Janata Dal (United): Reinventing itself

Published : Apr 16, 2014 12:30 IST

Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally at Sherghati in Gaya district on April 4.

Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally at Sherghati in Gaya district on April 4.

ONE of the most enigmatic political forces in the country, the Janata Dal (United), as we know it today, came into existence on October 30, 2003, after the Samata Party and the Lokshakti Party merged with the rump of the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal. In 2005, the Janata Dal (U) entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the Assembly elections in Bihar and romped to victory. The alliance continued uninterrupted until June 16, 2013, when the two parted ways after Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was appointed the BJP’s campaign committee chairman. This was seen as a precursor to his anointment as that party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Thus, for the Janata Dal (U), which is contesting a Lok Sabha election on its own, this is a make-or-break situation, a battle for survival. The party’s record in Lok Sabha elections has been quite impressive. In 2004, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which it was a constituent, was routed in the Hindi heartland, the Janata Dal (U) won eight seats. Six of these were from Bihar (with 22.36 per cent vote share in the 24 seats it contested in the State), and one each from Uttar Pradesh and Lakshadweep.

Contesting 73 seats from 16 States, it garnered 17.73 per cent of the votes polled in these constituencies. Overall, however, it got only 2.35 per cent of the votes. In 2009, when the BJP-Janata Dal (U) coalition led by Nitish Kumar was in power in Bihar, the party swept the Lok Sabha elections, winning 20 of the 25 seats it contested, with a 24.04 per cent vote share.

In this election, the Janata Dal (U) has fielded 38 candidates, leaving two for its Left allies. The party, admittedly, is at a crossroads this time because the combination of backward castes, Muslims and the upper castes, which had worked for it earlier, has gone awry.

Moreover, there is the Modi factor to reckon with. In February this year, five MPs, including senior leader Shivanand Tiwari, were expelled from the party for praising Modi. Following this, Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh, a former bureaucrat and the man widely credited with creating the Nitish Brand, left the party to join the BJP. One of its senior Muslim leaders, Sabir Ali, too joined the BJP but was subsequently ousted from that party following objections to his entry in that party from its leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

The Janata Dal (U)’s future course of action is a subject matter of speculation among observers. The senior political analyst Shaibal Gupta, member secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, which is the think tank behind Nitish’s development mantra, calls it a “paradigm shift election” in Bihar.

“For the first time, a constituency of Mahadalits, Pasmanda Muslims and women has been carved out in Bihar, and it remains to be seen how will they vote because they, to this date, have remained loyal to Nitish Kumar,” Gupta says.

According to him, how this non-powerful social category votes separately is something to be watched. So far its voting patterns were influenced by powerful social categories like the Yadavs when the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Lalu Prasad was at the helm of affairs and then the upper castes since the BJP-Janata Dal (U) alliance was forged.

Senior party leaders, however, put on a brave face. “We are the sole custodians of the secular vote in Bihar. Both the Congress and the BJP have deserted the State. The State figures nowhere in the Congress manifesto and the BJP manifesto does not even mention the topic of special status for the State even though Modi had made such a commitment to the people in all his three meetings in the State,” says party general secretary K.C. Tyagi.

According to him, the Janata Dal (U) is the only non-BJP force to counter the Modi hype because the RJD-Congress alliance, which was forged after much haggling, is not working at the ground level. “People of Bihar have to choose between us and the BJP; there is no other viable secular option for them,” says Tyagi.

The alliance that Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party has formed with the BJP will not alter the scenario much, he says, because he takes with him only 3.5 per cent of the votes, leaving the rest of the Dalit/Mahadalit segment, and the Muslim and women constituency to the Janata Dal (U). “There is no party known by the name of Congress in Bihar,” Tyagi says.

Confident of doing better than last time, the Janata Dal (U) is eyeing a bigger role for itself at the Centre in the post-election scenario. It has pledged its allegiance to a non-Congress, non-BJP third front and is hoping to be a crucial player in Delhi. With this in mind, the party has been talking about its “inclusive growth” model as opposed to the Gujarat model of development, and has promised reservation of jobs in the private sector as well, besides special status for Bihar.

“We will win the largest number of seats,” says Tyagi, even as he admits that there certainly is a Modi wave in the State. “But it is only among youngsters.” This election, no doubt, will be a watershed election for the Janata Dal (U) in more ways than one.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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