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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

BJP’s Politics of Social Engineering in Bihar

Saturday 24 October 2015, by Harish S. Wankhede


Kanshiram, the late Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo, had brought bahujan as a viable political constituency to forge a political alliance between the Dalits, Other Backward Castes and Religious Minorities. This social engineering was one of the most imaginative political construc-tions to counter the domination of the social elites in politics. (Teltumbde 2006) On many counts the BSP’s social engineering attempts were unsuccessful; however, it created a dynamic social process that ensured caste-community collaborations extremely crucial for electoral success. Further, it debunked the tested practice of political alliances between the parties, claiming that with the strong support of social communities, one will not need a political alliance. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) learnt an important lesson from the BSP and has utilised the idea of social engineering to redefine its political strategies. The current political context in Bihar is providing new modes of social engineering, especially to the BJP, to defeat the grand political alliance that the Nitish Kumar-led secular front has forged. The BJP has willingly underplayed its classic rhetoric of ‘Hindutva’ and is instead evolving a dynamic social coalition with the marginalised castes and communities to emerge as a leading political force in Bihar.

In the social and ideological spectrum, the BJP is represented as a party of Hindu nationa-lists, toeing the neoliberal developmental agenda and standing firm against the politics of secularism and social justice. In Bihar, the party gets its leadership and strongest electoral support from the upper caste-middle class groups (Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Baniyas and other upper castes) and over the years it has hardly contradicted its tag of being ‘an upper-caste party’. However, to present itself as a broad Hindu party it has been working strategically amongst the targeted social groups of the OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis by unearthing their cultural past and to pitch these commu-nities against the Muslim or Christian groups. (Narayan 2009) In all the major States with dominant BJP presence today, the party has meticulously crafted an alliance between its upper-caste support-base and the lower-caste communities, especially those that have remained politically insignificant for a long time. In the upcoming Bihar Assembly elections, the BJP’s electoral strategy is to identify and combine all those social forces that have not found enough space in the grand RJD-JD(U)-Congress political alliance.

Since the emergence of Laloo Prasad Yadav in the politics of Bihar, the Yadav-Dalit-Muslim combine has remained a dominant force here. This social engineering gave Laloo three successive governments only to be disturbed in 2005, when the Nitish Kumar-led NDA Government was formed. The BJP, which was an insignificant political force till that time, with Nitish Kumar as a new ally got an access- point to disturb the social engineering that Laloo had championed earlier. Under the NDA regime the non-Yadav OBC castes (Kushwahas, Koeris, Kurmis, Paswans and a section amongst the Muslims, etc.) came closer to the NDA politics. This new politics of the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) divided the social justice brigade into varied caste camps while flagging antagonism against each other on several fronts. Some factions within the secular-social justice camp (Upendra Kushwaha and Ramvilas Paswan) further collaborated with the BJP delivering a significant victory to the NDA in the general elections of 2014. However, today with the formal alliance between Laloo, Nitish and the Congress, the formidable social justice champions are back on track, whereas the BJP is working hard to build a durable social alliance for electoral gains.

It appears that the anti-BJP secular alliance is confident of winning a majority in the upcoming elections with its social engineering of 15 per cent Yadavs, 16 per cent Muslims, three-to-four per cent Kurmis and 22 per cent Most Backward Castes (MBCs), along with a sizeable section of the Congress vote. To counter this, the BJP is also creating a social engineering by mobilising its traditional vote-base of 15 per cent upper castes along with crucial sections amongst the MBCs. Further, an important social constituency of Dalits, led by Paswan, and a significant section amongst the ‘Mahadalits’, led by Jitan Manjhi, will give the BJP an additional support-base. However, the BJP still looks feeble and a loser here as its electoral strength is mostly coming from the upper-caste groups and other groups that are not the traditional voters of the BJP. Therefore, the party may need to craft newer strategies to gain support from other caste groups or will need to break the support-base of its opponent. I have argued here that the BJP will make a possible dent in the secular vote-base by alluring a significant section amongst the Yadavs to join the BJP. Secondly, the party will impress the Dalit and Mahadalit communities by building strong political ties allowing between them and thus the lower-caste groups to claim a bigger share in the politics of Bihar. Finally, the party will be relying on external political forces to divert or break the consolidated Muslim vote that otherwise is fully committed to the RJD alliance. Importantly, the above mentioned strategies will be implemented in a a veiled manner, whereas frontally the BJP will counter the RJD alliance on the agenda of ‘good governance and development’ showcasing the failure of the incumbent government in bringing economic growth and welfare to the State.

