On March 3, less than 24 hours after being nominated as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Asansol Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal, Bhojpuri singer and actor Pawan Singh abruptly withdrew his candidature.

While Singh did not cite a reason for his decision, social media users and Opposition leaders pointed out that the BJP faced an immediate backlash for nominating Singh despite his misogynist songs directed at Bengali women.

Even as Singh has pulled out of the contest, the BJP has fielded Bhojpuri singer and actor Manoj Tiwari from North East Delhi, another constituency that has a significant Bihari population.

The nominations of Tiwari and Singh are an attempt to tap into the massive popularity of Bhojpuri stars among Biharis who live in other states, observers said. Music, they said, has long been closely intertwined with Bihari migrant identity.

Stardom beyond Bihar

Though the BJP’s decision to nominate Singh from Asansol backfired, it was driven by the constituency’s large Bihari population. Even the Trinamool Congress nominated Bollywood actor Shatrugan Sinha from the seat in a bye-election in 2022. Sinha, who is known to fans as “Bihari Babu”, won the election.

An even more striking example of the role played by Bihari migrants in Indian politics is Tiwari, who won the North East Delhi seat in 2019. Tiwari’s appeal among the significant Delhi population of Purvanchalis hailing from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had been acknowledged in 2016, when he was appointed the BJP chief in the capital.

Brahma Prakash, assistant professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained that otherwise diverse Biharis get consolidated into a voting bloc when they live outside the state.

“When a voter is in Bihar, he could vote along caste lines or might prefer a particular party but when he goes to Bengal or Delhi, the identity of being a migrant becomes a bigger factor,” Prakash said. “So, the voters could belong to any region or caste of Bihar, but they act as a unit when they are outside the state.”

Nirala Bidesiya, a former journalist who studies Bihari folk culture, agreed that even if Bhojpuri performers are not necessarily popular as politicians at home, they are a significant draw for Biharis outside the state.

“Manoj Tiwari will not be able to seek votes [in Bihar] in the name of Bhojpuri [film industry] because he has not done anything for the industry despite being an MP,” Bidesiya said. “[But] He can work his charisma among Biharis in Delhi by singing four lines.”

He said that Singh would probably have found it difficult to find support in Bihar in his hometown of Arrah because of disapproval of his personal life. Singh has been canvassing for the Arrah seat even as he is fighting a divorce case in the courts.

Bhojpuri singer and actor Manoj Tiwari became a BJP MP from North East Delhi in 2019. (Manoj Tiwari/Facebook)

A long history

Music has reflected the anxieties and joys of Bihari migrants since at least the 19th century, when people from the region were transported to the Caribbean by the British to work as indentured labourers. An example of this is chutney music, a fusion of Bhojpuri folk music and calypso that developed in Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam. The concerns of migrants were also evident in works of respected early 20th-century poets such as Bhikhari Thakur and Mahender Mishra.

Modern technology has widened the distribution networks for Bhojpuri songs. “Access to mobile phones and cheap internet helped local Bhojpuri artists expand the popularity of [their] music to a sort of industry among migrants,” Prakash said.

Bidesiya noted that these songs have long reflected the desires of single migrant men, a theme that has given Bhojpuri music a reputation for being vulgar. This is what nay have prompted Singh to withdraw his candidature.

“These songs pander to the sexual frustration of migrant Biharis staying alone and away from their homes,” he said. “They consume this kind of content on a daily basis and they are attracted to the stars who feature in these videos.”

Such themes have been accelerated by technology. “This industry is dependent on virality on internet,” said Bidesiya. “That’s the reason that you would see most Bhojpuri songs are either devotional or Hindutva pop or vulgar, because that’s what goes viral the most.”

This aspect of Singh’s work gave the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal a handle to attack him after his nomination was announced on March 2. Party leaders posted screenshots of videos of his songs on social media, pointing out that some objectified Bengali women.

After Singh pulled out on March 3, Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee described the development as a result of “the indomitable spirit and power of the people of West Bengal”.