One of beauties of democracy is that pretty often the voiceless section determines the one who ought to get the mandate.
This was best seen when Peoples Pulse toured Bihar to assess the situation for the 2015 Assembly elections. It is clear that the battle lines were fully drawn based on caste. The upper castes like the Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs along with Banias, Kushwas, Paswans, and Mushahars have predominantly decided to back the NDA - BJP, LJP, RLSP and ex-Chief Minister Mr. Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha.
The Yadavs, Kurmis, Muslims and some sects of the Mahadalits are openly with the Grand Alliance or the Maha Gatbandhan constituting RJD, JD (U) and Congress.
Despite this, the only section that is refusing to give a hint, let alone open up is the Economically Backward Classes (EBC). They form a solid 24 per cent of the electorate. The race over the past three weeks is nerve wracking with the NDA and the Grand Alliance headed for a photo finish. Therefore, it is the EBCs, which singularly hold the key to these keenly and fiercely fought elections.
The EBCs became an electoral power only because of Bihar chief minister and JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar. Though the EBCs were defined and re-defined since the 1950s, Mr.. Kumar carved them out as a key political constituency with a collective political identity by devising for them specific policies like reservations in Panchayat Raj elections, educational institutions, health schemes and jobs. He embarked on this soon after winning his first term in 2005 and over time the EBCs became a well-defined electoral power and electoral constituency.
The EBCs are different from all other social groupings. At a basic level, they are too dispersed in every Assembly seat; and at another level, they have no leader. Therefore, they are not a dominant community like Yadavs or Kurmis. The variance can be further seen as they are referred to as Panchpanias in one place, Panchporna elsewhere and Solhkan in yet another place.
This being so, they acknowledge that Mr.. Kumar is the only leader who fulfilled their aspirations and recognised their legitimate rights. They point to 28 EBCs MLAs in the outgoing Assembly.
The huge misconception among many political observers is that EBCs voted overwhelmingly for Narendra Modi in last year’s Parliament elections and are therefore expected to vote similarly now. Nothing can be farther than the truth as the EBCs, said then and even now that they voted so because that vote was “not for or against Mr.. Kumar” but “for Mr.. Modi”. In addition, herein lies the debate whether they would continue to back Mr.. Kumar or would shift to seek a change and tilt in the NDA’s favour.
It is precisely for this reason that Peoples Pulse adopted a scientific method and on paper segregated the EBCs into three groupings. The first are the Small Business Traders, like Teli, (Oil pressers), Paneri, (Betel leaf sellers), Sav, (Small shopkeepers) etc. The second are the Artisan Castes like Kumhar, Tanti (Weavers), Badhai (Carpenters), Lohar (Blacksmiths), Sonar (Goldsmiths), etc. The third are the labouring Castes like Mallah (Fisherman), Bind (Salttappers), Noonia, Patwa, Dhanuk, Kahar (Palanquin carriers), Amat, etc. Mr.. Kumar, ahead of the elections ordered re-categorisation of the Teli community, to nip the chances of Mr.. Modi striking a cord with them.
The common thread that runs through these three groupings is that they are fond of Mr.. Kumar. The other common thread is that they are fearful of Lalu Prasad Yadav. That is because if the Grand Alliance comes to power it might cause to a throwback to those days where the Yadavs were dominant and sometimes militantly so.
It is largely for this reason that Mr. Kumar empowered the EBCs a decade ago. When Peoples Pulse specifically asked them that Mr. Yadav would become more powerful if the Grand Alliance comes to power, their response was that Mr. Kumar would be the Chief Minister and not Mr. Yadav. They are emphatic that he is not pliant. They cite a variety of reasons to substantiate this view.
Then the EBCs are equally wary of the NDA, particularly the BJP. They view the BJP as an upper caste party and are disinclined to see upper castes in power as that means that it would return to their days of suppression.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent remarks on reservations could not have come at a more inappropriate time for the BJP. His remarks have become an election issue with the Grand Alliance’s sharp focus on this. The EBCs worry is further compounded that if the BJP-led government comes to power, they stand to lose all those benefits, which Mr. Kumar has extended to them.
When the Peoples Pulse began to sift through this complex and interesting picture and spent extra time with EBCs, a section of the Small Business Traders and the Artisan Castes are tending to prefer the NDA. Yet a majority of them is keeping its views to itself. However, the decisive outlook was found in the Labouring Castes, which are numerically the strongest among the EBCs. They view themselves as the greatest beneficiaries of Mr. Kumar’s schemes for EBCs. Next, they are not averse or disinclined towards Mr. Yadav.
This being the EBCs perception, by and large, Peoples Pulse would need to reiterate the basic point that they are very scattered. This means that a homogenous, cordial atmosphere needs to prevail between them and the other communities from today till the date of polling.
During our 6,000 kilometres tour, the most interesting reply to our prodding was, “Jiski lehar dikhti hai uske saath ho jaate hain. Fir hum sab ka mann chahe kahin bhi ho, ek mann ke ho jate hain”, KHARBOOJA KHARBOOJE KO DEKH KAR RANG BADALTA HAI.” (We go where the wind is blowing. Then, irrespective of our personal preferences, we back the winning horse. A couple of days before the election we decide whom to vote as per the wave and we get along with the candidate/party that we perceive as winning. Thereafter we may have different electoral preferences but merge our preferences in affinity with each other in the same way as a Melon changes its colour in affinity of other Melons.)