Laloo's comeback

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

Over-confident but disunited, the NDA fails to measure up to the RJD leader's winning ways.

HOLDING court at the Chief Minister's residence in Patna barely two days before the counting of votes was to begin, Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav was his customary ebullient self. Savouring the attention of the throng of supporters ar ound him, who included State Ministers, party legislators, mediapersons, local leaders and an assortment of rustic admirers, the master raconteur regaled them with mirthful stories about contemporary politics and lampooned his political opponents. "The l eaders of the National Democratic Alliance," he said, "are arguing among themselves as to who should be the next Chief Minister of Bihar. One wants Ram Vilas Paswan, another wants Sushil Kumar Modi, a third is pitching for Kailashpati Mishra. But they ap pear not to have seen the board outside this house. It says, simply, 'No Vacancy'."

And the crowd erupted in boisterous guffaws. Laloo Prasad's good cheer, although highly infectious, left even senior party leaders bemused. Exit polls and opinion polls had uniformly predicted that the party would fare dismally and would be hard put to i t to secure even 100 seats in the 324-member Assembly. The party's own reports from some key constituencies had confirmed the grim forebodings. Yet, the leader seemed supremely confident and was jesting about his unwillingness to give his opponents tenan cy rights in the Chief Minister's official residence. Was it mere bravado or would the artful survivor pull off yet another trick, they wondered.

However, as the results trickled in from the evening of February 25, the sense of self-doubt that had gripped RJD leaders gave way to joyous wonderment. Laloo Prasad Yadav's remark appeared to have acquired the dimensions of a prophesy. Barely five month s after it was mauled in the parliamentary elections in Bihar, the RJD seemed set to accomplish one of the most spectacular comebacks in Indian electoral history.

Although a clear majority eluded the RJD, it emerged as the single largest party, with 123 seats in a hung Assembly. Taken with the two seats won by its alliance partner, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the RJD-led alliance had a tally of 125. Th e Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA won 124.

That alone should give the RJD the right to be invited first to form the government. Laloo Prasad's reasoning that the verdict must be read as a vote against the BJP's "communal politics" too has some merit. The majority of the winners who were not part of the NDA or of the RJD-led alliance were united by their opposition to Hindutva politics and had campaigned on that plank. Perhaps the only exceptions were the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which campaigned on the plank of a separate Jharkhand state, a nd some independents.

The total strength of the parties that are not committed to either the NDA or the RJD-led alliance is 56. Of these, the Congress(I) has 23 members, the JMM 12, the Communist Party of India five, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) six, the Ba hujan Samaj Party five, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) two, the Ulugulan Democratic Party two, and the Marxist Coordination Committee one. Twenty independents won.

During the campaign, the refrain of NDA leaders, political observers and large sections of the media was that the NDA was certain to secure an absolute majority. The NDA leadership promised to "liberate the people of Bihar from 'jungle raj'." These procl amations drew strength largely from the results of the Lok Sabha elections of September-October 1999. At that time, the RJD, which had an alliance with the Congress(I), won only seven of the 54 seats; the Congress(I) won four. The RJD established leads i n only 66 Assembly segments whereas the NDA had a lead in 194. The situation was dramatically reversed in the Assembly elections, with the RJD having almost doubled its strength, while the NDA's tally came down by 72 seats.

Many factors account for this turnaround. NDA leaders blame it on disunity among the constituents of the alliance. According to BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, the constituents failed to reach a clear understanding on the number of seats each would contest , especially in respect of the 108 constituencies that went to the polls on February 12 in the first phase. Modi told Frontline: "We came to an understanding only in the second and third phases, but in the third phase the RJD resorted to massive r igging by employing the official machinery and resorting to booth-capturing"

Union Minister for Communications and Janata Dal (United) leader Ram Vilas Paswan said that disunity had seriously hampered the NDA's campaign in the first phase. The first joint rally of the BJP, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (U), scheduled for Fe bruary 9 in Patna, did not take place. That meeting was to have been addressed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and others, but the failure to hold it created a sense of despondency among the NDA constituents.

DISUNITY may have played a role in the NDA's dismal performance, but there were other factors as well - among them, the manner in which the NDA conducted its campaign, the consolidation of backward caste-Muslim votes in favour of the RJD, the absence of an alliance between the RJD and the Congress(I), and the emergence of the BSP as a strong presence in a number of seats.

Of these, the NDA's campaign and the manner in which it was carried out was perhaps the single most important factor. The alliance's campaign was focussed solely on demonising Laloo Prasad and everything that he stood for. NDA leaders, from Vajpayee down wards, raised only one campaign point: the need to rid Bihar of Laloo Prasad's "jungle raj".

