Bihar: Changing equations

Print edition : February 08, 2013

Rashtriya Janata Dal President Lalu Prasad addressing a party meeting in Patna recently. Photo: PTI

OVER the last seven years, the dominant political theme that emanated from Bihar has almost always been related to the State’s governance under the leadership of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The many initiatives of the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in sectors such as public health, education, empowerment of Most Backward Castes (MBC) and infrastructure development were repeatedly highlighted in the media and in other national forums. The emergence of a new Bihar under the present regime was a refrain that consistently accompanied these projections. However, a new kind of political churning has been taking place in Bihar over the past couple of months, indicating that the dominance of this pro-Nitish Kumar political discourse is facing its biggest challenge ever.

Two factors are central to this new development. First, an increasing lack of understanding between the two partners in the ruling coalition and the growing trust deficit between the leaderships of the JD(U) and the BJP. Second, a dramatic rediscovery by Lalu Prasad, former Chief Minister and the leader of the principal opposition party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), of his crowd-pulling abilities and political rhetoric. Cumulatively, both these factors are taking the sheen away from the Nitish Kumar-led regime.

The differences between the JD(U) and the BJP are political in nature and revolve around the JD(U)’s insistence that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which both the BJP and JD(U) are a part, should have a prime ministerial candidate with secular credentials for the next general elections. The JD(U) has expressed this demand repeatedly in recent times, particularly in response to the projection by some sections of the BJP of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Modi, who returned to power for a third successive term in the State last month, is perceived by the JD(U) as a political liability that will come in the way of attracting minority votes on account of the allegations regarding his role in the 2002 genocide of Muslims in Gujarat. However, sections of the BJP in Bihar, including Ministers like Giri Raj Singh, are ardent supporters of Modi. This section has openly criticised the JD(U) and even Nitish Kumar personally on this count. This in turn has created problems of administration in several departments, leading to greater tension between the two parties.

Lalu Prasad’s re-emergence is on the strength of the growing problems for the ruling coalition, including several instances of misgovernance. “The misgovernance has been manifesting itself as police high-handedness, corruption in the bureaucracy and deficiencies in addressing the issues of the common people. In short, there is an air of disenchantment among large sections of the population, particularly given the high expectations in Nitish Kumar’s second term,” a senior JD(U) leader told Frontline.

These “failures” and “deficiencies” are being exploited well by Lalu Prasad. Travelling across several districts over the last few weeks as part of his recently launched Parivartan Yatra, Lalu Prasad attracted huge crowds. The gatherings were indeed massive in districts like Ara and Buxar. In all the meetings, Lalu Prasad apologised for his past mistakes but asserted that the time had come to teach the Nitish Kumar regime a lesson for its mistakes. “Nitish Kumar should understand that the people who shower flowers are the same ones who throw shoes at you when they get angry. A people’s leader should be among his people all the time. My masters! You made me the tallest leader in the world by letting me rule Bihar for 15 years. I have come to you to beg your pardon if I have done anything wrong to you in those years. Upper castes, Dalits, backward castes , Muslims—I had equal eyes for all...”— this was Lalu Prasad’s refrain in the meetings, and it is getting a reception unprecedented in the past seven years.

It is too early to say whether the RJD leader’s campaign will be sustained until the next elections in the State, but there is little doubt that this has raised the anxiety quotient in the ruling coalition.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan