Nitish, Lalu vie for EBC votes

Patna, Nov 15 | Updated: Nov 16 2005, 07:41am hrs
If you thought the focus of the Bihar ballot in the fourth phase would be on developmental issues such as good roads, then you would be way off the mark. Open any vernacular newspaper and you see advertisements of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad and NDAs chief ministerial candidate Nitish Kumar trying to outwit each other in wooing the extremely backward castes (EBCs).

There is more to what meets the eye on this shift of focus. In Bihar politics, where there seems to be a thin line dividing positive empowerment and development, there is a conspicuous assertion by EBCs, this time around for their rights.

Although Mr Prasad and Mr Kumar are backward Yadav and Kurmi caste leaders respectively, they are considered upper backward castes. While Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris led the backward caste wave to end upper caste (Brahmin, Bhumihar, Rajputs and Kayasths) domination in the early 90s, also termed as the Mandalisation of politics, it was in reality more a case of Yadavs becoming the dominant caste, with the other two still finding their aspirations unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, under Mr Kumar, the Kurmis and Koeris hope to displace Yadavs, ironically in alliance with the BJP, that represents the upper castes here.

But the EBCswho constitute about 36% of the population and include castes like Nishad, Teli, Kanu, Dhanuk, etc in the current elections are also asserting themselves. This was mainly due to LJPs Ram Vilas Paswans efforts to cobble together a coalition of Dalits, Muslims and EBCs. Although Mr Prasad usually got a big chunk of their votes, he cannot take these castes for granted this time. But neither can Mr Kumar, who is also targeting dalit Muslims, for BJPs support base (perceived as being upper caste) may go against him.

Besides, development is not just considered here to be limited to good roads and electricity, but to other empowering criteria such as employment for the various communities.

While even NDA sources confess that Mr Prasad has made big gains in strengthening his Muslims-Yadavs votebank in the third phase, the success of either depends on wooing EBCs in the final round.