Just a stone’s throw from Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s house and Lalu Prasad’s residence in Patna stands another bungalow, a relic from the times gone by, whitewashed, surrounded by the greens of a well maintained garden.
It is Karpoori Thakur Sanghralaya, in the memory of Bihar’s former CM, who lived and died there, and who mentored both Kumar and Prasad — and gave political shape to backward class assertion, which continues to drive the politics of Bihar.
Even as the buzz at the Sanghralaya today is only of the bees, it is a very different buzz that can be heard a few hundred yards away — with the Janata parivar’s sibling rivals Kumar and Prasad together making an all-out bid for power again.
They are borrowing the Karpoori Thakur formula: A backward consolidation as the centrepiece of a political alliance. They are looking at the support of 14% Yadavs, 4-5% Kurmis and 24% EBCs, to form a rainbow with the 16% Muslims and a chunk of Mahadalits (12%), and whatever colour the Congress-NCP can bring to it.
This line-up had catapulted Prasad to power in 1990.
It was later that Prasad’s support dwindled to just being MY (Muslim-Yadav). Kumar further devolved the backward empowerment — with a ‘new bloc’ of EBCs, Mahadalits and Pasmanda Muslims — and forged a tactical alliance with the Kurmi-Koeris, and the upper castes to undo Prasad’s grip, when he joined hands with the BJP and formed a government in 2005, and again in 2010.
With an aspirational revolution not leaving the shores of Bihar untouched, the coming together of Kumar and Prasad had to be packaged in the new idiom of development. Hence, the need to project Kumar as the CM candidate of the grand alliance — which finally Prasad did.
Today the grand alliance’s poll campaign, being mounted by the ‘once-with-Narendra Modi’ Prashant Kishore, is focusing on Brand Nitish with hoardings like ‘Aagey Badhta Rahe Bihar, Phir Ek Baar Nitish Kumar’, which do not feature scam-convicted Prasad’s pictures.
Arithmetically the grand alliance could be a winner. It is the contradictions inherent in it which could pose a problem. First, the OBC field is not as open to the Janata parivar as it was in 1990 following the decision of the then premier VP Singh to give 27% job reservations to the OBCs.
Today the BJP, no weak opponent, is also making a bid for their allegiance, and a large chunk of them voted for Modi last year, influenced as they were by the possibility of a backward class leader — Modi belongs to the Teli caste — becoming PM.
It is an interesting aside that a month ago, Kumar acceded to the Telis’ demands to be included in the EBC category. Fifty-four per cent of the EBCs had voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Even so, Kumar’s hopes rest on the steps he had taken for them — like giving them reservation in panchayats, which changed the power structure at the village level in their favour, but earned him the wrath of the upper castes.
Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has found some sympathy among the Mahadalits when he was removed by Kumar and he has tied up with the BJP. The BJP may not openly align with Pappu Yadav but hopes he will benefit it by denting the Yadav vote in the Seemanchal-Kosi belt, where he has pockets of influence.
What goes in favour of the BJP is its organisational strength; the RSS, the VHP, Bajrang Dal, the Sangh’s other front organisations will pull out all the stops to work for the BJP. But, unlike the grand alliance, it does not have a chief ministerial ‘chehra’. Prasad and Kumar are mass leaders but they do not have the organisational muscle of the type that the BJP enjoys. The BJP also has to contend with factional pulls, with Ram Vilas Paswan opposed to the entry of Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha demanding his pound of flesh.
How the Yadavs react to the new tie-up is imponderable. Opposed as they have been to Kumar, will they vote for an alliance led by him?
Prasad told this writer that he had been under pressure from the Yadavs to sew up the alliance.
If the Yadavs could accept the leadership of Karpoori Thakur, who belonged to a minuscule ‘Nai’ community, why should they not accept Kumar, who today represents a large number of smaller castes making up the EBC bloc?
Prasad was quick to see the writing on the wall, when the Congress decided to back Kumar and this would have meant the Muslims jumping ship, a section of Yadavs gravitating to the BJP, and the possibility of Prasad being left minus his ‘MY’.
Many of the Yadavs realise that ‘shared power is better than no power’ and that their chief is after all going to be calling the shots in the new formation. Besides, there is nothing to stop Prasad reopening the CM question after the elections, if the RJD gets more seats than the JD(U), for the RJD strike rate was higher even in 2014. Aware of this possibility, Kumar will try and give more tickets to the
Congress to ensure that together they exceed Prasad’s numbers.
Ultimately, everything hinges on Prasad and Kumar, and the sincerity with which they navigate the contradictions to make the alliance work.
Prasad is a natural communicator, though out of the race this time. Kumar, with his focus on development, a natural CM. The battle for Bihar, which will determine the trajectory of Indian politics, has beckoned both and it cannot be fought by either of them alone.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator
(The views expressed by the author are personal)