It was one of the most scathing attacks on Narendra Modi, the BJP prime ministerial aspirant. While proving his majority in the Bihar Assembly on 19 June, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was at his acerbic best. “The BJP workers are getting excited about the wave created by one of their leaders,” he said, never once naming Modi, although it did not take a genius to understand who he meant. “It is nothing but a wave created by corporate houses that will be shortlived and cannot do any magic in 2014.”
Ironically though, the man who would be happiest with the Janata Dal (United)’s decision to sever ties with its partner of 17 years does not belong to either party. The moment belongs to Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav. This split has given the former chief minister reason to believe that his time is come again and he has one more shot at the top seat in Bihar.
On 18 June, a day after Nitish announced the divorce and told Governor DY Patil that he would prove his majority in the Assembly, Patna witnessed what it had not seen in a very long time. The BJP had called a vishwasghat diwas (betrayal day), a day of bandh in the state, one that soon turned violent as supporters of both parties clashed with each other in full television glory. Later in the day, as news of the “success” of the Bihar bandh started pouring in from all quarters, a worried bystander asked, “Does this mean that Lalu raj will make a comeback?”
That very evening, at a press conference, the Bihar CM made a veiled reference to Narendra Modi as the reason behind the split. The BJP hit back by circulating a CD that showed how a smiling Nitish, then railway minister in 2003, had extolled the virtues of the BJP leader, asking him to come forward and lead the country. The mud-slinging continued as both parties pulled every available trick in the bag to outdo each other.
One man, however, was enjoying this show from the sidelines.
Lalu Prasad Yadav has been an entertaining politician, both as CM of Bihar and later as railway minister, and he was not one to let this chance go. In a characteristic fashion, he said, “God is great!”
With both the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Congress by his side, this was the best news that had come Lalu’s way in a long time. Particularly after the Maharajganj bypoll earlier this month, where the RJD trounced the JD(U). He was pleased and nothing could deter him. Never mind that the Congress too got in touch with Nitish, fuelling speculation about a new formation in Bihar, after the chief minister proved his majority in the Assembly with the Congress’ backing.
“If the Congress is thinking of aligning with the JD(U), it is very clear that its central leadership has refused to learn the right lesson from its decimation in Bihar,” says a senior RJD leader, dismissing any thoughts of a threat from a possible new coalition. Perhaps wary of playing his hand too soon, Nitish also said that albeit he was thankful to the Congress for its support, not much should be read into it.
Coming just two days after PM Manmohan Singh hailed the Bihar CM as a secular leader, this has not found many takers. If anything, with the break-up of the coalition, the die is cast for 2014. By dumping the BJP and with the possibility of an alliance with the Congress, Nitish will hope to bag a major chunk of the 17 percent Muslim votes to compensate the loss of the upper caste votes that the divorce with the BJP is sure to cause.
But can Nitish succeed in doing what Lalu had so successfully done in Bihar? Can he woo the Muslim votes the way Lalu had done with his formidable Muslim-Yadav combine? The jury is out on this. While those like political commentator Naval Kishore Chaudhary believe this split will definitely help the Bihar CM, others are not so sure.
According to Firoz Mansuri, chairman of the Patna-based Indian Muslim Research Foundation, the idea that in Bihar, Muslims usually go for tactical voting, is a flawed one. “If you don’t take the difference between Ashrafia (forward) Muslims and Pasmanda (backward) Muslims into account, you won’t be able to make out who will vote for Lalu and who will vote for Nitish,” he says. “Despite the numerical superiority of the Pasmandas (80 percent of the total Muslim population in Bihar), Lalu always treated all Muslims as one community. Nitish was quick to exploit this growing discontent among Pasmandas.”
In 2005, seven Pasmanda outfits issued a fatwa to defeat Lalu in the Assembly polls. “Nitish made the famous statement that you can change your religion but you can’t change your caste,” recalls Mansuri. “Among the Pasmandas, two of the biggest castes are Ansari and Hujra and Nitish made Anwar Ahmed (an Ansari) and Ejaj Ali (a Hujra) Rajya Sabha members in 2005, a first in their history. This led to a phenomenal boost in Nitish’s popularity among Pasmandas. He made substantial electoral gains because of this and other caste alliances.”
But the honeymoon was too good to last. These soon began to be seen as mere tokenism, as several incidents after that — like the Forbesganj firing of July 2011 and the picking up of Muslim youths from Darbhanga as alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives — have considerably weakened his position among the electorate.
