Bihar Mahagathbandhan a likely casualty as Nitish's good governance locks horns with Lalu's secularism

Not long ago Bihar’s strong man Lalu Prasad Yadav — a former union railways minister, former chief minister of the state and the supremo of the Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has got the maximum MLAs in the present state Assembly — was the most vocal propagator of the politics of "social justice" and "secularism". But over the last few days, as suspicion gathers strength over the durability the Nitish Kumar-led coalition government in Bihar, in which RJD is the biggest component, Lalu seems to be focussing only on "secularism" as his concrete weapon against what he alleges to be the "political vendetta" of the Narendra Modi government and the BJP against his family.

File image of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav

File image of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav

Why is it so?

Nitish's virtual ultimatum to Lalu's two sons in his ministry to come clean on the corruption charges and RJD’s emphatic assertion that they will not quit have put serious question marks over the future of the “Mahagathbandhan”(grand alliance) government that includes Congress as well. As of now, RJD and Congress are solidly together. But the chief minister, who is also the supremo of the JD (U), is, it seems, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with RJD ever since the central investigating agencies "found incriminating material" against Lalu, his wife Rabri Devi, daughter Misa Bharti, and his two sons — Tejashwi Yadav, who is the current deputy chief minister while Tej Pratap is a senior cabinet minister — in various "corrupt deals" over the last 13 years.

This analysis is not about the authenticity (or the lack of it) of these charges; it deals with the politics around these charges. In the public perception, Lalu’s background has been such that the corruption charges against him, and the exploitation of his political opponents on these scores, seem credible. Let us remember the “cruel” fact that Lalu has been the first big-time politician of the country who has been debarred from contesting elections, following his conviction by the court of corrupt practices.

Lalu’s has been a rags-to-riches story. It may be instructive to see some photographs of Lalu’s house when he became the chief minister by ace photographer Praveen Jain (he had displayed them recently in his Facebook wall).

Few days ago, PTI released a photograph of one of the three palatial farm houses of Misa Bharati in Delhi and the nearby suburbs. If investigating agencies are to be believed, most of the new found wealth of Lalu and his family have been “gifts” from persons seeking political favours from him. Secondly, Lalu’s children and wife did not declare them when they contested elections, a serious crime under the country’s electoral laws.

Fifteen years ago, Lalu and his brand of politics would have turned these allegations against him to be grand opportunities for his political victory. He simply would have exploited his "identity" of belonging to a backward caste (Yadavs) of being a "victim" of "upper caste" and "communal" politics. He would have got the overwhelming support of the Yadavs and Muslims — his other vote bank then — and would have emerged as the most successful politician in the state. In fact, he did that during his near-uninterrupted 15-year reign between 1990 and 2005. But today, this politics will not work. This point needs a longer explanation.

During his 15-year-reign — between him and his wife Rabri Devi — Lalu hardly cared about good governance, transparency and the development of Bihar. As Jeffrey Witsoe has written in his book, Democracy against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity, between 1992 and 2005 as many as 30,000 kidnappings for ransom were reported. In fact, Lalu Raj was notorious for kidnapping as a highly lucrative industry. Lalu’s brothers-in-law, Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav, and his henchman Shahabuddin considered a law unto themselves. Bihar under Lalu (with his wife) was ranked at the bottom of the list of all Indian states in terms of various socio-economic criteria.

However, Lalu hardly bothered about these pitfalls. Once asked about the lack of development in the state, the former chief minister of Bihar had said, “Vikas nahin, samman chahiye (we want dignity, not development)." In fact, there was that apocryphal story of a villager complaining to Lalu about the road in his village with potholes lying unattended for years. Apparently Lalu had replied, “Smooth roads would only help those with fancy cars and would actually be a threat to the children and cattle in the village, who might be run over by speeding vehicles.” Of course, later on he had promised to make Bihar's roads as smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks. Once when there was a massive flood and water reached many houses in the adjoining areas, Lalu had remarked that the people should be considering themselves lucky as “mother Ganga has come herself to people’s homes to give darshan".

The essence of Lalu’s brand of politics during his heyday was that he immensely enjoyed his antagonistic attitude towards development-oriented governance. He only concentrated on democratic mobilisation of his backward castes on the one hand and Muslims on the other. He systematically weakened state-institutions and disrupted development projects. For him, corruption was no issue, given his undoubted skills in marketing his caste. In fact, his faith in the identity politics, coupled with his immense confidence in personal charisma and populist appeal in the name of "social justice" was such that he did not even feel it important to develop his party as an organisation with second or third–tired leadership. RJD, for all practical purposes, has been run from Lalu’s home; it is essentially an outfit of the Lalu family.

However, things are different now. Identity politics is no longer the solution for a caste-leader facing corruption charges. Voters belonging to the same caste do not tolerate their corrupt leader, whether in Bihar or anywhere else. Naturally, charges of corruption against Lalu no longer command the unflinching loyalty of his traditional support base – the backward castes, particularly the Yadavs, and the minority Muslim population.

At the same time, the rise of Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) does provide an alternative to voters in Bihar. Nitish also draws his strength from the backward castes, but there is a difference. The backward castes are not a monolithic block. There are sections within it that are dominant in terms of economic and political clouts. It is the latter, the Yadavs in particular, who had grabbed the most advantages during the Lalu-reign. Nitish, then in alliance with the BJP, challenged the Yadavs, by appealing what he called the extreme backward castes (EBC), who were prevented by the dominant Yadavs from enjoying the newfound economic and political advantages emanating from the central and state governments.

In other words, Lalu’s "social justice", limited as it was to certain sections within the backwards castes and minorities, had few takers. Thus started the decline of Lalu’s preeminence in Bihar politics. It was resurrected only when he joined hands with Nitish in the 2015 Bihar Assembly election. Arithmetically, the two, with minor support from Congress, prevailed over the rising BJP, even though the latter, got more votes than RJD and JD(U) received as individual parties.

Even otherwise, at the present juncture, "social justice" alone will not take Lalu too far as he is going to be a partner, not a leader, in the broad coalition of Opposition parties to fight BJP under Modi, nationally. Whether it is Congress or Trinamul Congress in West Bengal or Sharad Pawar’s NCP in Maharashtra, none of them are based on identity politics of a dominant caste or community. The only slogan or political “mantra” that unites them the most is “secularism”, of which “anti-majoritarianism” is a logical corollary.

It is not surprising, therefore, to understand why opposition parties, including Congress, ignore Lalu and his family’s record in corruption, both real and perceived. For them, the drawbacks of Lalu as a corrupt leader pale before Lalu’s commitment as a secular leader. The only exception here seems to be Nitish who seems to believe that in Bihar fighting corruption (linked intricately with good governance) fetches more votes than the sloganeering about secularism. And this perhaps is the reason why he may break ranks with the “Mahagathbandhan” in the state.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 17:23 PM

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