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

The Day After - - CONTENT - By dAnFES

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.

A FOOTHOLD

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.”

Sha­trughan Sinha meets with Rabri Devi and her sons Te­jashwi Ya­dav and Tej Pratap Ya­dav

Bi­har CM Ni­tish Ku­mar with Prashant Kishor af­ter he joined JD(U)

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