Around two km south of Danapur Cantt in Patna, we stop at the road towards Bihta and a group of 30 people come running towards our vehicle. These are labourers waiting for contractors to pick them up. “We have had no work for five days,” says Chandralok Paswan, a 21-year-old. “It is getting difficult day by day.” There are several real estate projects in the area, but cheap labour from Jharkhand is preferred over hiring locals. “The contractors pay very little to outside workers. They expect us to work on the same wage which is not possible,” says Paswan.
He is among the many who are here from Danapur constituency’s Aklu Chak village, which has 150 houses. All are either Mahadalits or of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs). They are surrounded by villages dominated by Yadavs. They are reluctant to talk about elections, but once convinced that I have not been sent by Yadavs to gauge their mood, they start opening up. “Over several years, we have been crushed by Yadavs, who have a strong presence here,” says Suresh Pasi, who is an EBC. “Just a few days back, they attacked our houses and beat our women over a small argument.”
There are around 500 voters in Aklu Chak and they have to travel to nearby Mathiyapur, a Yadav village, to cast their vote. “They would not let us reach the polling booth till a few years ago. We started voting once Nitish Kumar became the Chief Minister of Bihar,” says 70-year- old Sajeevan Bhagat, who’s voted just twice in his life. They became followers of Nitish Kumar, but now feel betrayed. “He has sided with those who exploit us. We would vote for anyone but a Yadav,” says Paswan. If both the parties field Yadav candidates, as usually happens, he says the BJP’s would be acceptable because he would be a moderate who won’t be allowed to work on a divisive agenda. “But a Yadav with Lalu considers himself a super power,” he says. The sentiments are similar in nearby Musahar Tola.
Yadavs make up 14 per cent of Bihar’s population and are the single largest caste group. They have mostly remained loyal to Lalu Prasad since the early 1990s. While there was a time they could determine who won power in Bihar, parties like the BJP and JD-U have been able to marginalise them in recent years by consolidating non-Yadav votes. In this election, Nitish Kumar’s JD-U has an alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD, and, with 64 Yadavs in the fray, is certain of getting most of this caste group’s votes. The BJP and its allies are trying to get the favour of anti-Yadav castes. But they also want some of the Yadav vote and so the BJP has 22 candidates of that caste. In all, both alliances have 89 Yadavs on the ballot.
Yadav ascendency makes every other caste group uncomfortable, be it EBC, Mahadalit or upper. Recent election speeches by Lalu Prasad, a Yadav, have added to the alarm of a return to Yadav rule, as it was in the 90s. EBC and Mahadalit voters who Open spoke to talk about doing everything possible to arrest the rise of Yadav power. “Wherever you see a strong Yadav population, it is natural that other lower castes, especially EBCs and Dalits, would vote against them,” says Hetukar Jha, a Patna-based sociologist. “It is true that in the name of backward unity and Mandal, Lalu Yadav was able to attract them earlier. But it doesn’t look feasible in the current scenario.”
Over the last 10 years, Bihta has come up as a satellite town of Patna with several big projects being awarded to the area. It lies on the state highway that connects Patna to Varanasi. Bihta’s farmers, mostly Bhumihars, are planning to protest against the BJP and its allies when they come seeking votes. This is because they have not got the compensation promised for land taken away for projects like an IIT campus and ESI Hospital. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t come to inaugurate the IIT, they say, preferring to do it through remote control from Patna. “Had Nitish Kumar fought alone or even with the Congress, we would have voted for him,” says Vijay Kumar Singh, a farmer of Bihta. “I didn’t want to vote BJP in the Assembly polls, but after Nitish went with Lalu, what options am I left with?” He doesn’t want a situation like 1995, when Yadavs beat him up in nearby Maner because he was a savarna (upper caste). “How can I forget something which has happened just 15 years ago?” he asks.
Sharvan Kushwaha, a businessman who runs a paint shop in Bihta, feels that Nitish Kumar is the best Chief Minister Bihar has ever had. “Business really flourished in Nitish’s rule. But that doesn’t mean I will vote for him,” he says. “By going with Lalu, he lost all the goodwill and praise he earned over time.” Bihta is part of the Maner Assembly constituency where both the BJP and RJD have put up Yadav candidates.
