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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015

Bihar: Laloo in Search of a New Political Pasture

Sunday 22 March 2015

by Arun Srivastava

Laloo Prasad Yadav’s reluctance to allow his RJD legislators to join the Nitish Government has intrigued the political circles and the experts alike. Even his senior RJD colleagues are unable to decode his silence. His reluctance could have been appreciated if the Nitish Government was on a sticky pitch and was not sure of completing its term till the Assembly elections. In the numbers game also Nitish enjoys the support of the required legislators and naturally in this backdrop he is firmly in saddle.

Usually the leadership of a political party prefers to stay in power to use its benefits and also the State administration during the elections. But this perspective has also not prevailed upon Laloo. Even the stay in power for a brief period of nearly nine months would have helped the RJD to reach out to the people with administrative largesse.

But one development points to the end of the bonhomie between the two leaders. Laloo was supposed to be the most important dignitary at the swearing in of Nitish. He preferred to stay back in Saifai, the home town of Mulayam Singh. He was there to look after the engagement ceremony of his daughter. According to the earlier schedule, he was to be in Patna. But he skipped it. He was angry with Nitish for inducting Lalan Singh and P.K. Shahi as the Cabinet Ministers. In fact Jitanram Manjhi had sacked these two persons from his Cabinet. While finalising the names of the probable Ministers Laloo had in fact objected to their induction and, if the party sources are to be believed, Nitish had consented to do so. But on the day of the swearing-in their names were forwarded to the Governor. Laloo had quipped in Saifai that this move was a “great betrayal”.

These two politicians have in fact been responsible for Laloo’s present political plight and being debarred from contesting elections. While Lalan Singh was the petitioner who filed the PIL, Shahi as the advocate had argued his case before the Patna High Court. They were primarily responsible for Laloo’s conviction in the famous fodder scam case.

Nevertheless the senior RJD leaders have their own arguments. They point out that irrespective of the fact whether he supports Nitish or does not allow his legislators to join the government, the people of Bihar, especially his support-base, the Yadavs, would not forget and exonerate him of his action of extending support to Nitish. Even if his stand is viewed in the backdrop of the compulsion of realpolitik, his opposing Manjhi has not been appreciated by his own men. It is a fact that almost all the important faces of the RJD were against his decision.

Laloo may not prefer to strike back against Nitish at this stage as it would prove to be counter-productive and simply add to the strength of the BJP. With the purpose of assuaging Laloo’s hurt feelings, Nitish has turned quite docile and polite. He intends to send the message across that he was following and acting on the advice of Laloo. But behind the façade of this comraderie both are scheming their future actions.

The most unfortunate aspect of this cold war between the two leaders is that the move to revive the united Janata Party seems to have been virtually abandoned. Some references to this are being made but these are simply rituals for public consumption. During the last three months of the Bihar crisis the task of unifying the former socialist elements and leaders has been completely ignored. Till December while Laloo was quite enthusiastic and discussed the future prospect of the revived Janata Party with his old socialist comrades, on his part Nitish had made it his life’s mission to give it a concrete shape no doubt obviously with the goal of using it as the launching pad for entering into the national political arena. But after January 2015 with Nitish busy executing operation oust Jitanram Manjhi, the move to resurrect the Janata Party lost relevance. This has also been a matter of surprise for the political circles. Questions have also surfaced; how could Laloo and Nitish ignore the danger of the saffron juggernaut ravaging Bihar? It was also argued that to protect Bihar the JD(U) and RJD should have launched a joint socialist campaign at the national level. But this does not appear to be happening.

What has added a new dimension to the confusion is the suggestion from senior RJD leader and former Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh to Nitish Kumar to induct Jitan- ram Manjhi in his Cabinet as the Deputy Chief Minister. Singh is known to speak the mind of Laloo. Though his statement was rebutted by the leader of the RLD legislature group, Abdul Bari Siddiqui, interestingly no one on behalf of Laloo officially refuted it.

