samata Party became the JD(U). The next year, with JD(U) MLAs outnumbering BJP representatives in the House, Kushwaha became the leader of the opposition in the assembly.
Four years later, Kushwaha quit the JD(U) because of “growing differences” with Nitish. He returned two years later for a Rajya Sabha nomination, but was protesting against Nitish within months. He quit the party in December 2012 to float his own in March 2013.
In 2014, Kushwaha’s RLSP aligned with the BJP, which was not with the JD(U) at the time, and the party contested and won three Lok Sabha seats. Since then, Kushwaha has been a junior minister in the Modi cabinet.
Since Nitish’s return to the NDA in 2017, there have been concerns among RLSP leaders about their place in the coalition.
Nagmani said there was a “feeling” among party workers and leaders that they should join the UPA.
“Three months ago, we told the BJP to decide about seat-sharing in Bihar. BJP president Amit Shah came to Patna and gave all importance to Nitish, who has a vote share of only three to four per cent,” Nagmani told ThePrint.
“We can still be in the NDA, provided we get respectable number of seats,” he added.
On the ground, there is a definite churn among the Kushwahas, who now want to be taken seriously in the political arithmetic. Members say they have no problem going with the Yadavs, with whom they have allied in the past.