Bihar Assembly Election

Bihar Assembly Election | The rise of RJD's Tejashwi Yadav as a mass leader in his own right

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Tejashwi Yadav during an election campaign rally in Gaya district on October 18. Photo: PTI

Manoj Jha, the RJD’s spokesperson, at a press conference in Patna on October 24. Photo: PTI

Jagadanand Singh, the RJD‘s Bihar president, speaking to mediapersons after the party legislators’ meeting in Patna on November 12. Photo: PTI

May 19, 1994: Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad gets a musical welcome during an election campaign at Bhagwanpur village. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The biggest revelation of the Bihar election has been the arrival of RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav as a mass leader in his own right, with his focus on livelihood issues capturing the imagination of the people and his emergence igniting optimism in the larger battle against the RSS-BJP.

In the three days between the conclusion of polling and the final announcement of results during the Bihar Assembly election, the near-unanimous opinion among political observers at the State and national levels was that the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was in striking distance of capturing power in Bihar. Ingrained in that perception was an amazing turnaround of the party in a matter of a few days amidst the campaign. No one, including the sympathisers of the RJD, even considered the party as a serious contender against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, until October 7—21 days ahead of polling in Bihar—when the RJD-Congress-Left Mahagathbandhan (MGB) coalition formally took shape and announced its course of action.

However, within the next 15 days, Tejashwi emerged as a formidable warrior against the well-oiled NDA machinery that was flush with unmatched resources, unbridled power and a battery of high-decibel campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Tejashwi scored over these stalwarts in terms of crowd response.

RJD founder Lalu Prasad’s youngest son, who celebrated his 31st birthday on November 9, was all the way shaking the NDA’s fort in Bihar.
Also read: Tejashwi Yadav: Formidable foeman

At the end of it all, the RJD did not make it to the office, but it put up a powerful show, emerging as the single largest party in the Assembly with 75 seats. The party leaders, including Tejashwi, have asserted that the election was actually “stolen” from the RJD-led MGB. The MGB leadership’s claim is that their coalition actually won 119 seats, but the Election Commission of India (ECI) has rejected the claim. Notwithstanding these developments, there is little doubt that a resurgent RJD is one of the striking features of the Bihar Assembly election.

Promise of jobs

The dramatic manner in which Tejashwi catapulted himself into the position to take on Nitish Kumar, a contemporary of his father and veteran of many battles in the past, was, in fact, rooted in the basic issues of people’s livelihoods and survival—the biggest casualty under the Hindutva-laced policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which he brought into focus during his campaign.

Symbolically, he performed a puja of Goddess Durga on October 16, the beginning of the 10-day Dussehra festival, and adopted a “resolution” promising to provide 10 lakh government jobs to the youths with a single stroke of the pen at the first meeting of his Cabinet, if elected. He repeated this promise at all the 10 election rallies he addressed in central Bihar on that day. The promise of 10 lakh jobs, which he referred to as “sankalp” (resolution), caught the imagination of the youths, who began to respond boisterously to Tejashwi with each passing rally.

To a novice in politics, Tejashwi’s promise of 10 lakh government jobs might sound like a “magical idea” that struck him as a sudden brainwave. It was not so. Bihar has a 46.6 per cent unemployment rate, the highest in the country.
Also read: Tejashwi Yadav's campaign interview

The return of over 30 lakh migrant workers, a massive loss of jobs in the organised and unorganised sectors following the COVID-induced lockdown and the Nitish Kumar government’s woeful mishandling of the crisis had aggravated the situation.

To add to the woes of the hinterland dwellers, there came in floods emanating from the high hills of Nepal, marooning over 18 districts in the Mithila-Kosi region. It rendered lakhs of farmers helpless and created a humongous humanitarian crisis as they were already battling penury at home.

A ‘socialist’ leader for the party

It was at this stage that RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, the pioneer of the social justice movement in Bihar, roped in his “trusted” socialist movement colleague, Jagadanand, and anointed him RJD president in Bihar. Lalu Prasad, who has been in prison for nearly three years, assigned Jagadanand the task of facilitating a generational shift in the RJD through Tejashwi and empowered him to carry out seat-sharing negotiations with like-minded parties.

A product of the Ram Manohar Lohia school of socialist thought and trained in organisation-building from behind the scenes, Jagadanand gave priority to the three Left parties, which caused heart-burning in the camps of Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustanti Awam Morcha (Secular) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, which are caste-based parties, as they feared getting a smaller share in in the wake of the Left getting primacy.

