As Abdul Bari Siddiqui reached Lalu Prasad’s 10 Circular Road home Monday, “bringing back” six MLAs who had supposedly split the RJD, a party leader whispered, “The man who did it all has gone into damage control now.”
Siddiqui is the RJD legislature party leader. Very few in the party are convinced by his pledge of loyalty to Lalu or his insistence that he was ignorant of what looked like a JD(U) effort to engineer a split in the RJD. As it was, the 13 MLAs supposed to have switched sides would have been two short of the two-thirds required for them to be recognised as a breakaway group. Besides, nine of them are back, including the six Siddiqui took to Lalu.
Siddiqui dismisses the widespread belief that he was behind the rebellion. “I have been facing this allegation for a long time. Let no one doubt my loyalty to Lalu,” he says.
Siddiqui has frequently been accused of being soft on the ruling JD(U), which has been looking for a clear, single majority ever since it split from the BJP. Propped by the support of four Congress MLAs and as many independents, the JD(U) is said to have sent Sidiqqui its first feelers last July. The bonhomie between the ruling party and Sidiqqui showed in the assembly during last year’s monsoon session, when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar told him pleasantly, “What are you doing on that side? Please come over this side.” The tone was playful but many saw this as an open invitation.
By October, when Lalu was convicted in the fodder scam, the JD(U) was optimistic the RJD would split of its own. It was with this anticipation that the JD(U) did not go for a cabinet expansion. Word was in the air, something Sidiqqui himself concedes, that he was being offered the deputy CM’s post if he could lead a breakaway flock with the 15 MLAs necessary.
RJD insiders say such efforts picked up again in the beginning of this month. The RJD’s Samrat Choudhary took the lead role in breaking away. Choudhary, MLA from Parbatta and the RJD’s chief whip, is among the four who haven’t returned to the party. When the budget session began February 14, he submitted to the speaker an application “duly signed” by 13 MLAs, not including Siddiqui. Party insiders say they have no doubt he was acting at the behest of Siddiqui.
As Siddiqui rose to speak on the governor’s speech, a BJP MLA needled Water Resources Minister Bijay Kumar Choudhary, known as the number two in the government. The MLA told Bijay Choudhary, loud enough for Siddiqui to hear, that he would soon lose his position to Siddiqui. And the latter retorted, “You people have been saying this for two years now. I am not going anywhere.”
Siddiqui had called a meeting of RJD MLAs that day but did not hold it then. And when it was eventually held, Samrat Choudhary did not turn up. Neither did Iqbal Ahmed Ansari, nor Raghvendra Pratap Singh, both among the four who haven’t returned to the RJD. This did alert the party about something being afoot.
A second signal came last Saturday when Samrat flew with the chief minister to Parbatta for a government function. He then insisted nothing should be read into this other than the fact that he was travelling to his constituency, but RJD leaders were getting suspicious. JD(U) sources now concede the programme itself, the inauguration of a bridge, was a move to woo Samrat.
The RJD, for its part, set about wooing Siddiqui. Lalu’s close aide Bhola Yadav visited Siddiqui at his 2 Polo Road home Sunday, the day after the function, and reportedly told him the party would field him from a seat he prefers. Siddiqui has made it clear several times he wants to contest the Lok Sabha seat of Madhubani, which the Congress wants for Shakeel Ahmed. It was after Bhola Yadav’s message from Lalu, insiders claim, that Siddiqui decided against splitting the party.
Samrat, however, had by now gone too far to backtrack. He, Raghvendra and Ansari had been seen going to speaker’s chamber Saturday evening; it is learnt a JD(U) MP too had been there. The speaker kept their February 14 application 10 days before he notified the breakaway group Monday.
“The idea was that Siddiqi would have joined the breakaway group at the last moment,” a party source said. As the RJD prepared to parade its nine comeback MLAs Tuesday, at least three were heard saying on their way to the assembly secretariat that they had been “ditched by Siddiqui”. A senior RJD leader said the way Siddiqui “managed to call back six MLAs” to the party office so soon after news of the split broke leaves no doubt about who was behind it.
Samrat claims all signatures were “genuine and taken with the full knowledge of all 13 members”. None of them has pursued his initial allegation that his signature had been forged. They have written separately to the speaker that their signatures were taken for “a different reason” and they did not know these were meant to be “part of a breakaway application”.
As for Siddiqui, he stresses how frequently he has made his position clear. He had once told Lalu he will not desert him even if Rabri Devi can.
For the RJD, the immediate priority is getting the split de-notified. “Though nine have returned, their constitutional position is not that of RJD MLAs until the speaker de-notifies it.”
Speaker Uday Narain Choudhary Wednesday defended what he did, saying it was “as per the rules”. He did not, however, explain why he chose to notify 13 MLAs as a separate group when the two-thirds mark is 15; the RJD has 22 MLAs.
He said he had met all 13 MLAs. Asked if he verified the signatures of all 13 by calling each to his chamber, he said: “As the assembly was in session, I got the opportunity to meet them more than once… Now that nine of the 13 MLAs have written saying that they were not part of a rebel group, I will study the provisions and take the right decision at the right time.” Asked why he chose not to meet Lalu when he arrived with nine MLAs in the assembly secretariat, Choudhary said: “I had no prior information of the visit.”