All bets are off in what is seen as a dead-heat election, with many still giving CM Nitish Kumar a chance to fight back three terms of anti-incumbency. But for Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and the RJD, this is a poll that will mark the emergence of the young man from the larger-than-life shadow of his father Lalu Prasad.
If crowds at rallies could win elections, Tejashwi is the clear winner. Almost every rally of his has drawn huge crowds of young men who follow him in a wave to the stage and cheer wildly as he speaks. And when he talks of his oft-repeated promise of 10 lakh government jobs, the crowd is almost delirious. Under Tejashwi, the RJD has clearly travelled far from its days in 2017, when it reportedly put up a photoshopped photograph of its Gandhi Maidan rally to exaggerate the numbers.
While Tejashwi is now the Mahagathbandhan’s CM nominee, it wasn’t always this clear. In the alliance’s earlier form, the Congress, RLSP’s Upendra Kushwaha and HAM (S)’s Jitan Ram Manjhi always spoke of “collective leadership”.
But once Kushwaha and Manjhi walked out, Tejashwi asserted his position, leaving the Congress with little choice but to accept him as the alliance’s leader.
The Left parties that make up the rest of the Mahagathbandhan — CPI, CPI(ML) and CPI(M) — are only too happy to let Tejashwi take centrestage.
While at one stage, CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar was seen as a contender for the youth votes, that too has been laid to rest with the former JNUSU president conceding space to Tejashwi.
Yet, his critics have been dismissive of Tejashwi’s popularity, saying crowds at rallies are no way to judge a winner. Senior BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has reminded people of the 2010 polls when Lalu drew huge crows but the RJD was reduced to 23 seats.
Yet, what is beyond doubt is that in a state that’s the first to go to vote amidst a pandemic that has inflicted loss of lives and livelihood, Tejashwi has hit the right chord by tapping into the disappointment with Nitish and the perception that the CM did little as migrants walked back home and later, did little to stop them as they went back to their workplaces.
It’s this point that he seeks to drive home by saying that he will sign on his promise of jobs the day be becomes chief minister.
It’s not a promise he has pulled out from thin air, insist RJD leaders. “When we found there were 4.5 lakh pending vacancies in the Bihar government and need to create another 5.5 lakh vacancies to match the national average, we came up with the idea of 10 lakh jobs. Now the BJP is trying to copy us,” says one of them.
Those watching Tejashwi say he is learning fast. For instance, when Nitish took potshots at Lalu’s family size, saying, “They have eight-nine children,” Tejashwi, the eighth of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi’s nine children, retorted that the CM “has insulted even PM Narendra Modi who has five siblings”. Besides, his “thake gaye Nitish” taunt has summarised the general sense of fatigue against the Nitish administration.
He also learnt fast that his father’s slogan of “secularism and social justice” wasn’t enthusing the post-Mandal, post-Babri generation, and that he needed a fresh slogan. He didn’t have to look far — he took the “development” theme out of Nitish’s camp and mixed it with the right dose of populism.
Besides the offer of government jobs, he has been promising pay parity to over five lakh contract teachers. Tejashwi has also assured aanganwadi and ASHA workers of a raise in salary.
It’s this group that’s cheering him on at his rallies, says Kishore Jaiswal, a Munger-based water conservationist. “Besides his Muslim-Yadav votebase, the crowd at his rallies include youth aspiring for jobs and prospective benefiaries of his polls promises,” he says.
For now, Tejashwi has also managed to assert his position within his own family. With eldest sibling Misa Bharati mollified with a Rajya Sabha berth, the family has also managed to handle elder brother Tej Pratap Yadav more diplomatically than they did during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when he had turned a rebel.
While all of this make Tejashwi look like the indisputable challenger, his critics say his rise is less to his credit and owes more to the disarray in the NDA, with the LJP walking out and the BJP and JD(U) not sharing the best of ties.
Not too long ago, when Patna witnessed its worst-ever waterlogging in 2019, Tejashwi had been criticised for being missing in action. Even at the start of the lockdown, as migrants began walking back, Tejashwi put up no opposition.
But as the rumblings in the NDA grew, Tejashwi got a foot in the door.
The LJP is now fighting on 143 seats, most of these against the JD(U). If it ends up cutting into the JD(U) votes, the RJD could end up with more than a fighting chance in a number of seats.
Yet, will it be enough for the RJD to topple Nitish? For him to do that, he will have to bring more to the table than the party’s core M-Y votes.
Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, explains, “Besides his core votes, he may get a chunk of youth and EBC votes and some splinters from the NDA’s core constituencies. But its best performance was when it got over 25 per cent votes in the 2005 Assembly polls. With Congress and Left, that may touch 34-35 per cent. But what if the NDA still manages 37-38 per cent? It is very difficult to predict on the basis of social maths alone. It is the most complex election to make out.”