Jitan Ram Manjhi crossed over to the NDA and Kushwaha floated a third front, the Grand Democratic Secular Front (GDSF), on the pretext that Tejashwi as the Chief Ministerial candidate was not acceptable to them.

The development in a way proved to be a blessing in disguise for Tejashwi and the Left parties, which brought issues such as unemployment, poverty, peasants’ distress, health, price rise and the overall economic crisis bedevilling the people to the table for discussion. More than the number of seats, the Left parties discussed the issues to be focussed on during the campaign against the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva agenda.

To Tejashwi’s credit, and thanks to coordination by Jagadanand, Manoj Jha, the RJD general secretary, and Tejashwi’s political secretary, Sanjay Yadav, the RJD incorporated all these issues in a 25-point manifesto for the Mahagathbandhan. Taking a cue from his father’s earthy manners, Tejashwi simplified the issues in the lingo of common people, with “kamai, dawai, padhai, sichai” (job, medicine, education and irrigation) becoming his catchwords.

Tejashwi fanned out into the hinterlands, addressing 15 to 19 election rallies in a day, and kept his speech brief but focussed, with 10 lakh jobs as its core. In a week or so, Tejashwi emerged as the biggest crowd-puller, with youths, belonging to all sections of society, converging at his rallies and responding to him enthusiastically. The more Tejashwi’s campaign gained steam, the more lacklustre the rallies of Narenda Modi, Nitish Kumar and other NDA stalwarts became.

Egged on by the visible support on the ground, Tejashwi sounded balanced, clean and mature in his speeches whereas Nitish Kumar, spurned and hooted by the crowds, sounded jittery and bitter. In the remote hinterlands, Tejashwi epitomised the hope and aspiration of the young generation battling unemployment. Away from the rallies and in their villages, the youths began discussing Tejashwi’s promise and believing in his words.
Also read: Nitish Kumar: Alone in a battle

Explaining the phenomenon, Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI (M-L), said: “It was an ‘election movement’ led by Bihar youths, not a routine election to decide on winners and losers. Tejashwi’s promise of 10 lakh jobs caught the imagination of the youths. It reflected the aspiration of the youths and also embodied the larger issue of unemployment and livelihood. The biggest takeaway of Tejashwi’s campaign is the issue of job and livelihood gaining primacy and showing the way to West Bengal, Assam and other States going to the polls to follow it up against the Hindutva forces.”

As Tejashwi sensed that his promise of 10 lakh jobs was catching on with the youths, he expanded it further: he began promising same salary for same work, which appealed to over two lakh contract teachers and workers who had been agitating for parity in pay all through Nitish Kumar’s regime, doubling of old age pension and increasing remuneration for tola sevaks (village volunteers) and anganwadi workers. In the process, he expanded the “club” of the possible beneficiaries of the economic agenda he was about to implement in the event of coming to power.

A leaf out of Lalu’s book

Tejashwi’s economic agenda was, in a way, an extension of the ‘social justice’ platform that Lalu Prasad had built with aggression and passion. Barely 15 per cent of the landed gentry—mostly belonging to upper castes—enjoyed hegemony over the social, administrative and political power structure when Lalu Prasad took over the reins of Bihar in 1990. His predecessor, Karpoori Thakur, had struggled hard against the entrenched forces through the 1970s and the 1980s but failed to break the social and psychological domination of the rural elites over the marginalised sections.

Lalu Prasad, himself belonging to the numerically preponderant Yadav caste, took the rural elites head-on. Armed with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report by the V.P. Singh government in 1991, he shunned the conventional way of attending office and examining files and began landing his helicopters in remote settlements, sharing fish and foods such as litti-chokha and sattu with the rural poor and joining them in singing folk songs with drums and cymbals, the local musical instruments. Lalu Prasad engaged district magistrates and administrative and police officials in his entourage to help the poor with bathing and wearing new clothes and bangles, all the while lecturing: “You are the malik (masters) whereas these officials are your servants.”

He did it to remove the age-old fear that the poor people had of the bureaucracy and the police. He took ‘elitism’ head-on at all the levels.

