Bihar on the edge

Print edition : October 21, 2005

Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad releasing the list of party candidates. -

While the Supreme Court's decision on the May 23 dissolution of the Assembly is keeping Bihar politicians on tenterhooks, the main political formations are trying to win Muslim support, which could be crucial in the October-November elections.

BIHAR has been a byword for political uncertainty. Even as the State began preparations for its four-phase Assembly elections in October-November, the Supreme Court indicated on September 29 that the process would be subject to its verdict on the constitutional validity of the May 23 presidential proclamation dissolving the State Assembly. After a six-day hearing on a batch of petitions challenging the dissolution, the five-Judge Bench observed that if it wanted to quash the notification, which would mean restoration of the Assembly, then it would pass a brief order before the first phase of polling, in 61 constituencies, on October 18. Since the court would remain closed between October 8 and 18 for Dasara, the order could come before October 8. The Judges seem to have taken a grim view of the "indecent haste" with which the Assembly was dissolved in the dead of night.

The main political parties in the State are trying to play down the possibility of a revival of the House. Nevertheless, poll preparations have been affected. The filing of nominations for the first phase has begun, but all-out electioneering is yet to start as party leaders are holding back campaign funds and materials.

"Who knows what the Supreme Court will decide. It [the judgment] can go either way," says Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, who is also the chief ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He is, however, confident that either way the NDA stands to gain. "We are ready to form the government with the support of 132 legislators if the Assembly is restored. If there is no possibility of government formation and the court calls for fresh elections, we are prepared for that too. Our campaign is going on well with people supporting us everywhere," he said. Leaders of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress are, however, not willing to hazard a guess. They will be at a disadvantage if the Assembly is revived. It will also be a big setback to RJD supremo and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad.

Given the suspense, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is putting up a united show in order to gain a majority, which clearly eluded the combine in the February elections. Chastened by his party's poor performance in February, Lalu Prasad, in a rare gesture, has allotted 51 seats to the Congress this time (in the 243-member House), as against 11 last time. He has given nine seats to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), although it won only one seat last time, and eight to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The RJD-led combine is desperately trying to prove that Muslims, who had not supported it whole-heartedly last time, are back with it. The desperation to prove this arises from the fact that the All India Muslim Pasmanda Mahaaz, an outfit that represents backward Muslims comprising those who got converted from 32 Hindu castes and constituting almost 80 per cent of the Muslim population in Bihar, has declared its support to the Janata Dal (U)-led NDA. The Pasmanda Mahaaz had supported the RJD-Congress-Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) combine in the Lok Sabha elections, but its votes got split in favour of the LJP in the Assembly elections, resulting in a loss of seats to the RJD.

In a resolution adopted unanimously at its executive committee meeting on September 17, the Pasmanda Mahaaz declared its support to the JD(U), affirming faith in the leadership of Nitish Kumar and demanding that "backward and Dalit" Muslims be given the same benefit of reservation as backward and Dalit Hindus. "We tested Lalu Prasad for 15 years, he did nothing for backward Muslims. He always promoted upper-caste, forward Muslims. We gave him a warning in the last Assembly elections by weakening him, and this time we will totally sideline him," Pasmanda Mahaaz president Ali Anwar said. Backward Muslims' support to the JD(U) was "strategic" because Nitish Kumar favoured reservation for backward and Dalit Muslims too, he said. But, Ali Anwar made it clear that the support was conditional. "Nitish Kumar should get rid of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the first given opportunity. We will not support the BJP. In seats where JD(U) candidates are not present, we will support other secular parties such as the Left," he said.

Janata Dal (United) leaders Nitish Kumar (right) and Sharad Yadav with BJP leader Arun Jaitley (centre) in New Delhi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Asked whether the Gujarat spectacle would not haunt them if an NDA government came to power, he said the situation in Bihar was different. "The BJP is not so strong in Bihar. Besides, we know Nitish Kumar, he is not communal. He is a development-oriented leader. Moreover, there is no BJP government at the Centre. So the BJP or its associates cannot do in Bihar what they did in Gujarat. Our support to Nitish Kumar is a strategy to weaken the BJP in Bihar so that he can get rid of it in future," he explained.

