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Caste Dynamics in Bihar Politics: Spotlight on Kushwaha Influence Amidst Shifting Alliances and Marginalized Muslims

M.I. Khan, TwoCircles.net

Patna: More than any other social group, the Kushawaha, an agrarian caste belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), has become highly sought after by both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. Both political factions are actively vying to secure their support.

Despite constituting only 4.27% of the total population of the state, as indicated in the Bihar caste survey report released last year, the ruling coalition and the Opposition are vigorously courting the Kushwaha community, locally known as ‘Koeri’. They are keen to avoid any potential displeasure from this influential group.

This stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Muslims, the largest minority group comprising 17.7% of the state’s population, who continue to be marginalized and overlooked in state politics.

The significance of the Kushwahas is underscored by recent events. On July 2, both the ruling BJP and its major ally Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) made calculated moves to garner the community’s support, following reports of their dissatisfaction over inadequate representation in the recently constituted 18th Lok Sabha.

Senior JD-U leader Bhagwan Singh Kushwaha filed his nomination papers on July 2 for the Bihar Legislative Council by-poll and is expected to be elected unopposed as an MLC. Last week, the JD(U), led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, decided to nominate the former minister to the state legislative council.

Simultaneously, on July 2, BJP’s Bihar President Samrat Choudhary announced that the party would nominate former Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, who leads the Rashtriya Lok Morcha, an ally of the NDA, to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament).

The decisions are part of a strategic effort by both parties to cultivate a friendly image among the Kushwaha community. This recent development is widely perceived as a gesture to the caste group ahead of next year’s crucial Bihar Assembly elections.

Both Kushwaha leaders hold significant influence among their community members. Bhagwan Singh Kushwaha had an unsuccessful bid in the 2020 Bihar Assembly polls as a Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) candidate, while Upendra Kushwaha faced defeats in the Karakat seat during the 2019 and 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Upendra Kushwaha, who has projected himself as a leader of the Kushwahas for nearly two decades, was defeated in the recently concluded elections by Raja Ram Singh, a CPI (ML) candidate and ally of the RJD, who also belongs to the Kushwaha community. Upendra contested as an NDA candidate but finished third, with Bhojpuri singer and film star Pawan Singh, an independent candidate, securing the runner-up position.

Local Hindi dailies reported that Upendra Kushwaha was dismayed by this outcome and blamed certain BJP leaders for supporting Pawan Singh, who contested against the official NDA candidate. As a result, the BJP was compelled to expel Singh from the party for contesting against their endorsed candidate.

Earlier, the JD-U sent Upendra Kushwaha to the Rajya Sabha in 2012. Subsequently, he formed his own party and contested the 2014 parliamentary elections, emerging victorious and becoming a union minister for the first time in the Narendra Modi-led government.

Meanwhile, the BJP has strategically utilized the Kushwaha card within its ranks. The party’s state president, Samrat Choudhary, is a Kushwaha who was appointed as a deputy chief minister in the NDA government in Bihar under the chief ministership of Nitish Kumar. Not to be outdone, JD(U)’s state president, Umesh Kushwaha, also hails from the Kushwaha community.

Interestingly, there is little clamor among several leaders from the Muslim community, including former Union ministers, former MPs and ministers, who are waiting for opportunities in greener pastures.

On the other hand, the Opposition RJD is making efforts to gain ground among the Kushwaha community, traditionally supporters of the ruling JD(U) and to some extent the BJP as well. With an eye on the upcoming state assembly polls next year, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav made a strategic move on June 21 by appointing Abhay Kushwaha, a newly elected MP from Aurangabad, as the parliamentary party leader of the RJD. This move is seen as an attempt by the RJD to attract the Kushwaha vote.

In the 2024 general elections, Lalu’s strategy to court Kushwaha support showed some success. The RJD-led coalition of the Congress and Left parties fielded seven candidates from the caste, including three by RJD alone. The NDA also fielded four candidates from the community, although none were from the BJP, which reportedly caused some disillusionment among Kushwahas supportive of the party.

Lalu’s strategy successfully garnered a portion of Kushwaha votes for the Opposition alliance’s candidates, bolstered by RJD’s traditional Muslim-Yadav support base along with Dalits. This approach proved effective in Aurangabad, where RJD candidate Abhay Kushwaha defeated sitting BJP MP Sushil Kumar Singh, a Rajput by caste. Remarkably, this marked the first time since 1952 that a non-Rajput candidate won in the community’s stronghold in the state.

Taking this success into consideration, the RJD has accorded significant importance to Abhay Kushwaha, aiming to convey to the Kushwaha community that they are valued by the party, alongside its core supporters of Muslims and Yadavs.

Kushwahas form the largest social group after Lalu’s own Yadav community (14.26% Yadav) in Bihar, a state known for its caste-based politics.

Political analysts note that even marginal support from the Kushwahas helped the Opposition alliance secure victories in neighboring seats such as Arrah, Patliputra, Buxar and Jehanabad during the general elections, located on both sides of the river Sone.

However, the JD(U) continues to be favored by the Kushwahas, alongside the Kurmis, another agrarian OBC community known locally as Luv-Kush. Among JD(U)’s 12 newly elected MPs, two are Kushwahas and one belongs to the Kurmi caste.

Both the ruling NDA and the Opposition bloc prioritize Kushwaha support due to their significant presence in 25 to 30 assembly seats. The BJP relies on its traditional core support among upper castes, OBCs, Vaishyas and a section of Dalits and extremely backward castes (EBCs).

Similarly, the JD(U) banks on the loyalty of a large chunk of 113 castes, including EBCs, OBCs, Kurmis (Nitish Kumar’s caste) and Dalits.

“If the NDA manages to retain the Kushwaha support base, it will solidify their social support in the upcoming polls,” commented political analyst Satyanarayan Madan.