It is debatable whether Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's volte-face has dented his image as an astute politician and a role model of good governance. But the question nagging most minds is why did the BJP re-induct Nitish into the NDA fold?
Despite the euphoria over the Ram temple, the BJP's electoral feedback suggested that the party might not repeat the 2019 performance as long as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav remained together. Both leaders formed a formidable political force due to their unwavering support base among the different social justice caste groups.
The Mahagathbandhan stood on firm ground, more so after Nitish Kumar last year played a masterstroke by increasing the reservation quota to 65 per cent from the previous quota of 50 per cent besides envisaging 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections (EWS) among the upper castes.
The decision was taken following a caste enumeration report, which indicated substantial growth in the numbers of the extremely backward castes in Bihar. Despite its main plank of Hindutva, which is at its peak after the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple, the BJP seems to have modified its strategy in Bihar and decided to play the Mandal card along with the Kamandal. That is why it had become imperative for the BJP to break the Lalu-Nitish combination and wean away Nitish, who was sulking due to the growing influence of Lalu and Congress in the INDIA bloc.
The BJP has also tried to blunt OBC politics by roping in Nitish, who has been the champion of social justice and mooted the idea of caste census throughout the country. Several opposition leaders, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, have picked up this issue and demanded that caste census be conducted throughout the country. The BJP has remained in a dilemma on this and has maintained a non-committal stance, fearing a loss of support from the upper castes.
However, the BJP is now attempting to slice the hitherto solid social justice bloc before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The strategy is to confuse the Yadav voters, who are solidly behind Lalu Prasad, carve out the support of the Kushwaha (Koeri) and drive a wedge among the 36 per cent EBCs. The Koeris, accounting for 4.21 per cent of the total population, have been clamouring for the chief minister's chair for the past few years, insisting that it is now their turn; all this Yadavs (Lalu and Rabri) and Kurmis (Nitish Kumar) have been enjoying the fruits of power since 1990. They claim that despite their numerical preponderance, they have been denied a due share in the legislature and state administration.
Nonetheless, the Koeris have been staunch supporters of Nitish Kumar. They were at the forefront during the formation of the Samata Party in 1993, along with Kurmis and the EBCs. Eventually, the majority of the non-Yadav backward castes, upper castes and substantial sections of the Scheduled Castes rallied behind Nitish and ousted the Lalu-Rabri combine in 2005. Since Bihar, with 40 Lok Sabha seats, is important for the BJP, an EBC outreach strategy has been worked out, and the effort is to lure a few dominant castes with sizable populations, such as the fishermen (Mallah) community, which constitutes nearly 6 per cent of Bihar's population.
The community supported Nitish Kumar before Mukesh Sahani floated the Vikashsheel Insaan Party (VIP) and projected himself as the 'Son of Mallahs' among the community. Both Lalu and Nitish are considered the champions of social justice in Bihar and share the common vote bank of backward and extremely backward castes. Lalu commands the major portion of the Muslim and Yadav vote bank, amounting to nearly 30 per cent, while Nitish holds considerable clout among the Kurmis, Koeris and EBCs. But one aspect of Nitish politics is very clear: he can go to any extent if there are chances of him being unseated by any political leader or combination.
The author, Ashok Mishra, is a former senior editor at Hindustan Times, Patna.