The Iicons of Good Governance and Development: Modi versus Nitish 

The BJP is pitted against a socio-political alliance which has overshadowed the political space of Bihar for more than two decades now. Exploiting the anti-incumbency sentiments, the party is expected to perform well, especially in the urban constituencies. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the BJP is carrying out a heightened campaign claiming that a ‘socially secure, economically developed and corruption-free’ Bihar is possible only under the BJP regime. The slogan of ‘good governance and economic development’ is surely effective in Bihar as a large majority within the middle classes is averse to the caste-contaminated political atmosphere and looking for a change. One of the major reasons for the decline of Laloo Yadav in 2005 was his failure in bringing impressive economic development to the State as he concentrated heavily on the politics of social justice and secularism. His successor, Nitish Kumar, impressively mirrored the slogan of good governance while confidently carrying the flag of social justice; however, his current association with Laloo will surely adversely affect his image of the ‘Su-sashan Babu (Good Governance man)’.

The BJP will utilise the grand image of Narendra Modi as an icon of economic development against the not-so-steady record of Nitish Kumar. The BJP in the earlier elections too has demonstrated an edge over its opponent over the debate on good governance and economic development. The language of development can lure a big section amongst the educated urban youth and middle class sections, irrespective of their caste-religious affinities. Further, in Bihar, this agenda portrays the BJP as a non-sectarian middle class political force contesting against the dominant caste patriarchs in the political battle. The BJP will utilise the slogan of development as its front face to impress mostly the first-time voters and primarily to demoralise and belittle its opponents.

The Upper Caste-Dalit alliance

The Dalits have remained committed mostly to the progressive Left-secular parties for all these years. At the social sphere the poor Dalits have an antagonistic relationship with the upper- caste elites and there is no impressive social or political movement that could have bridged the gap to harmonise the social relationships. The history of caste violence and atrocities in Bihar is filled with stories of gruesome mass murders of Dalits conducted by the Ranveer Sena, the private army of the upper-caste Bhumihars. The terrible past of brutal caste violence has overshadowed most of the debates on Dalit empowerment here. As there are also very few takers of an independent Dalit-Ambedkarite movement in Bihar, the Dalits are often mobilised by the socialist Ramvilas Paswan. He represents one of the most dominant castes (Dusadhs) amongst the Dalits and has remained the sole Dalit political face from the State. However, Paswan’s earlier engagement with the BJP has not produced any significant change in the socio-economic conditions of the Dalits. In earlier elections, the Dalits have also reposed their faiths in the militant politics of Naxalism of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and voted considerably for the BSP. Thus there is no unified Dalit vote in Bihar, but scattered amongst many players including that of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). A more marginalised section amongst the Dalits, categorised by the previous Nitish Government as ‘Mahadalit’, had had supported the JD (U) in the earlier elections for his political innovation. Currently, the leader of the same group (Jitan Manjhi) has formed a political alliance with the BJP.

The Scheduled Castes constitute 16 per cent of the population and it is the largest community in Bihar. The BJP understands the importance of the Dalit vote in Bihar and therefore has given prime importance to Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi in all its political campaigns. By forming a political alliance with both the Dalit front in which Paswan’s ‘Lok Janshakti Party’ is contesting 40 seats and the newly formed party ‘Hindustani Avam Morcha-Secular’ of Manjhi is contesting 20 seats, the BJP is sending a message that the party is sensitive towards their respectable political representation. The BJP may argue that only by forming a formidable ‘Upper Caste-Dalit alliance’ one can defeat the ‘jungle raj of Yadav-Kurmi domination’ in Bihar. These measures can bring benefits to the BJP in particular to win a majority of seats in the 38 reserved constituencies.

Breaking the Yadav Stronghold

Since the 1990s the Yadavs have dominated the politics of Bihar under the leadership of Laloo Prasad Yadav. Even after many splits in the Janta Dal, the Yadav and Muslims remained loyal to Laloo’s leadership and supported his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), in every election. The RJD thus carries a communitarian élan in Bihar mainly concentrating to provide political voice to the Yadavs and Muslims. The party has continuously championed the cause of social justice and secularism to secure solidarity amongst these groups. In the current Assembly elections it is the collective votes of these two groups that will ensure the RJD’S victory. Knowing this fact, it will be a political strategy for the BJP to break the Yadav consolidation by drawing a significant section towards the BJP.

