The political phenomenon of Mohammad Shahabuddin, four-time MP from Siwan, currently serving a life sentence for double murder, is a throwback to a past few in Bihar would want to remember. With a slew of cases including murder, abduction and assault against him, he has come to symbolise “Jungle Raj”, or the rule of lawlessness, as the last few years of the Lalu Prasad regime are referred to. With the rise of Nitish Kumar to office in the last decade, the process of law seemed to revive in Bihar and even catch up with Siwan’s don. In Nitish’s Nootan Bihar, the political importance of a convicted criminal was expected to progressively fade. In appointing Shahabuddin to the RJD’s national executive committee, however, Lalu has signalled that some things have evidently not changed. This doesn’t augur well for a state in which the RJD-JD(U)-Congress “mahagathbandhan” has been voted to power in the hope that it would steer it further away from a past when people and capital fled to more secure climes. It sets the clock back for the RJD as well, which has been trying to shed its image as a party that presided over an abdicating state.
Shahabuddin’s elevation in the RJD now underlines a dispiriting message: The don may be barred from contesting elections, but he continues to be in power. Over the years, despite being in jail, Shahabuddin has exerted enormous influence over the politics of his region to the extent that all parties draw their candidates during elections from his stable. The Shahabuddin phenomenon was the by-product of a political economy that emerged in Bihar following the Mandal revolution. The social upheaval threw up new political elites drawn from backward communities, who also sought the short cut of co-option of musclemen in order to win elections instead of mobilising support through the hard labour of politics. The Lalu Prasad government ignored fundamental issues of redistribution of resources and regeneration of productive economic activities, and encouraged, instead, forms of patronage that mirrored the old feudal order.
The mahagathbandhan won a mandate to take forward the agendas of sushasan or good governance and samajik nyaya, or social justice. The RJD, the bigger party in the coalition, seems to ignore the 2015 verdict’s fundamental message.