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Testing times for Nitish Kumar

Bihar Janata Dal (U) President Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lalan’s resignation may not reduce the control that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has on the government or the party.

patna Updated: Feb 03, 2010 00:19 IST
Mammen Matthew

Bihar Janata Dal (U) President Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lalan’s resignation may not reduce the control that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has on the government or the party.

But it could loosen a few more tongues in the party as lesser-known MLAs and MPs vie for more attention in the run-up to the assembly elections, eight months from now.

Party national president Sharad Yadav, however, is confident of tiding over the crisis. “There is some unrest in the party but we will tide over it,” he said, adding, “we have 15 days to sort out the matter”.

While the stability of the party is not immediately threatened, the power arithmetic could be altered slightly because of the development since the backward-forward divide within the party is evident for the first time now. Lalan’s offer of resignation, made last Friday, has propelled other party rebels — Prabhunath Singh and Shambhu Sharan Srivastava, member, legislative council — to get more critical.

At a conclave of the Rajputs last month, Prabhunath Singh had condemned the party leadership for ignoring the interests of his caste — a sentiment supported by Narendra Singh, an influential minister in the cabinet. Following Lalan’s resignation, Prabhunath said: “Nitish is behaving like a king, something few will support.”

Jahanabad MP Jagdish Sharma, now under suspension, alleged: “Nitish Kumar’s promise of not promoting dynastic politics is ‘selective’ in application. My wife was (unfairly) denied a ticket from Ghosi, (an assembly constituency in Jehanabad district, 45 km south-east of Patna, and once represented by Sharma himself), though she richly deserved it, while sons and relatives of other party members were (being) accommodated.”

Rumours doing the rounds in the corridors of power in Patna suggest that the rebels are waiting for others to join them before they take the next step — that is to break the party. However, that clearly appeared to be a tall task at this juncture.

Nitish Kumar’s inclusive development plank, together with his political masterstrokes of wooing the Muslims and 21 Dalit castes, were expected to set the stage for a huge win. The good law and order situation (compared to that in the previous regime), road building and other regeneration activities have been largely appreciated.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janshakti Party combine and the Congress had won 11 seats against the National Democratic Alliance’s five in the September bypolls. The results had unnerved Nitish, who was banking on good results to select a backward for party presidentship instead of continuing with Lalan. He wanted to pursue the extremely backward caste (EBC) experiment further by appointing an EBC leader as state president to further consolidate his vote bank. But the lukewarm response from the Bhum-ihars (a dominant landowning caste in Bihar), the main JD(U) vote bank, forced Nitish to drop the idea and continue with Lalan. Now, with Lalan in a rebellious mood, he is toying with the idea of giving greater responsibility to the Kushwahas or the EBCs.

The opposition parties in the assembly bypolls had cashed in on mainly the animosity of the forward and middle castes (mainly the Bhumihars, Rajputs and Nitish's own castemen, Kurmis), who had been angry at his proposal to bring in the land reforms Bill with special provisions for bataidars, enabling them to co-exist with a claim on land.

The proposed bill envisaged giving hereditary tenancy rights to sharecroppers (bataidars), whose rights to tilled land could be annulled only on their or their children’s refusal to carry on sharecropping. Lalan has now cited the bataidari bill as another reason for his disenchantment, besides the fact, that he, as party president, was never consulted on any important party issue.

An influential faction in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nitish Kumar’s ally, is not happy with his strong opposition to the party’s Hindutava experiment, the alleged Muslim appeasement by the JD(U), and the free hand given to his bureaucrats.

The Congress, through General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, is trying to re-position itself on the pre-1990s plank — offering itself as the sole opposition to the JD(U) in the state. The assembly polls could be a fight between the ruling JD(U) and the Congress, which is trying to get the support of the minorities, Dalits and upper castes. The Rajputs predominantly voted for the RJD during the recent Lok Sabha polls, leading to three out of the four RJD MPs, other than Lalu Prasad, coming from this community.

However, the best thing going for Nitish Kumar at this point seems to be the general mood, immune to inner party rumblings, which wants to give him a longer run.

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