The churning in Bihar

Print edition : January 28, 2005

The February Assembly elections in the State have thrown up the prospects of secular formations occupying both the government and the Opposition space, at least in the not-too-distant future.

in New Delhi

Laloo Prasad Yadav, Railway Minister and president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, outside the office of the Election Commission in New Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

IN a moment of candour during an interaction with the media a few months ago, former Railway Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar came up with an interesting analysis of electoral politics in Bihar. He said that for over a decade now elections in the State had been fought essentially around one personality, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Laloo Prasad Yadav. "Many social and political issues may be debated as part of the campaign and some of them may even hold sway over the election scene," Nitish Kumar added by way of explanation. "But in terms of the line-up of forces the battle is really between forces led by Laloo Prasad Yadav and the formation opposed to him."

It is not difficult to find merit in Nitish Kumar's analysis. A closer look at the various elections in Bihar since the early 1990s reaffirms the point. In all the elections in the past 15 years the central figure has been Laloo Prasad Yadav. The combination of political parties that associate with him or oppose him may have changed from election to election, but Laloo Prasad Yadav and his party have remained the principal factor in the contests.

The situation is more or less the same as the State prepares for Assembly elections in February. Since it is Assembly elections, even the campaign issues have a direct bearing on the RJD and its government led by Laloo Prasad Yadav's wife Rabri Devi. However, the process of formation of the line-up of forces against Laloo Prasad Yadav and the RJD is going through interesting twists and turns.

Ironically, these twists and turns; have not been entirely beneficial to the RJD; they even have the potential to generate new political threats to the party. Because of this, the run-up to the elections has acquired qualitatively new dimensions.

Union Steel Minister and Lok Janshakthi Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan at an election rally near Muzaffarpur.-RANJEET KUMAR

Central to this churning process is the emergence of Ram Vilas Paswan - Laloo Prasad Yadav's colleague in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Ministry at the Centre - and his Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) as a rallying point. Paswan fought the Lok Sabha elections in alliance with Laloo Prasad Yadav but fell out with him soon after, essentially on account of his perception that the RJD leader was instrumental in denying him the Railway Ministry.

The bitterness has developed to such an extent that Paswan has been carrying out a systematic campaign against the RJD government for the past three months, with open proclamations that the LJP would go all out to dislodge Rabri Devi from power. Naturally, the campaign was hailed wholeheartedly by parties opposed to the RJD, especially the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which consists of the Janata Dal (U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The parties exhorted Paswan to lead the battle against the RJD in the Assembly polls.

Paswan is ready to accept the Janata Dal (U)'s support but rejects the idea of any association with the BJP, stating that the fight against Laloo Prasad Yadav is basically a fight for good governance within the framework of secular politics. Paswan's contention is that communalism is antithetical to good governance and hence he cannot associate himself with a "communal party like the BJP".

The statement made sections of the Janata Dal (U), including leaders close to Nitish Kumar, and also large sections of the Congress unit in Bihar, which has had a blow hot, blow cold relationship with Laloo Prasad Yadav and the RJD, rethink strategy. It is no secret that Laloo Prasad Yadav treats the Congress in Bihar as an insignificant junior partner. He managed to confine the party's seat share in the Lok Sabha polls to just four out of 54 and now offers merely 20 seats out of the 243 in the Assembly polls.

In this context, the rethinking gathered momentum in the last week of December and early January, supported by projections that a new secular alignment could throw a serious political challenge to the RJD. The calculations hinged on two factors. First, that a departure from the RJD camp would enhance the esteem of the Congress among the upper-caste sections of society, which have been consistently opposed to the RJD, and motivate these castes to leave the BJP and support the Congress. Second, an alliance between the Congress and the LJP could wean away significant sections of the Muslim community from the RJD. In a nutshell, the new, projected alliance is visualised as a credible secular alternative to the RJD.

By all indications, this rethinking process in the Congress and the Janata Dal (U) almost got concretised in early January. Janata Dal (U) representative and Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Upendra Kushwaha even made statements that "if the Congress is willing to leave the RJD and join hands with Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP, we are willing to reconsider our alliance with the BJP and join them".

However, State BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi's statement in early January that BJP national president Lal Krishna Advani had authorised Nitish Kumar to negotiate with Paswan in order to form a broad alliance virtually threw a spanner in the works of the Congress and Janata Dal (U) initiatives. The statement obviously cast a shadow over the secular credentials of the players involved in the process of realignment, severely damaging the prospects of the Muslim community's support for the process.

In spite of all this, LJP and Janata Dal (U) insiders told Frontline efforts are still on to forge a secular anti-RJD alliance.

But, overtly, all the players are sticking to their stated, formal positions. The Congress leadership is continuing with its negotiations with the RJD, the Janata Dal (U) is negotiating with the BJP and the saffron party expresses its readiness to play second fiddle to the Janata Dal (U) in the "interests of unity in the NDA". Reports from the BJP indicate that the party has given up its claim to have a 50 per cent share of the seats and will be satisfied with 110 seats.

Central leaders of the Congress, including Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, who is leading the negotiations with the RJD, are apparently of the view that the realignment process can well be turned to the party's advantage in spite of the reverses it has suffered. The perception is that the very move has put Laloo Prasad Yadav on the back foot and hence the RJD supremo will be amenable to parting with at least 50 seats.

The Congress has already come out with an openly defiant attitude towards the RJD by completing the seat allocation in Jharkhand without involving the latter. The party made an understanding on as many as 68 seats in the Jharkhand Assembly involving only the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM), the foremost regional party of the State, virtually telling off the RJD. The RJD leadership, on its part, has made mandatory protestations. The Congress' central leaders seem confident that ultimately the party will get a better bargain in Bihar too. By all indications, the bargaining between the Congress and the RJD could continue up to the deadline for the withdrawal of nominations.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of seat-sharing discussions and the final give and take, what the run-up to the Bihar elections shows is that the State's politics is moving, albeit irresolutely, towards new formations and possibilities. For the past one and a half decades Laloo Prasad Yadav and the party he has led have run the State's politics on a secular agenda, on the strength of the fact that his party alone was consistently and systematically opposing Hindutva. Laloo Prasad Yadav and the parties he led emerged as the single most important political entity in the State, driven basically by their secular credentials, in spite of the fact that the governments led by him and his party did not make any significant contribution to the development of the State.

But the churning that Bihar is witnessing in the run-up to the 2005 polls could well turn into a movement that could ultimately lead to an effective secular alternative to the RJD in Bihar. Such a development would also create a new power balance in the State, where secular forces hold both the ruling and Opposition spaces. It may be too early to say whether this process will show concrete results in the ensuing polls itself. But it can be safely assumed that Bihar's future holds this prospect.

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