Modi a hit among all castes in poll-bound Bihar

‘He has made the nation proud abroad… even U.S. backs our claim to a permanent U.N. Council seat’

A political discussion on a warm afternoon at the busy Muzaffarpur bus-stand in Bihar veers round to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and gradually, the crowd of active participants and curious bystanders swells. The dominant mood is one of adulation.

“He is the best Prime Minister we have had,” says Bishambhar Thakur. As if to tone it down a bit, a man standing beside him half-heartedly qualifies the assertion: “He is the best after Lal Bahadur Shastri.”

Ask them what they like about Mr. Modi, and they are quick to list his “achievements.” “We watch TV regularly. He has made the nation proud abroad. India had little say in the U.N.; now even the U.S. backs our claim to a permanent seat in the Security Council,” says Gajendra Singh.

Others join in: many bank accounts have been opened, he has announced a development package for Bihar, and that “unlike Lalu Prasad, he isn’t casteist.” Asked why pulses are expensive, they become apologetic. “What can he do if production falls?” one explains, half-embarrassed.

Modi’s charisma crosses caste divide

At the busy Muzaffarpur bus-stand in poll-bound Bihar, most of the crowd spoke with admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A lone dissenter shows a newspaper article saying the Prime Minister’s foreign visits are achieving little. He identifies himself as Mohammad Salim. As this reporter leaves the spot, the cab driver tries to add perspective — “This is a Bhumihar belt. The electors are polarised along castes and the upper castes are fully with the BJP.”

Going to the polls without a chief ministerial candidate, the BJP is locked in a tight contest with a grand alliance of the RJD and the ruling JD(U) in the State. While the BJP has the solid backing of the upper castes and a fair share of Dalit and Mahadalit votes thanks to its alliances with Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi, respectively, observers admit that the 2014 Lok Sabha polls were the watershed.

“There is no doubt that Mr. Modi’s ascendancy in the BJP has re-energised the party’s core base and drawn allies,” says a Congress leader from Bihar.

But one soon discovers that the upbeat mood about Mr. Modi isn’t limited to the upper castes alone. Sections of the extremely backward castes (EBCs) seem no less enamoured of him. Muslim settlements, however, reflect a sharp break with this trend, with near unanimity that Mr. Modi is about “symbolism” rather than “work.”

There are, however, some sceptics. “He is seen abroad more than in India,” says Ajit Kumar Sahni, an EBC Nishad from village Jaaran, Gaayghat, with a wry smile. People in this village seem more impressed by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

The Seemanchal belt, east of Darbhanga, shows an interesting divide – Muslims run Mr. Modi down, claiming he speaks a lot but does little, while many Hindus see hope in him. “If he stays for 10 years, it will be great for the country,” says Harilal Mandal, an EBC from the Rajbansi caste. His village, Andhasur, lies right in the heart of the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal.

Mandal praises the Jan Dhan Yojana, but with a qualification: “Money hasn’t come into accounts opened under the scheme. But even if a person doesn’t have money, he at least has an account now.”

It is clear that Mr. Modi’s frequent speeches aired on TV — which many political rivals see as propaganda — are adding to his clout. Mandal underlined that he keenly follows the Prime Minister on television.

At Maheshkhunt village in Khagaria district, a discussion with a group playing cards in a field throws up an interesting trend. Older people — all from the OBC Chaurasia caste — praise Nitish Kumar for his work and welfare schemes for the backward, but youngsters shower praise on Mr. Modi.

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