Congress Gambit In Bihar
Revamped Bihar Congress unit sees first Brahmin chief in 26 years. Party hopes to tap into upper caste ‘discontent’ with BJP over SC/ST Act, especially in urban and diyara region
Following a revamp of its organizational structure in Bihar, the Congress is going all out to pursue upper caste voters in the state. On 17 September, the party appointed senior leader and MLC Madan Mohan Jha as its new Bihar president. It is the first time in 26 years that a Brahmin has been tasked with heading the Congress’ Bihar unit — the last to do so was former chief minister Jagannath Mishra, who was PCC president in 1992.
Along with Jha, the party also appointed Akhilesh Prasad Singh, another upper caste leader, as the chairman of its election campaign committee.
The new leadership, the Congress hopes, will help it tap into upper caste voters, who traditionally favour the BJP. The party aims to cash in on the “anger and dissatisfaction” among upper castes in the wake of the amendments to the SC/ST Act brought in by the NDA government.
The rationale within the Congress is that the party need not worry about other backward castes (OBCs), Muslims and Dalits as they naturally gravitate towards the party’s allies in Bihar — the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), led by former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi.
The Congress firmly believes it can make a comeback in the state only if it can win over upper caste voters, who form around 15 per cent of the population.
“There is a segment of upper castes that are unhappy with the BJP. They won’t vote for the RJD or the HAM but may find an alternative in the Congress,” said a senior Bihar Congress leader.
“Also there are Lok Sabha seats, especially in the Mithilanchal region, that have sizeable Muslim or Yadav votes. The addition of some upper castes would be the icing on the cake and would help our alliance partners too.”
The party’s Bihar in-charge, Shaktisinh Gohil, however, insisted that the Congress “has been and is a party for all communities”.
“We have made four other working presidents where we have tried to
accommodate all sections of the society,” he said.
The Congress has managed to make inroads into the upper caste vote. In the 2015 assembly elections, the Congress contested 41 seats in the alliance with the RJD and the JD(U).
Of these, the party fielded upper caste candidates in 16 constituencies and won in 12 of them. And despite a drastic fall in its fortunes in Bihar, the Congress has consistently maintained a vote share of in and around eight per cent.
The vote share declined to about 6 per cent in the 2015 assembly elections but that can be attributed to the fact that the Congress contested in only 41 seats.
“The vote share may look small but the Congress has the power to change fortunes. It (vote share) also shows that despite the party not being not a major player, a section of voters has stuck with us,” says senior Bihar Congress leader Nikhil Kumar.
“Whenever people seek a national alternative to the BJP, they only look at the Congress”.
CONGRESS AND BIHAR
Till the late ’80s, the Congress enjoyed support from a wide range of the population demographic in Bihar. It easily sailed through several state and Lok Sabha elections, propelled by upper castes, Dalits and Muslims.
This support base, however, began eroding in the early 1990s when Dalits began deserting the party, post the Mandal Commission and the emergence of Lalu Yadav. That left the Congress with Muslims and an upper caste vote base.
“Muslims always had an impression that it was the OBCs and EBCs that had a beef with them and that Hindu upper castes would protect them,” said Shakeel Ahmed, senior Congress leader from Bihar.
“But the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a turning point. Muslims saw upper caste chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the aftermath of the mosque’s destruction,” Ahmed said.
With that, he added, Muslims began voting with the Yadavs, solidifying the M-Y equation in Bihar.
UPPER CASTE SHIFT
The upper castes shifted from Congress in the 1995 assembly elections, when the BJP challenged it with upper caste candidates.
The resultant division of votes helped Lalu form the government. “That was the time when upper castes felt that Congress cannot defeat Lalu and they were inclined towards the BJP to consolidate their votes,” said a senior upper caste Congress leader from Bihar.
The Congress gradually got wiped out from the state. Experts believe that the Congress’ revival strategy may not go to plan.
“The upper castes are totally with the BJP. Besides, the leader appointed as president is too lightweight,” said Saibal Gupta, a social scientist and founder member of Asian Development Research Institute in Patna.
“In contrast, the BJP has dynamic Brahmin leaders such as Ashwini Choubey and Mangal Pandey who have mass appeal. The Congress can try but it’s going to be hard for it.”
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