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A Lalu-shaped vacuum

he RJD chief’s traditional constituencies may not change sides so fast.

The RJD chief’s traditional constituencies may not change sides so fast.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s response to RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s conviction must be read between the lines. Though he stands to gain politically from the conviction,Nitish merely said it was a part of a judicial process and did not warrant a reaction.

There could be several reasons why the Bihar CM was restrained in his reaction. Perhaps it was because he is among the few who have witnessed Lalu Prasad’s political journey at close quarters — from student leader to Yadav leader to OBC leader to “champion of social justice”. Nitish had been Lalu’s trusted lieutenant and second-in-command,until he left before the 1995 polls to chart his own course as a Kurmi leader. Nitish knows by now what it takes to make the transition from a politician with a narrow caste base to a pan-Bihar leader. He had started outwitting Lalu in the 2005 assembly polls,routed him in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and completely decimated his one-time mentor in the 2010 assembly polls. Nitish’s reactions are also guarded because he knows it is dangerous to write off Lalu. It will not be easy for Yadavs to completely shift their allegiance to another leader. It will not be easy for Muslims to repose full trust in a leader who is “secular on second thought”. The shift has begun but it will be no smooth ride for Nitish.

Lalu’s wife and former chief minister,Rabri Devi,has put up a brave front,saying “mother and sons” can take care of the party. She might have been prompted by her husband,who had seen his conviction coming. Rabri Devi and the couple’s youngest son,Tejaswi,have been briefed to keep the party together. But the JD(U) and the BJP can make major inroads into Lalu’s vote bank only if the RJD chief fails to get bail. If that happens,the party faces political oblivion. The RJD’s Muslim and Yadav voters will not warm to a campaign that does not feature Lalu Prasad.

Tejaswi is too young to step into his father’s shoes. Rabri Devi has never been a speaker,forget good speaker. The Bihar of 2014 will not entertain them. The state had moved on to a new brand of politics even before Nitish. Lalu does have effective second-rung leaders in sitting MP s Raghuvansh Prasad Singh,Prabhunath Singh and Jagdanand Singh. But they are all upper-caste Rajput leaders and do not fill the Lalu slot. The party has a good Muslim leader in Abdul Bari Siddiqui,but none of them has a pan-Bihar image. Plus,the internal wrangles between these leaders could prevent the party from putting up a united front.

There has been talk of Nitish gaining from the vacuum in the RJD and drawing much of its Muslim vote bank into the JD(U) fold. The Narendra Modi factor will also be crucial here. Already,a section of RJD workers are prepared to support Modi in the Lok Sabha and then distance themselves from the BJP before the 2015 assembly polls. The BJP has made Nand Kishore Yadav leader of the opposition in the Bihar assembly and the party already has a prominent OBC leader in Sushil Kumar Modi. The Congress’s game plan — tie up with Nitish and garner Muslim votes — may work in the absence of Lalu. But many Yadav voters will face a great electoral dilemma.

Nitish will also have to bear the brunt of anti-incumbency sentiment. The BJP,though a partner in government for over seven years,may escape the public’s wrath over the slide in governance,the overweening influence of bureaucrats and corruption at the lower levels of the administration. The BJP has already been playing up the “mandate betrayal” factor.

It may be too early to write the political obituary of Lalu Prasad. Being the “tainted and convicted” leader may not hurt him greatly,though his political opponents will exploit this to the hilt. But he must have the chance to address crowds,tell his jokes,share conspiracy theories about his conviction. Legal experts feel that since Lalu was not the main accused in the case and has not abused bail conditions in the past,there are high chances of him getting bail once his appeal is admitted in the high court. Lalu’s fortunes have seen a long period of decline but the sun has not set on him yet.

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