Pasmanda Mahaaz's support to the NDA has rattled the RJD to such an extent that its leaders tried to wean away a section of its members. Mehboob Alam, whom Ali Anwar claims he does not even know, was presented by the RJD Member of Parliament Ram Kripal Yadav at a press conference in Patna on September 20 to prove that the Mahaaz had split. Mehboob Alam, claiming to be the national vice-president of the Mahaaz, issued a press release on the RJD's letterhead extending support to the UPA. The move, however, has backfired as the Mahaaz has come out even more aggressively in support of the JD(U).

Lalu Prasad whose RJD continued in power for several years on the strength of the Muslim-Yadav combination, is a worried man. In another desperate move, he held a press conference to announce that Meraj Noor, who was earlier with the LJP, had joined the RJD. Meraj Noor hardly wields any influence over the community. The RJD-Congress combine is also promising reservation to all Muslims, irrespective of what caste they originally belonged to. This promise has further alienated the UPA, of which the RJD is a partner in the government at the Centre, from the Pasmanda Mahaaz as it fears that if caste was not made the basis, backward and Dalit Muslims would be denied the benefits. According to Ali Anwar, this would fan communalism. He warned the RJD-Congress combine against "playing the communal card".

Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan releasing the list of his party's candidates.-RANJEET KUMAR

But Lalu Prasad can bank on support from other Muslim organisations such as the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind and the Imarat-e-Sariya. The Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind represents forward Muslims, but they constitute only 20 per cent of the Muslim population. At the moment, Muslims are clearly divided on forward versus backward lines.

The Congress, which aims to get a respectable tally, is desperate to pull itself out of the mess. For the first time, the party has released its list of candidates with the caste name against each name in order to prove that it kept caste considerations in mind when it decided the candidates. But its woes only seem to be increasing by the day if the spate of desertions by senior leaders is any indication.

Former Pradesh Congress Committee president Ram Jatan Sinha resigned from the primary membership of the party on September 29, after he was denied the ticket. Ram Jatan Sinha was removed from his post after the party's dismal performance in February. He was a vocal supporter of LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan and had openly opposed having electoral ties with Lalu Prasad. He told reporters in Patna: "I am resigning from the primary membership of the party with a heavy heart as I feel humiliated. Although I worked tirelessly to enrol thousands of members and strengthen the party, I was treated shabbily and removed from State party presidentship." He also rued the fact that there was no place for sincere workers in the party. He is likely to join the LJP and contest from Makhdumpur, which he has represented three times. The Congress allotted Makhdumpur to the RJD last time and Ram Jatan Sinha was asked to contest from Patna Central. He lost.

Another senior Congress leader, Kumud Ranjan Jha, has also deserted the party and joined the JD(U), citing its alliance with the RJD as a reason for his decision. "The Congress has surrendered to the RJD in Bihar. Lalu Prasad is weakening the party in Bihar but the central Congress leaders who want Rajya Sabha seats from the State continue to cling to him. Bihar Congress workers are opposed to the alliance," he said.

The NDA camp, on the other hand, has managed finally to clinch a seat-sharing deal. The JD(U), asserting its supremacy in Bihar, has decided to contest 141 seats, three more than last time, while the BJP will contest 102 seats. The reason for this, according to Sharad Yadav, the JD(U) parliamentary board chief, is that the party had to accommodate the LJP and independent MLAs who had crossed over to its side after the February elections. JD(U) leaders are upbeat about the party's prospects. "The verdict will be decisive this time. We will form the government," Sharad Yadav said.

Political observers, however, maintain that it is going to be a close contest once again and the LJP's performance could once more prove decisive. Muslim votes, of course, will be a deciding factor, and if the Pasmanda Mahaaz sticks to its stand, then it will certainly be surprise verdict.

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