Here is an instance of Lalu Prasad’s style: While he was addressing a rally at Darbhanga ahead of the 1991 Lok Sabha election along with the veteran CPI M.P.s Bhogendra Jha and Chaturanand Mishra on the dais, Lalu Prasad invited a semi-clad toddy tapper and asked him to deliver a speech explaining his struggle with climbing palm trees bare-chested. As other toddy tappers saw one of their own joining Lalu Prasad, they too climbed on to to the dais, creating a commotion. Jha and Mishra got indignant at the “anarchy” Lalu Prasad had created and left the meeting in a huff. Lalu Prasad said: “Paasi aaya, Brahmin bhaaga (the toddy tapper came in, the Brahmins have fled).”

This is how Lalu Prasad tried to give voice and confidence symbolically to the marginalised sections, who had been suffocating in feudal strangleholds for centuries. He openly promoted the opening of cow-sheds in the middle of the cities and had multi-storied apartments, known as Bhola Paswan Shastri Bhavans, built in the posh areas of the cities for the poor as his way of speeding up empowerment of the marginalised sections.

As time rolled by and the era of economic liberalisation set in, these newly “empowered” sections saw their children getting educated and seeking jobs, in a departure from the manual work their parents were engaged in. Nitish Kumar’s emphasis on building roads and supplying electricity were hardly sufficient to fulfil the aspirations of this class.
Also read: Nitish Kumar as the winning loser

Tejashwi’s economic agenda, thus, is a follow-up on the social justice platform—encompassing about 60 per cent of the marginalised and backward classes—that his father had passionately built. Manoj Jha said: “It’s not something new that Tejashwi has done. Had Laluji been physically present, he too would have done the same thing. He (Lalu) empowered the socially marginalised sections. It’s the time to carry the socially empowered class to the next of level of economic empowerment.”

Earlier, the Left parties, mainly the CPI and the CPI(M) which were hugely relevant in Bihar politics then, were in alliance with Lalu Prasad’s Janata Dal. However, they lost their following to the aggressive identity politics that Lalu Prasad embarked on. With the passage of time, the Left got weakened and Lalu Prasad aligned with the Congress in his battle for survival against a resurgent RSS-BJP.

Tejashwi too realised that the CPI (M-L) Liberation is stronger at the grassroots level in comparison with the CPI and CPI (M) now and chose it as his reliable partner to take his father’s social justice journey to the next level of economic justice.

Weakest link

But the weakest link in the Tejashwi-led Mahagathbandhan proved to be the Congress. Unlike the Left parties, which contributed to the Mahagathbandhan through their organised cadre base and ideological input, the grand old party, bereft of cadres and ideas, bargained for more seats.

The Congress compelled the RJD to spare as many as 70 seats in its share. It won only 19 seats, while the Left parties, which contested 29 seats, won 16. Dipankar Bhattacharya said: “The result would have been different had the Left and the Congress shared 50 seats each.” It is well known in the political circles of Bihar that Jagadanand was opposed to the idea of sparing more than 50 seats to the Congress. A source said: “But the senior Congress leaders around Rahul Gandhi engaged Tejashwi in hard bargaining, getting 70 seats in their share. Jagadanand felt helpless at this stage.”

RJD insiders believe that the physical absence of Lalu Prasad, who is more experienced in dealing with the Congress high command, somehow enabled the Congress to get number of seats disproportionate to its strength on the ground.
Also read: Congress as the GA's weakest link

“Had Lalu been around, there was no way the Mahagathbandhan would have marginally lost to the BJP-JDU combine,” said a Bihar-based senior Congress leader close to Lalu Prasad.

Evidently, Tejashwi has charted a new course for the RJD, drawing strength from the party’s ideological origins and identity politics and taking it forward with an economic agenda slogan. Still, his lack of experience has also been highlighted by the verdict, particularly in the manner in which he gave too many seats to the Congress, and generally in the way he dealt with the grand old party, giving it too many liberties.

Despite these drawbacks, there is little doubt that Tejashwi has emerged as the “hero” of the Bihar Assembly election.

But he will have to cover much more political and organisational ground to reap the dividends of his efforts in terms of power politics. During his first term as MLA, there were complaints about irregular attendance in the Assembly and inadequate articulation of people’s issues. He has certainly got over this latter drawback as his vibrant campaign has proved. To his advantage, he has the Left parties on his side. RJD sources said that the consensus in the party high command, consisting of those like Jagadanand, was that the Left should become Tejashwi’s permanent ally in their larger battle against the RSS-BJP.
Also read: Lessons from the Bihar elections of 2020

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