Laloo is not simply depending on political arithmetic. Instead he has been eyeing on the future political restructuring of Bihar politics. While the BJP is not keen to accept Manjhi in its fold for the obvious reason of not displeasing and antagonising its upper-caste support-base, Laloo finds a politically correct ally in Manjhi. His joining hands with Laloo will not alienate the Yadavs from Laloo. In fact the Yadavs have been supporting him in his fight against Nitish. In Bihar the intermediate castes or the OBCs have antagonistic relations with the Dalits and Harijans. The State has been witness to a number of bloody clashes and massacres. Even today some such clashes take place. If they come together the beginning of a new social engineering would be witnessed in Bihar and this eventually would have a major impact on Uttar Pradesh. With the OBCs and Dalits with him Laloo could emerge as the new face of inclusive politics. Notwithstanding the fact that Laloo was with Nitish’s campaign to oust Manjhi from the post of the Chief Minister, he was never too harsh towards him. After Manjhi resigned Laloo had observed: “Manjhiji has ruined his future by getting involved with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He should have resigned earlier. He has ruined his future by getting involved with the BJP.” On his part Manjhi has not been too critical of Laloo. While announcing the formation of his Hindustani Awami Morcha (HAM) at the “JD(U) Garib Swabhiman Karyakarta Sammelan” at Patna, just a week after the Aam Aadmi Party swept to power in Delhi on a pro-common man agenda, Jitanram Manjhi vowed to follow Arvind Kejriwal’s model in Bihar. While the meet witnessed an all-out attack on Nitish, with leaders calling him “power hungry”, they refrained from targeting Laloo.

The core support-base of the Morcha would be the Mahadalits and Muslims. Interestingly while apprehensions were being expressed in political circles of the possible alignment of the HAM with BJP, some even calling it as the B-team of the BJP, Manjhi refuted speculations that he was about to ally with the BJP. The front is an attempt for the political awakening of Dalits as a unified pressure group of 22 per cent, which could transcend caste barriers to emerge as a vital force. The prime mission of the HAM would be to awaken the Dalits in Bihar who are completely unaware of their rights and privileges, They are exploited from all corners, and the administration, politicians and other officials keep mum on this. Even during the phase of liberalisation and reforms, the upper- caste people of Bihar had made it impossible for the people from Dalit and Musahar community to survive. The upper-caste people wanted these Dalits and Musahars to leave the village; they did not allow them to avail the basic amenities of life. If someone dared to raise his voice and protest he would be beaten by the goons of the upper-caste people.

The BJP leadership is yet not clear about its future strategic approach to the Manjhi factor. Manjhi too is not too keen to identify himself with the saffron brigade. While he has been under pressure from some of his OBC and upper-caste leaders to align with the BJP, some of the senior leaders of the Manjhi group are in favour of adopting a watch-and-wait policy. The BJP is divided about what kind of role it would expect Manjhi and his associates to play ahead of the Assembly polls due in November. Some senior OBC leaders are holding the opinion that the party would not benefit if Manjhi and his colleagues align with the BJP. Instead the BJP would gain if he contested the elections as a separate political group. This would cut into the vote-base of the ruling JD-U-led alliance. The fact of the matter is: these leaders and also the upper-caste leaders are scared of Manjhi’s sudden outbursts against the rich and upper-caste people. This would create an embarrassment.

Nevertheless after launching the Morcha, Manjhi is going slow on the formation of a political party. Narendra Singh, the former Minister in the Nitish Cabinet, has been the new Chanakya of the Manjhi group. Incidentally he has been known as the protégé of Laloo. Even with Nitish, he owed his personal loyalty to Laloo. He is in favour of bringing the OBCs and Dalits on a common platform. Interestingly the comrades of Manjhi refused to comment on the speculations regarding the HAM being backed by the saffron party. The leaders of the Manjhi camp, when asked about this, refused to comment on the issue saying it was too early to decide though some BJP leaders were seen taking keen interest in Manjhi’s HAM. Manjhi knows his real political strength: that he, riding on the support of about 22 per cent Dalit votes, can tilt the Assembly result either way.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com