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Bihari Revelations in Caste, Class, and Gender: An Electoral Audit

By Fatema Pittalwala and R. Mir

Artwork by Siddesh Gautam (@bakeryprasad)

During the Bihar state election, there was a lot of debate as to how important a role caste and gender would play. In previous elections, caste particularly had been the key factor. But with a pandemic and an economic crisis in the country, did either still play a major role?

To understand the election itself, and why this election fell along such unanticipated lines, we must first understand what the key issues were. Stating the obvious, Covid-19 was a huge and unprecedented issue, as lockdown had knock-on effects on employment, migration and health.

Many migrant workers who had to return home to India when lockdown began are Bihari, causing a surplus of now-unemployed people but not enough jobs or support. It provoked questions and anger at the state government, most notably begging long-unanswered questions around why there weren't enough in-state jobs in the first place. Agriculture too, remained a key issue, with the residual bad taste of agricultural reforms and nation-wide protests lingering on Bihar’s political palette. Coupled along with the alleged politicisation of flood relief in the aftermath of the 2019 floods in Bihar, with over 8 million people affected, the stage was well set for a path-breaking election. Underlying these key issues remained two foundational cornerstones (whether visible or invisible) of all elections in India - caste and gender.

Looking deeper into the results of the Bihar election gives us some fresh insight into how the political leanings of these communities are evolving, what the path forward holds, and how our continued underestimation of the base appeal of nationalist rhetorics can carve out significant blind spots in the way we forecast elections.

The Breakdown: Caste x Gender

The turnout for this election was relatively low, with only 57.1% of voters casting a ballot, representing a marginal improvement on 2015 (56.7%), but still less than other states such as Uttar Pradesh (60%) and West Bengal (84.3%). However, one noticeable outcome was a higher turnout amongst women. Of all registered voters, 59.8% of women cast a vote, compared to 54.7% of men. Women have become an increasingly important voter group, evident by pre-election outreach strategies such as the BJP holding women-targeted town halls. Nitish Kumar’s government took steps such as distribution sanitary towels and school uniforms, providing financial grants for female entrepreneurs, and establishing one million women-led Jeevika Self Help Groups. However, only 7% of women in Bihar have landholding rights, compared to the 13% national average, and there is still the nation-wide problem of increased violence against women. Despite more women voting this year, there are more registered male voters, with at least 600,000 women voters are missing from the electorate. Against that backdrop, it is positive that a higher female turnout was good, but there are still challenges to overcome. Gender is significant as it intersects with other voting categories, such as the youth vote. The MGB party did not attain a significant youth vote advantage, votes for Tejaswhi were mostly concentrated among young men and not young women. In fact, older women voted for the MGB more. The gender advantage for the NDA was only two percentage points overall.

The same can be said for the role of caste within local elections, and its intersection with gender. Upper caste women, from Kurmi, Koeri and EBC communities, voted overwhelmingly for the NDA and were much more likely to do so than men from the same communities. Yadav women and Muslim communities voted 82% for the MGB, despite being RJD’s traditional voters. Dalit and OBC communities are considered the swing vote, with smaller margins than other caste groups. In the first two phases, the Dalit vote went more to the MGB, as their alliance with the Communist parties proved crucial. This shows that for lower caste communities, the Left has been making significant appeals. Support for the MGB was primarily from Ravidas and Dusadhs. Other communities, such as Musahars, voted favourably for the NDA.

But, as in all elections, generalisations between community groups can’t be made, as voting preference within lower castes is not homogeneous.

The Final Result

Tejashwi Yadav, at age 31, son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, from Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) conducted about 10 to 12 rallies a day through the pandemic. Yadav saw an incredible rise in his popularity with his effective messaging. He did not engage with the BJP in any debate on national issues like the Ram temple, Kashmir or the Chinese border conflict. His agenda was focused on local concerns aimed towards education, jobs and medical care for all. He neither promised any special privileges to any caste nor discriminated against any caste. His message really resonated with women and young voters of Bihar. This resulted in his party winning 75 seats. They were the single largest party in this election.

BJP did not trail too far behind winning 72 seats. However, BJP on the other hand won their seats by mastering the ‘Caste Math’ and galvanizing greater support based on Modi’s popularity in Bihar. For the first time in two decades, they consolidated the Upper Caste vote which has felt neglected ever since the Mandal era began in the 1990s. This caste group in the state largely consists of the Brahmins, the Bhumihars and the Rajputs. These three subgroups with other relatively smaller upper castes comprise about 15 per cent of the state’s population.

BJP, besides coming to power in Bihar, had a second agenda; relegate Nitish Kumar to a secondary partnership. Nitish Kumar, the incumbent Chief Minister, an OBC leader, represents the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) and Non -Yadav Backward Class. BJP put up two proxies to facilitate a decrease in Nitish Kumar’s votes. The first, Asaduddin Owaisi, a charismatic leader and Hyderabad MP -led All India Muslim Ittehad ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) determined to expand the party’s footprint, and was pitched into the minority-dominated Seemanchal region of Bihar. Owaisi first ventured into the Muslim-dominated districts of Seemanchal in 2015 and has since steadily made inroads. By winning 5 of the 19 seats he contested and giving a tough fight in another couple of seats, AIMIM successfully split the Muslim vote. The second proxy was the Lok Jan Shakti Party’s (LJP) new President Chirag Paswan, whose assignment was to cut into the CM’s Non -Yadav Backward castes vote. Both these strategies worked in favour of the BJP.

Looking Back

Overall, the CM lost a lot of his bargaining strength after the election with his seats reduced from 70 to 43. This reflected a growing frustration against his government on issues such as the migrant crisis during COVID, unemployment and increased corruption in the state.

Although it is rare for a National Party to win in Bihar, the real winner is Tejashwi Yadav. A young politician who’s messaging concurred with the younger and aspirational generation, who want employment in their own state. His message was “rozgaar” or employment for all in Bihar, which appealed across caste lines. Tejaswi Yadav saw a rise in popularity and a consolidation of the party’s Muslim and Yadav (MY) voters. He ensured that his father’s party stayed relevant by evolving the election message from ‘Bhura baal saaf karo’ - a slogan that called for the political marginalisation of the Upper Castes in the 1990s - to its current evolution of ‘Jobs for all’.

What does the future hold for Bihar?

If the NDA doesn't deliver their development agenda this term, BJP will use Nitish Kumar as a scapegoat for their failures. In the next election, Tejaswi Yadav will be the person to watch out for. Congress pulled down the Mahagatbandhan or grand alliance with RJD and the Left where they contested 70 seats and lost 51. Their relevance is nearly negligible with its leadership vacuum and demotivated party workers.

As for the future, the benefits will fall to the voters of Bihar. They have broken this trend of only using caste politics to represent them; where voters were supporting leaders of a similar caste to themselves, partly in return for promises of government jobs and other benefits.

The COVID pandemic has shown voters of Bihar how important a universal state leader is in order to support them especially after the migrant crisis in India due to the National lockdown.

So, both gender and caste have a significant role to play every election, but it’s complex. While Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) still suffer from inequality no matter which party comes to power (and India does not collect up-to-date data on caste). Sweeping statements about which party is preferred by women and different caste communities depends on a multitude of factors: their community, the region, their wealth, and religion. And now, also policies and critical current issues. It is hopeful to see the voters of Bihar take this step toward voting on issues and policies rather than their caste. And while the means may not quite justify the ends, in these strange times, there is something to be said for paying attention to the means.


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