Over the past, the BJP has often demonised Laloo and his family for unjustifiable appro-priation of the State’s resources, for their corrupt and criminal records, and for not allowing the other poorer sections to enjoy the State’s benefits and privileges. The BJP will put in efforts to bring the dissatisfied Yadav sections that look down on Laloo as a mere family patriarch and not a community leader. To break the family domination of Laloo on Yadav votes, a parallel leadership of dynamic Yadavs has been installed in the party and government machinery. Currently, the BJP hightlights Hukum Deo Narayan Yadav (MP from Madhubani), Nityanand Rai (MP from Ujiyarpur), Union Minister Ramkripal Yadav (MP from Pataliputra), Om Prakash Yadav (MP from Siwan), Nand Kishore Yadav (leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly) and Ramsurat Rai (MLA from Aurai) to showcase that the BJP attracts more Yadavs than the RJD. The party may field more Yadav candidates to present itself as a party with a strong Yadav support. A breakaway of the Yadav voters from the RJD will advance the chances of the BJP’s victory.

The BJP can also or work on a backdoor deal with Pappu Yadav (Rajesh Ranjan) as a spoiler of Yadav votes in some of the major constituencies. Further, the Samajwadi Party is also contesting the Bihar elections independently, and this may divert a percentage of Yadav votes from the RJD’s share.

Splitting the Muslim Vote-bank

With an impressive strength of close to 17 per cent of the State’s population, the Muslims can tilt the election results in more than 40 constituencies. Especially in the four districts of Seemanchal (Araria, Purnea, Kishanganj and Katihar) the Muslims constitute a formidable 30 to 40 per cent of the population. During the colonial period majority sections of Muslims were in consistent opposition to the communal nationalism of the Muslim League while adhering to their principle of secular nationalism. (Sajjad 2011) The Muslims remained close to the ideological principles of the Congress and have supported the party as its committed voters for a long period. However, with the rise of Hindutva politics in the early 1990s, the Muslims followed the new secular voice of the Janata Dal (JD) under the dynamic leadership of Laloo Prasad Yadav. Even after multiple splits in the JD, the Muslims remained loyal promoters of the ‘Muslim-Yadav alliance’ to defeat the Hindutva politics. However, there is also a growing resentment against the RJD’s ‘secular’ rule as the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims have not improved much. Nitish Kumar had articulated this side of the Muslim story and catered to the Pasmanda sections to bring a political split amongst the Muslims. It benefited the NDA alliance in the last Assembly and general elections as considerable numbers of Pasmanda Muslims (Ajlaf and Arzal) shifted to the JD (U) and voted for the NDA candidates.

Muslims have remained committed voters of the secular parties and in the current political atmosphere they have little option but to vote for the RJD alliance. The BJP will be looking for a strategy that will disturb the realignment of Muslims. The BJP must be content as the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has decided to contests the Bihar elections independently.

The AIMIM, under the leadership of Asaduddin Owaisi, has already created a decisive impact in the recently concluded Maharashtra Assembly elections. His entry into the elections often works to polarise the Hindu masses against the Muslims which eventually benefits the BJP. In Bihar, even a sizeable Muslim vote to the AIMIM will definitely reduce the winning possibilities of the RJD alliance. The AIMIM has already announced that it will contest only in the Muslim populated region of Seemanchal, which is a stronghold of the RJD and JD(U) for all these years. The other possibility which the BJP may look forward to is the breakaway of the Samajwadi Party (SP) from the grand alliance to contest the elections independently. The SP, with its similar political rhetoric of secularism, can divert a small section of Muslims from the RJD. Hence the BJP can only hope on such ‘spoilers’ to split the Muslim vote in its favour.


The Bihar elections have brought the BJP closer to the hardened caste realities and their political significance. Therefore in the BJP’s campaign, the agenda of militant Hindutva is missing for strategic reasons as the caste and sub-caste identities will play a significant role in deciding the electoral outcome in each constituency. The BJP’s uncanny social engineering between the upper caste and Dalits under the heightened slogans of good governance and economic development has a measure of social justice politics but its social implications at the actual social turf will decide its future prospect. On the other hand, the realignment of the Yadav-Muslim-Kurmi sections under the secular umbrella has revived the time-tasted political arithmetic of electoral success and can thus bring a new lease of life to the social justice-secular front.

The BJP has come up with an impressive challenge to topple the political alliance that Laloo-Nitish-Congress has forged. The BJP’s victory in the Bihar elections will further depress the ‘Secular-Social Justice brigade’. On the contrary, the victory of the ‘secular forces’ will retain the importance of Muslims and Other Backward Castes in channelising the politics of Bihar. The elections will thus churn a new politics of social justice and secularism from two different vantage points.


Narayan, Badri (2009), Fascinating Hindutva—Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation, Sage, New Delhi.

Sajjad, Mohammad (2011), “Muslim resistance to communal separatism and colonialism in Bihar: nationalist politics of the Bihar Muslims”, South Asian History and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1, January.

Teltumbde, Anand (2006), “An Enigma called Kanshiram”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLI, No. 43-44, November 4.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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