The banishing of former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to Birsa Munda Jail in Ranchi, Jharkhand, symbolises his isolation both at personal, family, and political levels. From now on, he will become lonelier than before, a shadow of his ebullient and confident self, achingly for his supporters and jubilantly for his detractors. Friends will desert him, and foes will forget him. In politics, there can’t be a fate worse than this.
Arguably India’s most colourful politician, Lalu will undoubtedly appeal against his conviction in the fodder scam and should, in due course of time, secure bail in case it isn’t granted to him on Oct 3, the day on which the quantum of punishment is to be announced. He can, again, justifiably claim that judges higher than the one who pronounced him guilty will exonerate him of the charges of corruption levelled against him.
Nevertheless, considering the movement against corruption gathering momentum, other parties will likely hesitate to stitch an electoral alliance with him before the next General Election. Weakened over the years, Lalu Prasad Yadav perhaps doesn’t have it in him to wage a victorious battle on his own.
His conviction will hasten the process of political realignment which was set into motion in Bihar because of the breakdown of alliance between Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Over the last eight years, Bihar has been a playground of three political forces – the JD (U), the BJP, and Yadav’s own RJD, with the Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan as bit players. In such a political scenario, a superior electoral alliance determines the fortunes.
Once, he could take them on singlehandedly – and vanquish them as well. But the cracks in Lalu’s citadel happened because of his propensity to promote his Yadav brethren at the expense of those who constituted the extremely backward castes (EBCs). They consequently rallied behind Nitish, who enjoyed the loyalty of Kurmi-Koeri castes. To this support base, Nitish added the upper castes through an alliance with the BJP, thus tilting the scale just a little against Lalu. In his first five years of rule as chief minister, Nitish then wooed the Muslims and further consolidated his base among the EBCs not just through rhetoric of identity politics but also development.
Yet, the severing of ties between the JD (U) and the BJP held out hope for Lalu to stage a comeback, deprived as Nitish was to be now devoid of a large percentage of upper caste votes. Matching each other more or less in their strength among backward castes, both realised that whoever won the support of Muslims would have an edge in the battle of ballots. This was why both their parties are keen to align with the Congress, which, in Bihar, barely has five per cent of votes.
So why then woo the Congress for an alliance? Whoever between Nitish and Lalu lassoed the Congress to his side could lay claim to belonging to a secular formation best placed to vanquish the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. Justifiably paranoid of Narendra Modi for his role in the 2002 riots, and insecure at the possibility of his becoming prime minister, Muslims, both assumed, would gravitate to the Congress-led alliance. Lalu’s hopes were stoked not only because he had the confidence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but also because people wistfully recalled the riot-free decade his administration had provided following the communal tension and skirmishes sparked off in Bihar as soon as Nitish and the BJP parted ways.
But the conviction of Lalu will now have the Congress recoil from him. For one, an alliance with him could get it votes and seats in Bihar but impact adversely elsewhere. This is because an alliance with Lalu would reinforce the impression that the Congress is indifferent to the malaise of corruption, a charge which is bound to have a resonance because of the taint UPA-II has acquired.
Worse, now that the government has more or less retracted its plan to issue an ordinance for setting aside the Supreme Court judgement disqualifying politicians convicted for two years or more from the Lok Sabha, it makes little sense for the Congress to hitch its fortunes with a party rendered leaderless and rudderless. Lalu’s sons are too young and inexperienced to lead the party. Over time, it is possible even Paswan could turn away from Lalu, preferring the safer option of Congress-JD (U) alliance, should it materialize.
Thus, the conviction of Lalu will further aggravate his isolation in Indian politics. He will find it tough to hold on to his support among the Yadavs, whom the BJP has been assiduously working upon, playing upon the decades of differences between them and Muslims. The origin of this difference lay over the anti-cow slaughter campaign, which had sparked off riots in Bihar even in the early decades of the 20th century. Lalu had deftly papered over the differences through the forging of grassroots alliance between the two social groups. With their boss in jail and his party rendered headless overnight, might not Yadavs desert Lalu for other political parties?
Obviously, the RJD will attempt to generate a sympathy wave among Lalu’s followers, hoping they would view his conviction as a conspiracy of the upper castes against him. It is too early to tell whether his supporters – particularly the poor and marginal – will buy this theory, more as this card had already been played at the time Lalu was first sent to jail and his wife Rabri was catapulted to the chief minister’s chair.
Ultimately, though, it is Lalu who is to blame for his own loneliness. In the 1991 post-Mandal election, he had spearheaded the Janata Dal to win 49 of the 54 seats in undivided Bihar. But hubris set in, as also the desire to turn the Janata Dal into his own fiefdom. Positions of power in the party and government, as also in allocation of party tickets for election, were distributed to undercut Nitish and Paswan and strengthen his core of the Yadavs. He behaved arrogantly towards senior leaders, believing they were dependent on him to win election. Nitish and George Fernandes left to float their own outfit, and worked to gradually whittle down Lalu’s base.
It is always risky to write-off politicians. Lalu will, whether in jail or outside it, will wage a battle for his political survival. Even as the merciless logic of politics suggests temporary wilderness and obscurity for Lalu, we ought not to forget what he symbolised for Indian politics. Riding the passion the Mandal report generated, he triggered a sense of self-respect and dignity among the lower castes in Bihar. In a state where they wouldn’t even dare enter a police station, he ensured their complaints were registered and acted upon. The sense of dignity so inculcated was the defining factor behind the erosion of upper caste hegemony and the seeping of power to leaders of subaltern castes.
But, above all, Lalu Prasad Yadav demonstrated the profundity of the adage: a communal riot begins when the thanedar, or head of police station, wants it to begin; it stops when the thanedar decides it should. It was he who ensured that Bihar, prone to communal rioting for much of its post-Independence history, remained at peace even as much of North India reeled under the havoc of BJP’s shilanyas ceremony in 1989, LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It is an irony that both Advani and Lalu find the wind of fortunes blowing against them.
By Ajaz Ashraf