BIHAR: CONGRESS LOOKS ‘FORWARD’
The Congress reformats its strategy in the Mandal heartland to corner upper caste votes
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