But if the NDA hoped to make gains by making allegations about the "criminalisation of politics" by the RJD, the plan backfired when it became known that at least 32 candidates belonging to constituents of the NDA had criminal records. These included Ram Lakhan Singh and Udai Kumar Singh of the BJP and Rama Singh of the Janata Dal(U). The Samata Party withdrew its candidates in favour of two independent candidates - Suraj Bhan Singh and Munna Shukla - contesting from Mokhama near Patna and Lalganj in Va ishali district. The two are alleged to be underworld leaders who were serving prison terms even while contesting the polls. The RJD leadership effectively highlighted these points.

The NDA's campaign themes did not address the State's problems or its developmental needs. Elevating biliousness to an art form, NDA leaders focussed exclusively on bad-mouthing Laloo Prasad Yadav and the RJD regime. Far from working in the NDA's favour, however, the negative campaign appears to have generated popular sympathy for Laloo Prasad, who skilfully turned the tables on the NDA. By calling him a "junglee" (savage), he said, the NDA was branding entire communities who constituted his support bas e as uncivilised. This struck a chord among the backward classes, particularly the Yadavs, and even among those who had begun to feel jaded by Laloo Prasad's brand of politics.

The NDA's inability to project a chief ministerial candidate, owing to the failure of the constituents to agree on a common candidate, was another crucial factor. Throughout the campaign, each constituent projected a different candidate - for instance, t he Samata Party pitched for Nitish Kumar, the Janata Dal(U) for Paswan. The BJP projected two candidates, taking into consideration the demographic profile of the constituency concerned. In constituencies that had a high percentage of populations belongi ng to the backward classes, Sushil Kumar Modi was presented as its choice for Chief Minister; in areas where upper-caste voters were higher in number, it projected Bhumihar leader Kailashpati Mishra.

After the initial hiccups, the NDA's campaign went into overkill mode, using 20 helicopters to ferry leaders, including Union Ministers, within the State. State leaders of the NDA admit with hindsight that such methods may have sent out the message that the alliance was under the control of moneybags. Even at an organisational level, the emphasis on an "air-borne campaign" led to the neglect of traditional grassroots-level campaign methods, such as door-to-door canvassing and street-corner meetings. The RJD, on the other hand, used only two choppers; the rank and file, however, campainged effectively at the grassroots level.

THE RJD's campaign received an unintended boost from an unlikely quarter. At least two actions of the Central Government - the decision to set up a commission to review the Constitution and the announcement of a proposal to increase the prices of petrole um products - had the effect of canvassing support for the RJD. The move to review the Constitution caused considerable disquiet among the minorities and Dalits. The minorities were apprehensive that the constitutional provisions that protected their st atus would perhaps be done away with, and Dalits feared that the review process would pull down the pillars put up by, among others, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution.

These factors had a significant electoral impact. Even those sections of the minorities who were initially gravitating from the RJD towards the Congress(I) returned to the RJD fold since, in their view, only that party could effectively take on the BJP i n Bihar. A section of the Dalits, who had considered supporting the NDA in the hope of seeing Paswan as Chief Minister, deserted the alliance and joined hands with the RJD.

Although the announcement of a proposal to increase the prices of petroleum products was subsequently retracted under pressure from NDA allies such as the Telugu Desam Party, it did the damage by antagonising large sections of the people. According to ND A insiders, Paswan and Nitish Kumar criticised the BJP leadership for announcing the price hike proposal in the midst of the campaign. In Paswan's opinion, this was the most important reason for the NDA's poor performance.

THE contest in Bihar was essentially between the RJD and the NDA, and other combinations - such as the CPI-CPI(M-L)-Samajwadi Party grouping - fell by the wayside. In many constituencies, the traditional supporters of these parties backed the RJD, which they perceived as the real alternative to the NDA. The CPI, in particular, saw its strength come down from 26 seats in the previous Assembly to five this time. The CPI leadership had hoped to win around 40 seats on the strength of its alliance with the C PI(M-L). The two parties reckoned that this time the RJD would not be able to retain the support of the weaker sections. Obviously, their premise was wrong.

In specific constituencies, the RJD benefited from the fact that it was not in alliance with the Congress(I) and also from the emergence of the BSP. The Congress(I) secured some of the upper-caste votes of the BJP in many seats. A case in point is the Pa roo seat in Muzaffarpur district: the Congress(I) finished second behind the RJD, and the candidate of the Bihar People's Party (BPP), an NDA constituent, was pushed to the fifth place. Similarly, the growth of the BSP, which improved its legislative str ength from two to five, cut into the Janata Dal (U)'s support base among Dalits in constituencies close to Uttar Pradesh, such as Chainpur, Mohamia and Ramgarh.

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