January 11, 2005
As the Bihar elections near, the war of attrition between contending political formations has begun. Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal has ruled the state for the last 15 years, is at the centre of all electoral arithmetic. All political parties are finalising their electoral strategies in relation to Laloo. He faces opposition within the resurgent backward castes. As against the upper caste block of Bhumihars, Rajputs and Brahmins, it is the three numerically strong backward castes of Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris who hold political power amongst them. The battle for Bihar therefore is within the backwards.
It is this scenario that makes national parties like the Congress and BJP, mostly upper-caste choices, play second fiddle to backward political formations like the RJD and JD(U). The Muslims appear to be still with Laloo. Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party is positioning itself as an alternative to the RJD. The spat between Laloo and Paswan gives an impression that anti-Laloo forces could crystallise around Paswan. Besides drawing upon a 5 per cent Paswan vote, Paswan is attempting to forge an alliance with Bhumihars. In that direction, he has brought on board people like Munna Shukla and Surajbahn, known “criminal-politicians” belonging to the Bhumihar caste. Paswan is also appealing to the Congress to break from its RJD suzerainty, which in current scenario seems highly improbable.
It is not just that the RJD is important for the stability of the UPA government at the Centre. There is also the feeling that Laloo has stood steadfastly with Sonia Gandhi. Further, it is felt that the Congress, engaged in a war of words with Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP, cannot take on two Yadav satraps simultaneously. This theory gains credence from the fact that during the Lok Sabha election, Sonia left Bihar completely in Laloo’s hands. He decided constituencies in complete disregard of the PCC President Ramjatan Sinha, a Bhumihar.
But now Sinha says he has submitted a list of 122 assembly constituencies to the Congress high command in which, he claims, it has a winning chance. The preposterous figure of 122 is surely a bargaining posture. In private conversation state Congress leaders say a number between 50 and 60 would be an honorable settlement. Anything less could open massive defection to the LJP. Given the complete decimation of the party structure, in the Congress’s calculation, besides the 12 seats it won in 2000, it would like to contest all seats where the BJP was successful last time. To reduce itself to an upper-caste bastion and a caste-specific alternative to the BJP in a state most polarised by the assertive politics of “social justice” is itself a pitiable comment on its historical legacy and social base. According to the state Congress leaders, the BJP by its failure to emerge in successive elections as an alternative to the RJD has forfeited the faith of the upper castes and therefore this constituency is poised to return to a resurgent Congress. Once the upper castes return to its fold, the calculation goes, it shall be just the matter of time before the Muslims too return.
Bihar’s abysmal development indicators show Muslims have been the biggest victims of “under-development” during Laloo’s 15 years. With the BJP relatively reduced in a truncated Bihar, Muslims do have a chance to rethink their electoral support. The battle for the Muslim vote is therefore intense. Paswan’s refusal to align with the BJP should be seen in this context. Some even suggest the possibility of the JD(U) fragmenting into yet another regional formation with covert support from Nitish Kumar, as he himself is restrained by the anti-defection law. This breakaway group by aligning with Paswan could not only attract a sizable chunk of middle castes such as Kurmis and Koeris, but also Muslims, in addition to Paswan’s own constituency of Paswans and realigned Bhumihars.
A post-poll scenario in which the Congress, LJP and breakaway JD(U), in case they attract a sufficient number of seats, join with the Left to form a government cannot be ruled out. It could be worked out under the banner of “deliverance from Laloo”. Laloo therefore has enough to guard against.
In the absence of a well-oiled party machinery, Laloo tends to depend on his personal charisma and sub-regional satraps like Pappu Yadav, who has political influence in eastern Bihar, or Sahabuddin, perceived as an emerging centre for Muslim mobilisation. In such a scenario, Laloo not only has to share seats with alliance partners but also with party chieftains. That brings his core-support group to a precarious level, making seat sharing a vital aspect of electioneering. Giving too much to inter and intra alliance partners could destabilise his personal position. Too little, and he could be faced with rebel candidates, jeopardising his position again.
The writer is a Delhi-based academic
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