A battle for Bihar

Print edition : December 31, 2004

The public squabble between Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, which has terribly embarrassed the United Progressive Alliance government, is a manifestation of the struggle for turf in the State ahead of the Assembly elections due next year.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi and Patna

Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav arrives in Parliament.-

AMONG the many issues that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) short-listed in preparation for the winter session of Parliament, one was of special political concern - the aggressive public squabble and trading of charges between senior Ministers Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan in the run-up to the session. By all indications, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh viewed their conduct as something that could not merely embarrass the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its government in Parliament and outside but also have grave administrative and constitutional consequences.

Foremost among the factors that contributed to this perception is the fact that this is the first time, at least in the recent history of Indian governments, that two Cabinet Ministers have publicly levelled corruption charges against each other. The vehemence with which the two Bihar leaders targeted each other added to the seriousness of the situation. Expressions like "thief", "greedy big mouth", "swindler" and "ringleader" had formed part of the diatribe. Specifically, Paswan accused Laloo Prasad of being involved in the multibillion-rupee fodder scam when he was the Chief Minister of Bihar. Laloo Prasad responded by levelling serious charges against Paswan of corruption during his earlier stint as Railway Minister and of patronising criminals in Bihar.

So, when Manmohan Singh called a meeting with Paswan and Laloo on the eve of the Parliament session, it was essentially aimed at reining them in. Political circles in the capital were not sure whether the meet would have a salutary effect. Laloo Prasad Yadav, the supremo of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), is not used to being given advice and has a track record of repudiating such efforts. It is also no secret that the Railway Minister considers himself to be one of the most sagacious political leaders in the country.

Yet, the next few days showed that Manmohan Singh's intervention had a redeeming influence on the Ministers. Not only did they refrain from raising accusations against each other, but they made a volte-face with statements on the floor of the House, which said that they had never cast aspersions on each other. Both admitted to having political differences, but asserted that those "theoretical differences" would not reach such levels as to cause harm to the UPA and its government.

Ram Vilas Paswan, Lok Janshakti Party president, at a party rally in Darbhanga, Bihar, in November.-

Having got the warring Ministers to do a U-turn, the UPA leadership, particularly those belonging to the Congress, felt that they had divested, at least in the short term, the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of a potentially rewarding political issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA had decided to focus on "sensitive" Hindutva oriented issues - such as the arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt, in a murder case - in the early stages of the session and this was seen as a "helping factor" by sections of the UPA.

However, the NDA's move to initiate a privilege motion against Laloo Prasad and Paswan for misleading the House is bound to put this assessment to test. Almost all the statements of the two leaders have been recorded on videotape, which could strengthen the NDA's case. But the NDA will have to get over some its own internal problems before going all out against Paswan. Janata Dal(U) leader Nitish Kumar, a former Railway Minister and undoubtedly the NDA's tallest leader in Bihar, is said to be of the view that it would be a tactical mistake to pin down Paswan in Parliament on a privilege issue.

Such a move, Nitish Kumar seems to think, may help the NDA score political points in Parliament but prove counterproductive in the larger political battle against Laloo Prasad and his RJD government in Bihar, especially in the Assembly elections, which are due early next year. According to NDA insiders, Nitish Kumar fears that a concerted move against Paswan will force the Minister to convert his temporary truce with Laloo Prasad into a long-term one. The JD(U) leader has been virtually beseeching Paswan over the past few months to forge an electoral understanding with the NDA and lead the battle against the RJD in Bihar.

Nitish Kumar and the rest of the NDA in Bihar had high hopes about Paswan's anti-Laloo Prasad campaign, through which he made it clear that his Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) would fight the Assembly elections independent of the RJD, but would try to rope in the Congress. Paswan said he would have no truck with the "communal BJP" and exhorted the JD(U) to join forces with him in the fight against Laloo Prasad.

Paswan's campaign, obviously, was motivated not only by a desire to "teach Laloo Prasad Yadav a lesson for scheming to take away the Railway Ministry in the UPA government" and the assessment that "the situation is ripe for him to emerge as a new power centre in Bihar politics". This assessment, according to sources in the LJP, was based on the perception that some sections of the RJD's core vote base, particularly Muslims, were moving towards Paswan.

The RJD has held sway over the State's politics for the past 15 years by forging a social alliance of the Other Backward Classed Yadav community and Muslims. This social combination has garnered over 25 per cent of the vote share in almost all elections. However, cracks have appeared in this combination over the past couple of years, especially in terms of Muslim loyalty to Laloo Prasad's leadership. The emergence of Muslim leaders even in the RJD, such as Shahabuddin, the party's Member of Parliament from Siwan, was related to this trend. And this trend contributed to Laloo Prasad forging an alliance with Paswan in the Lok Sabha elections.

Welcoming Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar to the iftar he hosted in Patna.-RANJEET KUMAR

Sections of the political class in Bihar are of the view that many developments after the polls, including the denial of the Railway Ministry, have intensified Paswan's disaffection against Laloo and the RJD. Sections of the Brahmin community, represented by "aggressive" regional leaders such as Rajan Tiwary and Kali Pandey, have joined hands with Paswan. The LJP supremo also cherishes the hope of attracting a large section of Muslims. Paswan's statement in the November 28 "Maha Rally" in Patna that the Muslim-Yadav combination would be replaced by a Dalit-Muslim combination is a pointer to his thinking.

Despite these calculations Paswan has a long away to go to match Laloo as a power centre. The Dussadh Dalit community to which he belongs, and which predominantly constitutes the LJP's support base, makes up only around 7 per cent of the population of the State. Even with some sections of Muslims and Brahmins going with him, Paswan may find it difficult to match the RJD's vote share of over 25 per cent.

However, with a concerted campaign Paswan could damage the RJD's prospects in many areas and increase the LJP's seat share in the Assembly. There are many political analysts in Bihar who think that for the moment Paswan's campaign is aimed only at increasing the LJP's seat share in the Assembly and improving his party's bargaining power. Laloo Prasad, as the most dominant politician in the State, is trying to prevent this from happening. It does not suit the RJD and its chieftain to have other power centres in the State.

Given this context, it is apparent that Laloo Prasad and Paswan are engaged in a medium-term, if not long-term, game in regional politics. This is all the more reason for them to shelve their animosities in the short term, especially in the face of common adversaries. Will the NDA's privilege motion against the two Ministers have that immediate effect? There may be no clear answers right away, but Nitish Kumar's pressure graph could well be the indicator.

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