Two to tango: Future of the Lalu-Nitish combine in post-poll Bihar

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 08, 2015 18:11 IST
Patna: Supporters celebrate the Mahagathbandhan's (Grand Alliance) victory in Bihar assembly elections in Patna on Sunday. (PTI)

The grand alliance has won Bihar, with chief minister Nitish Kumar being hailed as the next challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there is little doubt that this is as much, if not more, a victory for Lalu Prasad.

After four electoral setbacks, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief is back - showing once again why political obituaries must be avoided. A convicted politician ineligible to stand for polls, Lalu has scored in the people’s court - whose party has emerged as the single largest party if the current lead holds.

Despite winning more seats than the Janata Dal(United), the RJD will stick to its promise of supporting Nitish as the CM. This will also be a strong and stable alliance, for the verdict is decisive and neither side would want to rock the boat. But it brings with it deep challenges of political management, for there is a distinct difference in the political style and governance mode of Lalu and Nitish.

Nitish believes in giving a relatively free run to bureaucrats and officials - he will set the guidelines, he will supervise at the macro level, but he will not interfere, especially in law and order cases. This is precisely what allowed him to restore a semblance of peace and calm after the fairly anarchic Lalu years.

Lalu has little time for administrative procedures. He asserts political authority over bureaucrats - across spheres. The pliant fall in line, the other exit. And this is what led to an exodus of some of Bihar’s brightest officials in the 90s from the state. Nitish’s big challenge will be to keep the administration on track, even as he may not be able to exercise direct control over Lalu’s ministers.

The return of Lalu to power after more than a decade brings his political legacy - that of being responsible for the ‘goonda’, or jungle raj in Bihar in the 1990s - back into question. (PTI Photo)

The second, related, issue is the interface between the government and the party machinery. JD(U)’s organisation was weak, that of the RJD is strong. Lalu’s social base has returned to power after 10 years. It was used to doing things a particular way during his rule. There was a ‘democratisation of crime’ - with small groups emerging to operate with political patronage to extort and kidnap. Nitish cannot allow it, for both his image and his national ambitions will either if there is a perception of anarchy.

The third is the issue of vikas or development. For Lalu, politics is primarily about providing access to his constituents to state resources and opportunities. He is happy to be confrontational with other social groups, especially ‘upper castes’, if they complain. For Nitish, it is about catering to his social base but also providing universal goods - roads, schools, electricity - as a way to meeting growing aspirations of citizens and building a broader social alliance.

The ‘forward castes’ have not voted for the Grand Alliance in this election. Whether the alliance pursues a politics of confrontation or is willing to be accommodative, and whether the upper castes reconcile themselves to this irreversible shift in the power structure, will be key. It will also determine the Lalu-Nitish dynamic.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar alliance with RJD chief Lalu Prasad means that the state’s politics have a new dynamic, formed around two distinct power bases. (PTI Photo)

The fourth issue is of political ambitions. This election, for Lalu, was about securing the future of his family. He may try to install one of his sons as deputy chief minister - a move which will be resisted by some of his senior colleagues. The Patna power corridor is abuzz with speculation that if Nitish’s attention shifts to challenging Modi in 2019, the axis around which state politics would revolve would shift to Lalu. Whether that happens and its impact on governance would be interesting to watch.

But all of this is predicated on the assumption that the Lalu of 2015 is the Lalu of the 1990s.

A close aide of his told HT, “He is a changed man. He has lost four elections and learnt his lessons. He dislikes the reputation he has had to carry of bringing in jungle raj. This will be a new Lalu. He will tell his constituents to behave. He will reach out to forwards. He understands vikas is important in politics along with providing a voice to backwards.”

Watch: Why BJP must stick to its development agenda

A Nitish aide reinforces the same impression and says that the fact that the Lalu-Nitish equation was so smooth over the past five months was proof that things have changed. “We had no problems in seat-sharing, no problems in campaign coordination, both leaders went out of their way to accommodate each other and defend each other.”

Positing Nitish and Lalu as representatives of governance and anarchy, their aides say, is inaccurate and a better way to see them is the coming together of ‘social justice’ and development. Bihar’s future rests on precisely this hope.

Read More:

Bihar elections: Bitter on ground, smart on social media

Countdown to results begins: What would the Bihar verdict mean?

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