Such sentiments are heard in just about any region of Bihar. The Lalu-Nitish alliance is gambling on the Muslim-Yadav (MY) block, who together count for 31 per cent of the populace. The NDA is relying on the support of upper castes, some sections of OBCs and Mahadalits. Together, they too account for 30-31 per cent of the state’s electorate. “On the ground, the base vote for both alliances is 30 per cent,” says Kishori Das, a social scientist from Sitamarhi, Bihar. “The key would be EBCs or MBCs with a joint 35 per cent vote share scattered across the state.” In 2005 and 2010, they voted for Nitish Kumar. The mood is different this year. Arjun Rajak, 42, of Saguna Mode, Danapur, is considering voting BJP for the first time. “Laluji is talking of Mandal. But let me tell you, we have been exploited more by the OBC community than upper castes. Even Nitish Kumar ignored us, favouring his own caste leaders,” he says. His son Mantu Rajak will vote for the first time and is also pro-BJP. “Everyone got a chance, why not BJP? I came to know that Prime Minister Modi too comes from an EBC,” he says.
Some Bihar watchers think that Yadavs might not back Lalu, nor vote as a single block in the polls of October and November. “One thing Lalu rule did in Bihar is that it made Yadavs power hungry, as you see among upper castes,” says Hetukar Jha. “This makes it difficult for all Yadavs to bow down to Lalu Yadav.” His observation seems to have some merit, as we visit villages with a sizeable Yadav population. “Lalu is more concerned about his own family than our community,” says Narhari Gope of Jamaluddin Chak village near Danapur station. The village is a centre of Yadav politics in the region, with all recent MLAs of Danapur (including the current BJP one) being from here. Lalu Prasad’s daughter Misa Bharti was also married here. The village has 2,500 votes—of affluent Yadavs, mostly, followed by Muslims. For the last two elections, the BJP has been getting the highest votes here. “People outside Bihar think that ‘Yadav’ means Lalu Yadav in Bihar,” says Chandan Yadav, a 32-year-old government teacher. “But we have moved on from that phase. We all know what is good or bad for us.”
Without the Yadav votebank squarely behind him, Lalu Prasad will be in trouble. He himself has lost from Danapur once. In the last Assembly polls, his wife Rabri Devi couldn’t win the Raghopur seat, considered safe for the party. In the 2014 General Election, Misa Bharti, his daughter, lost from the Pataliputra constituency, again a Yadav bastion. “There is no denying that Lalu is losing his halo among Yadavs,” says Kishori Das. “In his speeches, he is looking desperate to prove his worth.” Pappu Yadav, who left RJD to launch the Jan Adhikar Party, challenges Lalu Prasad’s credentials as a Yadav leader. “We will put up our Yadav candidates wherever Lalu Prasad fields his party’s Yadav candidate, and will crush his belief that he is the biggest leader of Yadavs,” he says.
Kurmis, an OBC caste that had always fought Yadavs on the ground, appear to be almost entirely on the side of the Nitish-Lalu alliance in the current election. “We are not looking at fighting with Yadavs. The fact that Laluji accepted Nitish’s leadership is more than enough for us,” says Dhanesh Patel of Nargadda village near Patna. “With just 5 per cent of the population, we have our man as Chief Minister.” He had voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls.
Rajputs, a dominant upper caste, especially in the five districts of North Bihar, tend to vary in their electoral choices. In 2010, most voted for the RJD, but in the 2014 General Election, for the BJP. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Prabhunath Singh are two popular Rajput leaders from the region. “Rajputs have mostly sided with RJD but they are in a fix now,” says Jha. “With Lalu evoking Yadav pride in his speeches, they might move away from him.” The BJP has given heavy weightage to Rajputs by putting up 30 candidates of the caste group.
As the first phase of voting, on 8 October, draws near, the caste battle is getting fiercer with both alliances fanning the flames. “There is nothing new. It was always like that in Bihar,” says Ram Balam Mahto, a political science professor from Bihar Sharif. “There is a famous saying here: ‘Beti aur vote apne jaat mein hi dete hain’ ” (We always give our daughters in marriage and votes in elections to those of our own caste).