BI­HAR: CONGRESS LOOKS ‘FOR­WARD’

The Congress re­for­mats its strat­egy in the Man­dal heart­land to cor­ner up­per caste votes

India Today - - STATES - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava

Madan Mo­han Jha’s ap­point­ment as the new state unit chief on Septem­ber 22 marks a strate­gic shift for the Congress in Bi­har. He is the first Brah­min to lead the party since Ja­gan­nath Mishra in 1991.

There’s ev­i­dently a ma­jor game plan to the ‘bold’ de­ci­sion in a state known as the back­yard of Man­dal pol­i­tics. The party hopes to get OBC and Mus­lim votes by latch­ing on to Lalu Prasad Ya­dav’s coat-tails, while also woo­ing up­per caste vot­ers at the ex­pense of the BJP. In­ter­est­ingly, it has named Ra­jya Sabha mem­ber and up­per caste Bhu­mi­har leader, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, as its cam­paign com­mit­tee chair­man in Bi­har. Jha’s ap­point­ment comes a full year after the party high com­mand in Delhi re­moved Ashok Choud­hary (a Dalit) from the po­si­tion and ap­pointed Qaukab Qadri, a Mus­lim, as work­ing pres­i­dent.

The Congress ruled Bi­har till the 1990s by cob­bling to­gether a so­cial com­bi­na­tion of up­per castes, Dal­its and Mus­lims. But with re­gional lead­ers like Ni­tish Ku­mar and Lalu usurp­ing its vote banks, the Congress’s power and in­flu­ence dwin­dled quickly. While Dal­its and Mus­lims left it for the RJD and JD(U), most up­per caste vot­ers switched to the BJP. Now rid­ing pig­gy­back on Lalu’s OBC (15 per cent) and Mus­lim (16 per cent) sup­port base, the Congress hopes to make a come­back by re­gain­ing up­per caste votes–some­thing the RJD can­not muster.

The Congress’s turn to­wards the up­per castes be­came ev­i­dent in March, when it nom­i­nated Akhilesh Prasad for the Ra­jya Sabha. He was the first Con­gress­man to go to the up­per house from Bi­har in the past 16 years. A month later, in April, the party nom­i­nated a Brah­min leader, Prem Chandra Mishra, to the lone Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil seat it could win in the state.

A se­nior RJD leader says the Congress’s de­ci­sion to pick Brah­min and Bhu­mi­har lead­ers is part of the party strat­egy to try and win over the two dom­i­nant and nu­mer­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant up­per caste groups.

Un­like in neigh­bour­ing Ut­tar Pradesh, up­per castes com­prise a mere 11-12 per cent of Bi­har’s pop­u­la­tion. But up­per caste votes have be­come sig­nif­i­cant and ca­pa­ble of swing­ing elec­tions, fol­low­ing the di­vi­sion of other caste groups among the RJD, JD(U), RLSP and LJP. This apart, up­per caste vot­ers, said to be dis­il­lu­sioned with the BJP-led NDA, are presently seen as ‘un­at­tached’.

Once de­ter­mined to dis­lodge Lalu, up­per caste vot­ers shifted loy­al­ties to Ni­tish after he forged an al­liance with the BJP in 1996. An­a­lysts, how­ever, say that de­spite their alien­ation with the saf­fron party, re­gain­ing up­per caste al­le­giances will not be easy for the Congress.

UP­PER DECK Newly-elected Bi­har Congress chief Madan Mo­han Jha (in orange, seated) at his fe­lic­i­ta­tion cer­e­mony in Patna

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