In Bihar, the National Democratic Alliance’s troubles are mounting by the day. Less than a week after Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party walked out of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition and joined the opposition Grand Alliance, Mukesh Sahni followed suit.

Sahni, 38, is a former Bollywood set designer who belongs to the Nishad community, which comprises 20 sub-castes of fisherfolk and boatmen that have traditionally depended on rivers for livelihood. Constituting nearly 14% of Bihar’s population, they are a potent electoral force.

In the 2015 Assembly election, Sahni, who calls himself the “son of Mallah”, or boatman, was among the BJP’s star campaigners. He accompanied party chief Amit Shah to 41 of his 47 campaign rallies. The BJP had banked on him to woo the Nishad community, widely considered supporters of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had broken his ties with the National Democratic Alliance ahead of the election.

Once the National Democratic Alliance lost the election, with Kumar retaining his hold on the Nishad community, it was clear that the BJP had overestimated Sahni’s popularity. He was soon sidelined.

Can he do any better for the Grand Alliance, which he joined on December 23?

Sahni continued to work among the Nishads after the 2015 setback and seems to have made some impression. It has helped Sahni’s cause that Kumar, who went back with the BJP in 2017, has resisted the Nishad’s long-standing demand for Scheduled Tribe status. The community is currently counted among the Other Backward Classes in the state.

Political observers said Sahni’s constant attacks on Kumar and the BJP for not agreeing to the demand have made him popular within the community, particularly among the youth. Indeed, Sahni’s politics, now chanelled through the newly launched Vikassheel Insaan Party, almost entirely revolves around this demand.

This bodes well for the Grand Alliance. “For long, only Muslims and the Yadavs were considered to be the main voters of the Grand Alliance but the situation has changed with the induction of Jitan Ram Manjhi, Kushwaha and Sahni,” argued Professor DM Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. Jitan Ram Manjhi is a Dalit leader from the Musahar community who briefly became the chief minister of Bihar before falling out with Nitish Kumar.

A promise not kept

The Nishads are counted among the Scheduled Tribes in Bengal, Odisha and Delhi, but not in Bihar. In 2015, Kumar’s government, under pressure for the community, asked the Centre to declare the Nishads a Scheduled Tribe but that did not happen. Kumar reiterated the recommendation in June this year, to no avail.

Sahni considers this a “betrayal”. The Nishads voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2014, he complained, but did not get anything in return. “I wanted Modi ji to be the prime minister since he had promised the Nishads would be given Scheduled Tribe status in Bihar,” Sahni said, explaining why he campaigned for the BJP in the 2014 general election without joining the party formally. “But four years have passed and he has not kept his promise. Instead of focussing on real problems, they are trying to divide the society using the Hindu card.”

Backward castes such as the Nishads are widely expected to decide the 2019 election in Bihar. Sahni’s entry is thus likely to boost the Grand Alliance’s prospects, not least since any success he might have would directly damage Kumar. Indeed, even the BJP realises this, which explains why it reportedly tried to keep Sahni from jumping ship.

In the end, political observers noted, the BJP’s losses in the recent Assembly elections might have persuaded Sahni to throw in his lot with the Opposition. “Once Kushwaha joined the Grand Alliance, Sahni knew which way to go,” said Diwakar.

On his part, Sahni appears confident that he has chosen the winning side – he has vowed to quit politics if the National Democratic Alliance reaches double digits in terms of seats. “We are the second largest backward caste group after the Yadavs,” he reasoned, referring to the Nishad community. “And if we stand united, we can defeat the NDA which has lost all credibility on the ground.”

His new allies agreed. “Regional parties joining hands with the Opposition in such large numbers is a reflection of the ground reality in Bihar,” said Shivanand Tiwari, vice president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which leads the Grand Alliance. “Sahni, Kushwaha and Manjhi campaigned for the BJP in 2014 and now they have switched sides. It is for the BJP to answer why its allies are abandoning the party.”

The Grand Alliance is yet to work out a seat-sharing arrangement but Sahni is likely to be offered the Muzaffarpur seat, which is currently held by the BJP. “I can contest from any seat in Bihar though I would prefer Darbhanga as I was born there,” Sahni said. “But we haven’t had any talks about seats yet.”