Aging politicians do not fade away into the sunset, they reinvent and refurbish their repertoire and make comebacks. And no one more so than Bihar’s Lalu Prasad, whose political fortunes after hitting rock bottom seem to be on the rise again in the state. Ever the consummate politician, he has put his ego aside for the movement and endorsed the chief ministerial candidature of chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) in a bid to project a secular front which can take on a resurgent BJP. And the real surprise of the day is the fancy footwork displayed by the Congress, particularly vice-president Rahul Gandhi, in providing the glue holding this fractious alliance together.
Now the Congress does not really count for much in Bihar. But in its role as alliance partner, it has brought itself back into the reckoning again. It does not suffer from the syndrome that the BJP does, that of great expectations. The very fact that it has become something of a player again in the state is in itself a major achievement. Of course, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip but for the moment, the secular front as it fancies itself seems on course.
Other states may have moved forward and embraced development as their main agenda. Not so Bihar. Nitish Kumar did in his earlier avatar and it did pay some dividends. But all his efforts fell flat in the Lok Sabha elections, leading him to now fall back on the no doubt comforting and familiar caste equations. So his JD(U) will bring to the table a section of the Yadavs, Kurmis, Dalits and Muslims. The RJD will bring with it the Yadavs and some Muslims and the Congress can also attract some of the extremely backward classes like the Mahadalits and the Muslims. In contrast, the BJP’s votebank is largely the upper castes. It has been trying to chip away at the Yadav vote in recent times with
But the real sticking point is Lalu’s disdain for Nitish. When his hand was forced, quite literally by the Congress and the pater familias of the Janata parivar in the making, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu accepted Nitish as the chief ministerial candidate. He said somewhat sadly, “To crush the cobra of communalism, I am ready to consume all kinds of poison.” Hardly a comforting thought for Nitish but it is one step forward from his implacable opposition to the chief minister. There are many imponderables here. The first is whether this alliance will hold until the elections, given the monumental egos involved. For the moment, the Congress seems to be the buffer between the two Bihar strongmen with vice-president Rahul Gandhi playing a leading role here.
As his rivals claim, Lalu’s tenure had become synonymous with corruption. Remember the huge fodder scam? But, in his own earthy way, he still has a connect with the people. His witticisms, once lapped up by the media, may be falling a little flat but his rustic charm still holds good. I remember the story told to me by the editor of a leading English daily many years ago when Lalu was chief minister. The said editor landed in Patna and called on Lalu, who invited him for a spin at night around the city. The editor agreed, thinking that this would involve no more than taking in the sights of a somnolent Patna. So at the appointed hour, he turned up in his smart Armani suit, Hermes tie and in a cloud of expensive aftershave. Off they went, to the editor’s discomfiture, to visit a gaushala. While the editor looked on aghast, the CM dipped his hand into a tub of desi ghee and fed it to him. Ghee dripping from Hermes tie, the editor smiled painfully through the ordeal. But at the end of this somewhat trying experience, the editor still had good words for Lalu, a man he said epitomises the dictum ‘what you see is what you get’.
So his ability to draw crowds will come in handy as also Nitish’s track record on development. So where does this leave the BJP, which until now thought it would sail right through? It did really well in the Lok Sabha elections, which saw the decimation of Nitish and Lalu. It is quite clearly sheer worry that a repeat could happen in the assembly elections, which have brought these once sworn enemies together. In the case of Nitish, he will also be seeking to settle scores with his predecessor, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who did not want to return the chief minister’s chair to him. Manjhi is something of an icon to the Mahadalits, a constituency that Nitish too has been courting. Manjhi has now allied with the BJP. Nitish also wants to undermine Jankranti Adhikar Morcha chief Pappu Yadav, who has a bit of the Yadav votebank under his belt. Manjhi’s relationship with Nitish hardly inspires any confidence, but the BJP is looking at a challenge from the alliance it had not envisaged. Everyone, even the most astute of political pundits, had thought that the alliance would not take off, given how the Janata-type leaders always prefer the role of generals and never foot soldiers.
The ebullient BJP president had earlier announced that he aimed at getting 185 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly. But that was before the equations changed with the alliance. Things have moved on since the Lok Sabha elections. Mr Modi is still very much on top but the sheen is wearing off. The people also know that Mr Modi will stay in Delhi and they will have to contend with a local leader. The BJP does have leaders like Sushil Modi but no one who can really be a game changer. Into this already fraught situation, the RSS has put in its two-bit worth. It wants the party to go into the elections with no chief ministerial candidate, a move which is bound to backfire. Here then is a situation which will require all of Amit Shah’s famed backroom skills.
While alliances are made of people as disparate as apples and oranges, a controversy over other fruits has riveted Patna. The feisty Manjhi tried to help himself to a few mangoes from the chief ministerial residence, which he is refusing to vacate, only to find the chief minister’s guard standing in the way. While the chief minister has wryly remarked that he would buy Manjhi some fruits if he so desired, into the fray we find dear old Lalu, who has claimed the fruits in question, saying the trees were planted when he was CM.
All I can say is that fruits or no fruits, the Bihar electorate is ripe for the picking. I wonder whose offer of political fruits they will find most palatable.