The day of the dark horse

Print edition : March 25, 2005

Ram Vilas Paswan gains the upper hand as Bihar goes under President's Rule. Now he has the time to decide which way to go.

in Patna

Ram Vilas Paswan.-SHAJU JOHN

ON March 6, after it became clear that Governor Buta Singh had set in motion the constitutional procedures to impose President's Rule in Bihar, Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) leader and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan came up with a pithy one-liner in a telephonic conversation with this correspondent: "Part One of Mission Bihar accomplished." Almost all leaders of parties opposed to the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) showed some sense of relief at the Governor's move mainly because it prevented the return of the RJD to power, at least in the immediate future. But Paswan was happier than others.

According to close associates of the LJP leader, there were four reasons for his palpable delight. First, 10 months ago, when Lalu Prasad prevailed over Paswan in the race for the coveted post of the Railway Minister, he had taken a vow to unseat the Rabri Devi-led RJD government. In many ways, the imposition of President's Rule fulfilled that objective. The formation of the Shibu Soren-led government in Jharkhand had made Paswan worry about the possibility of Lalu Prasad managing to form the government in Bihar. According to a close associate of Paswan, once Rabri Devi was in the Chief Minister's chair, the RJD would hardly take a couple of days to rustle up a majority.

Second, Paswan managed to hold on to all LJP legislators without compromising on his campaign stance of equidistance from the RJD and the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was true that the LJP had emerged as the single most important component in the Bihar Assembly. Neither the RJD - the single largest party with 75 legislators - nor the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - the largest pre-election alliance with 92 legislators - could form the government without the LJP's support. But groups and individuals associated with the RJD and the NDA tried to put pressure on or win over the LJP legislators to switch sides.

The pressure from the NDA was the strongest, especially because as many as 21 of the LJP legislators belonged to the upper castes, a social constituency traditionally aligned with the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. In fact, on March 5, the legislators tried to compel Paswan to leave the UPA and the Union Cabinet to join hands with the NDA. They also prevented Paswan from accepting a compromise formula, put forward by sections of the Congress, to revive the UPA in Bihar. The Congress, which decided to support the RJD after its debacle in the elections, suggested Paswan's elevation to the Railway Minister's post and the appointment of his brother Ramchandra Paswan as Deputy Chief Minister. The formula involved the assurance that no one from Lalu Prasad's family would become Chief Minister.

Third, the policy of equidistance Paswan adopted vis-a-vis the RJD and the BJP - the national leader of the NDA, but junior partner of the Janata Dal (U) in Bihar - got direct and indirect support from smaller parties of the State such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Samajwadi Party. CPI(ML) general secretary Deepankar Bhattacharya went on record as saying that his party would "oppose any government formed with direct or indirect support of the RJD or the BJP".

Fourth, and perhaps most important, President's Rule would give Paswan enough time to launch his next political initiative in the State. With both the RJD and the NDA sending him feelers, he could weigh the pros and cons and swing either way to maximise his gains. In short, the LJP and its leader are comfortably placed for future political manoeuvres.

A former colleague of Lalu Prasad, who is now a close associate of Paswan, told Frontline that the LJP leader had foreseen President's Rule as a possibility even during the election campaign. "That is exactly why he made the statement that he would prefer President's Rule to the return of the Rabri Devi government." He added that President's Rule would throw up new options for Paswan. "The LJP has already made a dent in the RJD's much-celebrated Muslim-Yadav support base. But the fact remains that the RJD is still the number one choice of the majority of Muslims and that the party's social combination is a force to reckon with in over 170 of the 243 Assembly seats. The task now is to consolidate the gains and provide a new political momentum to build up a strong Muslim-Dalit social constituency," he said.

Indications are that Paswan's immediate task would be to wean away legislators and leaders from the RJD so that his bargaining power in the hung Assembly increases. It remains to be seen how the RJD would respond to such moves.

THERE is little doubt that the RJD suffered reverses in the first round of the post-election manoeuvres. From the time the results were out to the initiation of the process to impose President's Rule, the RJD unsuccessfully tried to advance its claim to power through its own interpretation of the verdict. The interpretation, as repeatedly expressed by Lalu Prasad, was that the party retained its position as the single largest party in the Assembly. In his view, the verdict marked an affirmation of the secular inclination of the State's polity. Based on this assessment he called upon all secular parties who fought the elections separately - the LJP, the Congress, the CPI(ML) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - to come together in a post-election alliance. The RJD chief maintained that the party had the mandate to lead this coalition as it had retained its position as the single largest party.

It is certainly worrying to the RJD that despite these claims and its impeccable secular credentials, even parties like the CPI(ML) refused to support it. In fact, large sections in parties that decided to support the RJD, such as the Congress and the BSP, were opposed to the idea. Ramjatan Sinha, president of the Bihar unit of the Congress, made it clear that he was closer to Paswan's position of welcoming President's Rule than the decision of his party's central leadership to support the RJD. In Sinha's view, the leadership took such a step essentially as a quid pro quo for the support that a seven-member RJD legislature group in Jharkhand had given to a Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha-Congress coalition government.

The BJP and the Janata Dal (U) tried to win over the LJP by interpreting the verdict as a clear message against "15 years of RJD misrule". Leaders of the combine pointed out that the fight against the RJD was the mainstay of the LJP's election campaign. They reminded Paswan that he was a successful Minister in the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre not so long ago and it was during this tenure that "he was able to do so much for the State". The problems and misunderstandings of the past could be settled in the larger interests of the State, the NDA leadership told Paswan.

Janata Dal (U) leaders even went to the extent of proclaiming that they would consider handing over the leadership of an anti-RJD coalition government to Paswan if the LJP was ready to leave the UPA. The offers became increasingly desperate after the swearing in of the Soren Ministry in Bihar, the period when the overwhelming perception in the NDA was that the RJD would get an invitation to form the government.

But, in spite of sharing some of the NDA's fears, Paswan did, at least for the time being, refrain from accepting any of the offers. In the process, the LJP brought the politics of the State to a juncture it wanted. But as somebody who has a thorough knowledge of Bihar politics, Paswan should know that the game is far from over. In fact, this could well be a new beginning for the LJP leader, who has rightfully won the sobriquet of the dark horse in this election.

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