Forced by circumstances to join hands, former Bihar chief ministers Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar will find their alignment put to the test in byelections to 10 assembly seats on August 21. Their separate fronts having notched a combined tally of more votes than the victorious NDA managed in the Lok Sabha polls, the bypolls will be a test for whether they can retain those shares in alliance against a front that has since settled at the Centre.
The NDA, which won 31 of Bihar’s 40 seats, polled 38.9 per cent votes as compared to the 47.2 per cent combined tally of Nitish’s JD(U), Lalu’s RJD and their allies, including the Congress that tied up with Lalu.
Lalu and Nitish have so far refrained from meeting each other, even at iftar parties hosted by CM Jeetan Ram Manjhi. They are set to announce their alliance formally on Wednesday.
Their relationship goes back over two decades, with Nitish having been second-in-command after Lalu became CM in 1990. Exchanges during the last Lok Sabha elections notwithstanding, sources said the two had maintained a good personal relationship throughout.
Now they have not only tied up but also worked out a seat-sharing arrangement. Sources said the RJD will contest Rajnagar, Mohinuddin Nagar, Banka and Chhapra; the JD(U) Mohania, Jale, Parbatta and Hajipur; the Congress Narkatiaganj and Bhagalpur.
In the 2010 elections, the JD(U) had won one, its then ally the BJP six, and the RJD three of these 10 seats. The bypolls have been necessitated following the resignation of some leaders as well as the election of BJP MLAs Janardhan Singh Sigriwal and Ashwini Kumar Choubey to the Lok Sabha.
The BJP is keen to contest nine of the seats, leaving the tenth for the LJP. The bypolls are no less a challenge to the BJP-led NDA, which needs to keep the new alliance short of its combined Lok Sabha vote share. Having lost three assembly bypolls in Uttarakhand, the BJP also faces claims by the opposition that the Modi wave has started to ebb.
If the BJP is wary, however, it is not showing it. “Experts had been talking about an RJD-LJP alliance in the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2010 assembly polls, but it fell flat,” says BJP legislature party leader Sushil Kumar Modi. “Lalu and Nitish may look a formidable alliance on paper, but it will not work on the ground because their cadres are not happy with the alliance.”
Nitish says, “The BJP is nervous. We will ensure our combination stops the BJP in its tracks so that we can salvage Brand Bihar.” And Lalu says, “Our alliance will teach communal forces a lesson. Narendra Modi made so many tall promises but has failed to keep them.”
Chhapra is set to present an absorbing battle. The BJP had won the assembly seat last time, followed by Rajiv Pratap Rudy defeating Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi in the Lok Sabha poll to Saran, of which Chhapra is a segment, but it might find the going tougher now with the new alliance aiming to consolidate Muslims, OBCs and Dalits. The BJP’s target is youths across caste lines, besides weaning away votes of the JD(U) and RJD cadre.
Bhagalpur will be a prestige battle after the BJP’s Syed Shahnawaz Hussain lost the eponymous Lok Sabha seat. And Hajipur, part of LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Sabha constituency, will have the BJP fighting an RJD-JD(U) effort to consolidate the Yadav and Dalit votes.
For the Congress, spokesperson Premchandra Mishra says, “In less than two months of the BJP wresting power at the Centre, we have won all three assembly seats in Uttarakhand. It won’t be surprising if that happens here. The Modi magic has started to wane.”
What the two have to say
Lalu Prasad: ‘No need to read too much into body language’
On the need for the alliance with his arch rival:
The Lok Sabha poll results showed that the BJP won more because of fragmentation of the secular vote than on its own strength or vote consolidation. While the BJP, the LJP and the RLSP got 39 per cent of the votes, the RJD-Congress alliance alone got over 30 per cent. Our share was in fact higher than in 2009.
On whether the RJD could have tried to win more on its strength rather than tied up with Nitish:
Secular votes have to be consolidated. We have entered an age of consolidation of socialist and secular votes… to fight the divisive BJP.
On who will lead the alliance:
Right now, it is about 10 assembly seats. We will sit together and discuss everything at the right time. There is no need to read too much into the body language of RJD and JD(U) leaders. We have given a clear signal to those who are not comfortable with this alliance.
Nitish Kumar: ‘We were fighting BJP on similar principles’
On the need for the alliance with his arch rival:
We needed to come together to stop the BJP. The RJD supported us in the Rajya Sabha bypolls, and the JD(U) candidates won. Given the present political equations, a new alignment was needed. The RJD and the JD(U) had been fighting the BJP on similar principles.
On the agenda for the alliance:
It is a consolidation of secular forces against communal forces. The BJP is out to destroy Brand Bihar. We have to salvage it. The BJP had been talking about giving Bihar special attention but has fallen silent now. Our agenda continues to be inclusive Bihar growth.
On the seats that the JD(U) will contest in the bypolls:
The party had authorised state president Basistha Narayan Singh to take care of such things.
(Compiled from statements by the two leaders over the past few weeks)