Last week in Varanasi, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah appealed to the Other Backward Class category to help his party win in the upcoming Assembly elections in the Hindi belt. Yet in Bihar, where the BJP is planning to start an early poll campaign next month, there is the realisation that it cannot take the support of OBC voters for granted, which has put the party in a fix on the question of its chief ministerial candidate in the state.

In the state BJP, former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi and the leader of opposition in the state Assembly, Nand Kishore Yadav, are the two frontrunners. But both belong to the OBC category. The BJP’s central leadership fears that the OBCs, who have traditionally voted for the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United), may not abandon their old allegiances even if it picks Sushil Modi or Yadav as its chief ministerial candidate, according to a senior BJP leader in Bihar. Besides, the party’s central leadership is uncertain of how its traditional support base among the upper castes will respond in case it does decide to project an OBC as the party’s face in the Assembly polls.

Many in the state BJP find this dilemma unusual, particularly since the central leadership’s unambiguous posture of playing an OBC-centric politics in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since the BJP’s landslide win in the Lok Sabha election, Shah has tried to comprehensively transform OBC politics in the two states by promoting backward caste leaders in the organisation and by positioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an OBC leader. As recently as March 22, while addressing a public meet at Varanasi, Shah had sought to enlist OBC support to help the saffron party gain power in the politically crucial Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states. Elections are due in Bihar in November this year and in Uttar Pradesh in May 2017.

Banking on a win

That is why most Bihar BJP leaders are now baffled. Just when they thought the party is going all out to woo the key segment, accounting for nearly 32% of the electorate, it has developed doubts.

The timing of the fears is also important. The central leadership’s loss of confidence has come when the state unit is busy preparing for a rally of booth-level workers, which will kick-start the BJP’s election campaign in Bihar. The rally, to be held on April 14 in Patna, is supposed to be addressed by Shah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Though party leaders are not calling the event a public rally, they are hopeful that large-scale mobilisation of grassroots workers will give the BJP sufficient momentum to begin an election campaign well in advance.

For both the BJP and for Amit Shah, Bihar is crucial. A victory in Bihar will boost the saffron party’s confidence, which has sagged since it suffered a rout in the Delhi Assembly polls, and restore the aura of invincibility it had gained after the Lok Sabha election. As for Shah, a win will silence the internal opposition he has faced since the Delhi debacle. On the other hand, if the party loses, it will spell disaster for both the BJP and its national president.

Show of strength

Still, there are others major stakeholders in Bihar. Sushil Modi, for instance, has been harbouring the desire of being projected as the chief ministerial candidate ever since the BJP and the JD(U) parted ways before the Lok Sabha election. That he has not given up the hope became clear recently when his supporters decided to organise a mega event to promote the former deputy chief minister a fortnight before the April 14 rally of Amit Shah. This event, to be held in Patna on March 27 to mark the silver jubilee of Sushil Modi’s parliamentary career, is being organised by Independent Member of the Legislative Council Devesh Chandra Thakur. Thakur is believed to be in the process of joining the BJP.

Among those who are likely to attend the function are Goa Governor Mridula Sinha, Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das and senior BJP leaders Venkaiah Naidu, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Radha Mohan Singh, Ram Kripal Yadav, Giriraj Singh and Dharmendra Pradhan.

Though this event is being dubbed “non-political”, it is already being discussed in Bihar’s political circles as Sushil Modi’s show of strength – a manoeuvre to force the party out of its dilemma and make it again believe in OBC politics, which it earlier believed would help it sail through the choppy waters of Bihar.