Rashtriya Janata Dal

Lalu back in business

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Lalu Prasad, convicted in the fodder scam case, leaves the Birsa Munda Central Jail in Ranchi on December 16, 2013. With him is his son, Tejaswi. Photo: AFP

An RJD supporter campaigns for the party in Patna. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Lalu Prasad with his wife, Rabri Devi, during Holi celebrations at his residence in Patna on March 18. Photo: PTI

“THERE is no dearth of prime ministerial candidates in this country and, of course, Lalu Prasad is one of them.” This was a comment Lalu Prasad made during the last months of 2008, barely six months before the 2009 general election. Five years later, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief is in no position to repeat this, especially after October 3, 2013, the day he was convicted in the fodder scam. Political analysis of his future following the conviction revolved around two themes. One stream of opinion virtually wrote the former Bihar Chief Minister’s political epitaph and predicted that his days at the political centre stage were over. The other opinion was that the verdict would create a sympathy factor and rally his supporters, particularly the Other Backward Classes (OBC), to which Lalu Prasad belongs, behind him and help him bounce back.

As the State goes through the campaign for the election spread across six phases from April 10 to May 12, it is clear that it is the latter view that holds good on the ground. His own Yadav community has consolidated as never before behind the RJD supremo. The famous MY (Muslim-Yadav) sociopolitical alliance, which he had successfully forged in the 1990s, also seems to have re-emerged, although not in the same magnitude it had a decade and a half ago.

However, the colourful politician’s and the RJD’s positive track record is once again being recounted in the public sphere. How his spectacular rise reversed the dominance of the upper castes, who form 12 per cent of the population of Bihar, lorded over 100 million people and sat atop the caste-based coalitions that ruled the State, mostly through the Congress; his array of political positions, organisational manoeuvres and dramatic forays as well his steadfast adherence to the values of OBC assertion and secularism; how he made “the Yadava” the biggest identity of strength and pride in Bihar; and how he overturned the voting trend of Muslims by forging the MY combination with strong emotional and organisational parameters. All these have come back into the political discourse of Bihar with a bang.

The fact that the RJD’s core vote base never diminished completely despite a series of electoral, political and legal reverses has helped in the re-emergence of this discourse. Even in its poorest performance—merely four seats in 2009—it still managed to get over 19 per cent of the votes against the Janata Dal (United)’s 22 per cent and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 16 per cent.

This vote share was drawn essentially from the RJD’s traditional vote base in the State, which has 14 per cent Yadavs and 16 per cent Muslims. The main premise for the RJD’s electoral prospects is that its share will not go below this 19 per cent. That it could be on the rise was indicated in June 2013 when the RJD candidate Prabhunath Singh trounced P.K. Shahi, a Minister in the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) government, in the byelection to the Maharajganj Lok Sabha seat. Singh’s victory, with a margin of 1.37 lakh votes, was comprehensive. The RJD leadership claims that with the party’s enemies—the BJP and the Janata Dal (U)—separated and with Bihar set for multi-cornered contests, it clearly is advantage Lalu.

Also, this time around, the RJD has managed to strike an alliance with the Congress, although it has lost the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), its long-time ally, to the BJP. The Congress was initially wary about joining hands with the “convicted” Lalu Prasad and it is no secret that party vice-president Rahul Gandhi preferred Nitish Kumar’s “Mr Clean” image. However, the ruling party at the Centre had a rethink, realising the rise in the sympathy factor favouring Lalu Prasad. On the ground, the loss of the LJP does not seem to have made much of a difference in those areas where the RJD has traditionally been powerful on the strength of the MY factor. These include areas such as Vaishali, Gopalganj, Saran, Maharajganj and Siwan, and everywhere the re-emergence of the MY factor is clearly visible.

Interestingly, RJD leaders and workers claim that a section of upper caste Rajputs has been won over by Lalu Prasad and that they are backing him despite the upper castes’ preference for the BJP and Narendra Modi. RJD leaders also claim that the party is the primary beneficiary of the anti-incumbency factor against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party.

The Janata Dal (U)’s attempts to engineer a split in the RJD has also added to the overall sympathy factor for Lalu Prasad. The Janata Dal (U) had weaned away 13 MLAs from the RJD in the run-up to the announcement of candidates. Although the ruling party denied any role in the crossover, there was little doubt about who was behind it. But Lalu Prasad was able to bring back nine of these MLAs. RJD workers across the State see this as yet another signal that the charismatic leader has regained his famous political skills.

Overall, there is little doubt that the RJD and Lalu Prasad are back in business and have brought back their social empowerment and caste-based discussions into the State’s political arena. And in any case, nobody expects them to perform worse than 2009.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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