Though many in Bihar––or even outside––were surprised over Rashtriya Janata Dal leaving three seats for a little-known and recently floated Vikas Sheel Insaan Party (VIP) for the coming Lok Sabha election yet the truth is that this is not a new formula adopted by Lalu Prasad Yadav. It is another attempt to take back into the fold those backward castes and Dalits, who had over the years deserted Lalu’s outfit on one pretext or the other.
Many political pundits, mostly Delhi-based, were taken aback when RJD insisted on leaving five seats for Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and three for former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha. The victory of Lalu Prasad in several elections in Bihar during the heydays of 1990s was attributed to this broad based alliance which he wove after the implementation of Mandal Commission report in August 1990.
But the breaking away of Nitish Kumar and several other leaders in 1994, then the latter’s alliance with emerging BJP, gradually weakened Lalu. Years later Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan also jumped off the Lalu bandwagon. After becoming the chief minister of state on November 24, 2005, Nitish floated his own formula. He started wooing Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) by earmarking 20 per cent seats for them in the local bodies election.This helped Nitish consolidate his vote bank further and leaders of EBCs gradually started shifting towards Janata Dal United.
Nishad or Sahni and several other such sub-castes are among a numerically strong EBC of Bihar. They are engaged in their traditional business of boat-ferrying, boat-making or fishing. According to the leader of VIP Mukesh Sahni they form about 15 per cent of state’s population. They have strong presence in the riverine belt of the state. Incidentally, Yadavs too have substantial population in many of these pockets of Bihar.
As they are numerically strong they are always in demand in the the state politics. It was none else but Lalu, who first promoted a couple of Nishad leaders and made them minister in his cabinet. He put up Captain Jai Narayan Nishad as his party’s candidate from Muzaffarpur––an unusual step then. Later Captain Nishad crossed over to Nitish’s camp and to the saffron party. His son Ajay Nishad won the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat as the BJP candidate in the last election. He is again contesting on the BJP ticket. The problem for Mukesh Sahni’s VIP, which came up only on November 4, 2018, is that in all the three seats which it is contesting there are a good number of Muslim votes too. The party has been allotted Madhubani, Khagaria and Muzaffarpur constituencies.
Mukesh himself is contesting from Khagaria from where LJP, an NDA constituent, has once again fielded sitting MP Chaudhary Mehboob Ali Qaiser. As VIP is a Grand Alliance constituent a sort of Muslim Yadav-Nishad alliance is being floated. To attract Muslim voters in Khagaria, the VIP is backing RJD’s Tanvir Hasan in neighbouring Begusarai district. They are not lending their support to the CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar. If this happens the latter may be in trouble.
Mukesh, who has plunged into politics from Bollywood, wants to remove the impression that his caste is against Muslims. During the 2015 Assembly election Mukesh was escorted to many constituencies of Bihar by the BJP national president Amit Shah. Besides, Sahnis were accused of being behind the Azizpur riots of January 2015. This village falls in the Sahni dominated pocket of Vaishali district and four Muslims were killed in it. The problem with the castes associated with river related business is that after the construction of bridges and barrages or dams––for example Farakka Barrage––they have suffered great economic loss.
The number of boats plying in Ganga and its tributaries has come down considerably. The construction of barrages had prevented the flow of fish to upstream. So Bihar, in spite of so many rivers and ponds, has to rely now on fish from Andhra Pradesh. When the state government late last year ban the fish from Andhra Pradesh on being cancerous many in the business suspected that there is a conspiracy behind the move.
Over the years a large number of Sahnis became unemployed and migrated to other states as labourers. Some of them even went into the world of crime. Sensing this situation Mukesh first formed Nishad Vikas Sangh and later floated VIP. He certainly has political ambition. The importance of Nishad as a political force in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh was first recognised by the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav when he gave ticket to Phoolan Devi, a former dacoit, from Mirzapur.
There are several sub-castes engaged in the river related business in the entire Ganges plain. In eastern Bihar there is substantial population of Gangota, also known as Ganga-putra. RJD’s attempt to woo them started during the last election when it gave ticket to Shailesh Mandal alias Bulo Mandal. Curiously, he was among the four RJD contesters who could win the election. Mandal in fact emerged as a sort of giant killer as he trounced BJP’s Syed Shahnawaz Hussain though Bhagalpur has a sizeable Muslim population.
Gangotas, like Sahnis and Nishads, also had the impression of being anti-Muslim. The caste, it is alleged, played a crucial role in the 1989 communal riots in Bhagalpur. Yet 25 years later Muslims preferred a Gangota candidate of RJD over BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain. Lalu is trying the same formula now. The move to woo Nishads is not confined only to Bihar. The BJP has recently wooed Pravin Nishad who as common SP-BSP backed candidate defeated the Saffron Party in the by-poll for the prestigious Gorakhpur seat last year May. But much political waters have flown through all these rivers of Bihar and UP. However, Mukesh Sahni seems to have one advantage. His entry into Grand Alliance fold coincided with the death of Captain Nishad.