Explaining the phase, Mansuri says that “after a while, Nitish started behaving like Lalu. There was no real effort to improve the condition of the Pasmandas. He will have to explain why he never visited Forbesganj and will be hard pressed to explain several other things”.
Despite the confidence shown by the chief minister before the media, in his heart Nitish knows that given the numerical disadvantage, he will have to pull off a miracle with the Muslim vote if he is to retain Bihar.
Lalu knows this and has consistently attacked Nitish, but has astutely spared the BJP of his criticism. “Saheb knows that by quitting the BJP alliance, Nitish could pose a challenge to his secular votebank,” says an RJD leader on condition of anonymity. “Going by the response of the Congress towards Nitish, he knows where the real danger lies.”
While Lalu denies any such gameplan and dismisses the Congress as an inconsequential force if it chooses to go with the JD(U), he also understands the significance of a secular combine with the LJP and the Congress. In the 2010 Assembly election, the RJD got only 22 seats, but its vote share of 18.84 percent was higher than the BJP, which got 91 seats with 16.46 percent. Combined with the vote share of the LJP and the Congress, the RJD-led front has 33.97 percent of votes, which is 5 percent less than the combined share of the BJP-JD(U).
Political scientist Arshad Ajmal also points out why the win in the Maharajganj bypoll earlier this month was extremely crucial for the RJD. “While a win in one seat is not an ideal sample, this election had all the elements of an ideal scenario for the RJD,” says Ajmal. “BJP MLAs were against the nomination of PK Shahi and when Nitish went ahead and announced his candidature, there was massive cross voting in favour of RJD’s Parbhunath Singh. The situation was such that around 450-plus voting booths were left unmanned by the NDA. Apart from this, Lalu was able to put his PMRY (Paswan, Musalman, Rajput and Yadav) combination spot-on. Even the Pasmanda Muslims voted for Lalu, which was very disappointing for Nitish.”
People close to both Lalu and Nitish also identify the Maharajganj poll as the immediate trigger for the JD(U) rushing to break the alliance with the BJP. They say that Nitish realised that the more he delayed the break-up, the more he was putting his own party in a spot of bother.
Conscious that the BJP ’s attempt to project Modi as an OBC leader could damage his prospects, the chief minister has gone to great lengths to negate the move.
“Just by being born into an OBC family does not make anybody their leader,” he said during the debate on the trust vote. “Chaudhary Charan Singh, Madhu Limaye and VP Singh were not born into OBC families, but are considered OBC leaders because they were genuinely committed to the welfare of the poor and deprived sections of the society.”
Meanwhile, the mood in the BJP is very buoyant. A majority of the cadres are actually happy about the separation. They feel that based on their cadre strength and the public opinion in Narendra Modi’s favour, they could expect a massive polarisation to their advantage. According to BJP MLA Harendra Pratap, “We are prepared for the elections. After a long time, the BJP has taken a right decision of not bowing before Nitish Kumar and go all out in support of Narendra Modi.”
Former deputy chief minister and BJP leader Sushil Modi has admitted that Narendra Modi’s OBC and upper caste coalition will be a clear advantage for the party. Not only this, the state leadership is also actively wooing the Koiri leader Upendra Kushwaha. Koiris have a presence of 4-6 percent and any number of votes matter now.
However, the state BJP leadership has also come under fire from its own cadres. “For seven years, we have been used by Nitish Kumar,” says a BJP MLA. “Despite being an equal partner, he was the only face of development in Bihar. And what was our “Modi” doing? He was busy acting as the pro of the CM. Even a month ago, when the whole of the BJP was chanting NaMo, NaMo, Sushil Modi was busy projecting Nitish Kumar as the PM.”
Harendra Pratap was even more forthcoming. “In 2005, when I was the state chief, we had an argument with Nitish about the number of ministers each party would have,” he says. “I reminded Nitish that in 2000, despite having only few MPs, then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the JD(U) four Cabinet posts. Why can’t he do the same for us? But I was asked by Arun Jaitley to accommodate Nitish’s concern.”
While winning the trust vote was a foregone conclusion for Nitish, the split with the BJP is his biggest gamble yet. Whether it helps him forge new alliances or boomerangs on him, only time will tell. As an aide of the CM put it, “Politically, interesting times are back in Bihar.”