New Delhi: In Bihar’s caste-driven political landscape, Mukesh Sahani, a leader of the Mallah fisherfolk community and founder of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), is proving to be quite a tough nut to crack for the BJP.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP’s political mastermind, has been eager to bring Sahani into the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to counter Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s influential caste coalition within the opposition INDIA alliance in Bihar. But while Shah has had success with other regional caste leaders like Jitan Ram Manjhi (Hindustani Awam Morcha) and Upendra Kushwaha (Rashtriya Lok Samta Party), Sahani is driving a hard bargain for Lok Sabha seats and a quota for his community.
Former minister Sahani, who has a major support base in the Mallah (also called Nishad) community, was a member of the NDA when Bihar went to polls in 2020, but his relations with the BJP soured in March last year after three of his four MLAs switched to the party.
Since then, Shah has made overtures to Sahani, such as providing him with Y-Plus security this January, but such gestures seem to have fallen flat.
Last month, Sahani started a 100-day Nishad Arakshan Yatra spanning Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh to push for reservations for his community, which comes under the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC).
Featuring a rath that is said to have cost Rs 5 crore, the yatra has been drawing substantial crowds in north Bihar. It is widely seen as an attempt to set the narrative for reservations for Mallahs before the publication of data for the Bihar caste census.
“We are moving across Bihar with the demand of reservation for our community,” Sahani told ThePrint. “Those who accept our demand will get our vote. Why can’t the BJP accept the demand if they want to uplift the fisherfolk community?”
But for the BJP, accepting any demand for a sub-quota is a tricky proposition since it could trigger similar movements from other communities. At the same time, the party cannot risk upsetting the EBCs and Mahadalits, on whom it has been focusing to counter Nitish’s alliance.
To strike a balance, the BJP’s solution has been to leverage its own EBC leaders. To this end, the party appointed the relatively low-profile Mallah leader Hari Sahni as the leader of the opposition in the Bihar legislative council earlier this month.
“This will weaken Mukesh Sahani’s bargaining powers while also sending a message to the Mallah community,” said a Bihar BJP functionary. He admitted that while Hari Sahni lacks the kind of support base enjoyed by Mukesh Sahani, the move could help limit the latter’s options.
Several leaders further said that the BJP was losing its patience with the VIP chief’s “hard-bargaining” for Lok Sabha seats.
“Mukesh Sahani’s demand for seats is unreasonable— he is asking for 11 seats (out of a total of 40),” said a Bihar BJP MP who is part of the negotiating team. “In the 2020 assembly elections, Sahani won only four seats (out of 11 contested), and any talk of an alliance can only happen based on the realistic strength of a party.”
No signs of backing down, bitterness with BJP
Mukesh Sahni, who calls himself the ‘Son of Mallah’, has a substantial influence among the community in several crucial Lok Sabha seats in north Bihar, including Darbhanga, Madhubani, Vaishali, Muzaffarpur, and Khagaria.
During his ongoing Nishad Yatra, he has proclaimed that any alliance that the VIP joins stands to win “60 seats” across Bihar, UP, and Jharkhand.
While the VIP claims that the Nishad community comprises 14 percent of votes in Bihar, the estimates of other parties suggest that it is closer to 7 percent.
As of now, the Nitish-led alliance, with six parties in the fold, is rather more overcrowded than the NDA in Bihar. The NDA, therefore, is in a better position to accommodate parties like the VIP.
However, the BJP MP quoted earlier said that Mukesh Sahani’s demands were not “practical”, pointing out that even better-established parties like the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) had asked for fewer seats— six.
However, when he spoke to ThePrint, Sahani’s confidence was unshaken even after the appointment of Hari Sahni as the leader of the opposition in the legislative council— seen as a pressure tactic from the BJP.
“After our work of awakening Mallahs about their rights, the BJP has picked a Mallah as leader in the council. Now we hope Hari Sahni will work for the community,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hari Sahni told ThePrint that it was up to the BJP high command on whether or not to approach the VIP for an alliance.
“But I want to ask some questions,” he added. “The BJP gave 11 seats to Sahani in 2020, but how many Mallah candidates did he field? When he was made minister, why did he not raise his voice for reservation then? These are questions that the community asks frequently, he should answer these questions,” Hari Sahni said.
Over the last five-odd years, Mekesh Sahani has had a love-hate relationship with the BJP.
The VIP, formed in 2018, contested three seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as part of the Bihar Grand Alliance comprising the Congress, RJD, and other parties, but did not win in any. At the time, the BJP, Nitish’s JD(U) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP contested together. The BJP won 17 seats, the JD(U) 16, and the LJP six.
For the 2020 Bihar assembly polls, Sahani switched to the BJP’s side after a falling out over seat-sharing arrangements with the Grand Alliance. Contesting on 11 seats, his party won four seats though Sahani himself lost. Despite this, he was given an MLC seat and made a minister.
The alliance, however, soon went south. Sahani was dropped from the cabinet in March 2022 after he fielded 53 candidates against the BJP in the UP assembly elections. Shortly before this, three of his MLAs defected to the BJP. Ever since then, Sahani has maintained an adversarial stance against the BJP.
A conundrum for the BJP
Sahani’s political trajectory is not dissimilar to other caste-based leaders in the region, such as Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi in Bihar, or Omprakash Rajbhar of Uttar Pradesh, all of whom have a track record of shifting allegiances in election cycles.
While VIP leaders are keen to emphasise that they have not forgotten past “betrayals” by the BJP, there are indications that there is an opening. “Those who support our demand of reservation, our votes will be transferred to them,” said VIP spokesperson Dev Jyoti.
But though the BJP aims to build a broader caste coalition in Bihar to counter Nitish Kumar’s alliance, which has a stronger base among OBCs, Yadavs, Muslims, Kurmis, and Mahadalits, it is cautious about supporting the VIP’s request for Mallah reservation. The fear is that doing so might upset other EBC communities and herald a new round of so-called Mandal politics.
“The government has taken various affirmative action measures for EBC and backward communities, from the Matsya Sampada Yojana to the Vishwakarma Yojana,” said Nikhil Anand, general secretary of the BJP OBC Morcha. “Fisherfolk are looking to the BJP with great hope not only in Bihar but across the country”
However, another BJP MP from Bihar said that the party “does not have many options” in Bihar. As reported earlier by ThePrint, part of the BJP’s strategy for the Lok Sabha elections is to leverage smaller parties to bank more votes.
“We want to dent Nitish Kumar’s vote bank. Such leaders (like Sahani) have votes of 50,000-1 lakh in a constituency. One option that we are trying is to cultivate our own leaders, but this will take time,” he said.
He acknowledged that attempts to promote other low-profile leaders such as Renu Devi and Tarkishore Prasad, both former deputy CMs, had only limited success.
“We will have to think practically,” he added. “There are many months to work things out with Sahani. In politics, every day is a new day.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)