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In Bihar, Unemployment and Price Rise Clash With BJP’s Hindutva Narrative

On June 4, it will be unveiled whether the real issues of life and livelihood outweigh the Hindutva rhetoric, or if divisive politics eventually prevails.
Modi’s efforts to divide the voters on the basis of religion might not have influenced the diverse population of Bihar at different social levels.
Representative image. Photo: ha11ok/Pixabay

Patna: It appears to be a battle between the rising rate of unemployment coupled with back-breaking inflation versus the Narendra Modi government’s single-minded focus on instilling fear among Hindus against Muslims in Bihar’s hinterlands.

Perhaps for the first time in India’s electoral history, a prime minister has presented a “distorted” version of his political opponent’s manifesto, to align with his Hindutva rhetoric. As an incumbent, the Modi government has been playing the Hindutva, or communal card, for years now.

Despite Modi’s effort to divide voters on the basis of religion, inflation and unemployment continue to be the dominant issues in this election. Employment is an important issue for all, particularly among those working in the agricultural sector.

In Bihar, over 75% of the population still relies on agriculture for their livelihood.

Two phases of elections involving nine Lok Sabha constituencies have concluded. However, Bihar still has 31 seats distributed across five linguistic regions. The state presents a complex landscape with over 200 castes and sub-castes, each with distinct characteristics, spanning from the north to the south of the Ganga river. The electoral process is far from complete.

What might have perplexed the Bharatiya Janata Party is the absence of a uniform voting trend, which largely characterises their voters in other Hindutva-ruled states.

For instance, in Bihar, almost every constituency has its own distinct story. The formula that works in Nawada might not yield the same results in neighboring Gaya – two seats nestled closely in south Bihar.

Similarly, what resonates with voters in Darbhanga may not necessarily appeal to those in Madhubani, despite both constituencies being part of the same Mithila region.

Likewise, the voting behavior in Khagaria might starkly differ from that in Madhepura and Supaul, all located in the Kosi region. Even voters from different sub-castes within the same caste may behave differently.

For instance, the needs of a Mallah (fisherman) in the Muzaffarpur region can be different from another person of the same community in East Champaran. A Muslim churihar (bangle seller) and Hajjam (barber) might feel at home with their counterparts in the Hindu community. At the same time, the ‘upper’ caste Bhumihars and Rajputs can vote against each other in Vaishali – believed to be the birthplace of democracy.

It’s not that Modi or the BJP lack appeal in Bihar. The Hindutva party has a substantial support base in the state. But Modi’s Hindutva rhetoric is failing to work as a glue that binds them.

A Gond, a Bhar, a Paasi or a Tanti – who belong to Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) – might be preferring the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance over the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which is part of  the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). This could be because of their animosity against a Yadav or another member of the upwardly mobile Other Backward Class (OBC).

Similarly, if a Brahmin prefers the BJP, it’s not because of his hatred against the Muslims. It’s because of a purely political reason for not preferring Lalu Prasad Yadav – a symbol of the backward class movement that has replaced the Brahmins at the socio-political power structure.

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The Hindutva card

Modi’s efforts to divide the voters on the basis of religion might not have influenced the diverse population of Bihar at different social levels.

This sentiment was reflected by a senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader, who is coordinating the campaign at the grassroots level.

“The dhanuks (a sub-caste of Kurmis) and the Koeris have drifted away from us. They are voting for Lalu’s party (RJD). Some others, non-Yadav castes, too, have deserted us for the mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) over the NDA,” said the RSS leader, on condition of anonymity.

Lagta hai ki log Modi ko itna vote nahin dena chahate hain ki matha sanak jai (It seems that people do not want to give Modi so much vote that he becomes extremely arrogant). The mahagathbandhan (INDIA) might win 10 seats in Bihar,” he said, exuding confidence.

What corroborates the RSS leader’s observations is the complete indifference of voters towards Modi’s speeches revolving around the mangalsutra and Pakistan’s apparent favouring of ‘shehzade’ Rahul Gandhi. Whenever the mangalsutra or Pakistan is mentioned, voters from various castes and communities react with disdain.

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The RSS leader said that the young and women voters could be the biggest reason for the BJP’s anxiety. “The youth and women voted strongly for us since the 2014 elections. They (youths and women), [however], are no longer excited about us,” he said.

Perhaps the unprecedented rise in the prices of essential commodities, coupled with an absence of job opportunities, has created a sort of disenchantment against Modi. Incidentally, he doesn’t speak at all on these issues, which were his main weapons to lampoon the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his 2014 campaigns.

Why did the issues of unemployment and price rise not work for the Opposition parties in the 2019 Lok Sabha election?

Responding to this query, veteran Socialist leader and RJD vice-president Shivanan Tiwary said, “The issue was very much in the mind of the people then as well. However, the Pulwama episode, followed by the “surgical” strike at Balakot (Pakistan), caused anxiety about national security among the voters, and they preferred Modi over others in the name of ‘saving the nation’ even at the cost of their livelihood.”

It’s not that nationalism or the Opposition’s failure to present an alternative prime ministerial face is completely out of discourse. The voters who prefer the BJP say, “It’s a Lok Sabha election. Hum log oopar dekh rahe hain (We are looking upward). There is no alternative to Modi as of now.”

Poll watchers say the Modi government’s efforts to provide five kilograms of food grains and Rs 6,000 per annum direct cash transfers have “inspired” the voters, particularly those belonging to the poorer sections of society, to aspire for betterment. The BJP has also ensured the steady supply of the doles. However, price rise and unemployment have affected the labharthi (beneficiaries) as well.

Tejashwi Yadav has not deviated from the issues of unemployment and price rise. While Modi focuses on topics like mangalsutra and inheritance tax, the young Lalu-Rabri scion exclusively addresses the rising unemployment and prices, offering a blueprint to rescue people from these twin issues. He often references how he provided five lakh jobs to the youngsters during his 17 months tenure as the Bihar deputy chief minister.

Campaigning relentlessly, Tejashwi has developed back pain and occasionally wobbles. However, he consistently keeps the issues of price rise and unemployment at the forefront of his speeches during his campaigns. The phrases “chaarsau-paar [400+]” and “Aayega to Modi hi (Modi will surely come)” have effectively disappeared from the discourse among the people.

But it’s the result on June 4 that will precisely unveil whether the real issues of life and livelihood outweigh the Hindutva rhetoric, or if divisive politics eventually prevails.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author, media educator, and independent researcher in folklore.

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