This is not a political obituary of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad. Despite being convicted in the second fodder scam case, he may continue to be a force to reckon with in Bihar’s public life. The Yadavs, who form the main basis of his party, supported by Muslims, form a significant chunk of the Bihar electorate.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) was quite aware of the strengths of Lalu Yadav, whose party was defeated twice in the state assembly elections in 2005 and 2010 by the JD(U)-BJP alliance, when he joined hands with Lalu and the Congress, because Nitish was not happy with the BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, in 2013.
In 2017, Nitish Kumar walked out of the alliance with RJD and Congress, and re-aligned with the BJP. This time around, Kumar was upset with the corruption charges brought against Lalu’s son and deputy chief minister Tejaswi Yadav by Bihar BJP leader Sushil Modi. The long-running fodder scam was not the reason behind Nitish’s unhappiness with RJD.
Looking back at Lalu’s shining star in Bihar politics, it becomes clear that he would not have been the star politician that he was made out to be by the media, especially the English language journalists. They fell in love with the rustic ways of Lalu Yadav, and they made him a symbol of the earthy Indian politician.
It seems that Lalu played to the English media gallery when he showed off the little dairy farm he ran in the chief minister’s residence, and splashed water on village children who were made to take part in the experimental 'charwaha’ (herds-children) schools that he started. He fell back on histrionics and shallow witticisms - one of them was his comment that he would make the roads of Bihar as smooth as the cheeks of Hema Malini - which he should have left to stand-up comedians.
He is educated and is not the unlettered one he projected himself to be, preferring to be seen as one blessed with native wisdom. He could have been a popular and effective leader if he did not allow his intelligence and his education to be relegated to the background. He should have set himself up as an example of how an educated person can steer democratic politics, which is what Nitish is trying to do and he has succeeded to an extent. Lalu had an advantage over Nitish. He could connect with the common man and woman, and no one is more aware of this than Nitish himself.
So, somewhere Lalu let go an opportunity to be the sober, sensible and educated leader of the backward state of Bihar. Instead, he chose to be recklessly populist, and generated nothing but contempt for educated people in public life. Raghuvansh Prasad, a senior leader of the RJD and one who is well-versed in political theory as well its practice, was pushed to the sidelines. What Lalu needed was more leaders in the mould of Raghuvansh Prasad.
The fodder scam case did not bring down Lalu. It was his populist revelry that alienated the people of the state. He could not see the anarchy he had unleashed during his years in power. Choosing his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister in his place when he stepped down on corruption charges in the fodder scam case only helped push Bihar further down the road of lawlessness. Ironically, it is in the 2000 election when Rabri Devi was at the helm, though only nominally, that the RJD had scored its first and only electoral victory by winning 124 seats, with a 28.34% voteshare. It remains an anomaly.
A look back at Bihar’s electoral landscape shows that it is a complex mosaic of interlocked caste equations and contestations. Neither Lalu nor Nitish are the 'kings’ of Bihar they may like to believe themselves to be. Neither Lalu nor Nitish can ever hope to come to power on their own. The JD(U), at its best, mustered 22.58% votes in the 2010 assembly elections. And Lalu did not disappear from the political stage even when his share of seats fell to 22 in the 2010 elections.
In the 2005 election, RJD won 54 seats with 23.45% of the vote, while JD (U) won 88 seats and 20.46% of the vote and the BJP won 55 seats with 15.65% of votes. In 2010, RJD won just 22 seats with 18.84% of votes while JD (U) won 115 seats with 22.58% of votes and the BJP 91 seats with 16.49% vote share.
In 2013, Nitish walked out of the alliance with the BJP objecting to the candidacy of Narendra Modi as prime minister. The 2015 assembly election was fought with the JD (U), RJD and Congress in an alliance, and they together won 178 seats, with 41.84% of votes.
It appears that it is Lalu’s younger son, Tejaswi Yadav, who has assumed the leadership of RJD, who is playing the role of the sober leader. Of course, Tejaswi must be well aware that he cannot pull off his father’s act, and he is doing it his own way. This was the way that Lalu should have gone, and he would have saved himself and Bihar. Indian politics needed a leader from Bihar with a certain gravitas, and Lalu, from among the post-Emergency politicians, should have provided it.
Nitish is sober and educated alright, but his political convictions are not as clear and firm as that of Lalu. Nitish has proved himself to be an opportunist. For good or for bad, there was need for a popular, not populist, and educated politician with ideas and convictions. Lalu got trapped in his media-created image of a rustic Bihari leader.
(The writer is a political commentator)