The choice of Jagdanand Singh, a Rajput, to lead the Rashtriya Janata Dal may be a snapshot of change, a reflection of the compulsions the party is facing in the current political moment. Singh, 74, a seasoned politician, associated with the socialist movement in Bihar since the 1960s, has been a founder member of the RJD and minister when Lalu Prasad was chief minister. He is also the first upper caste politician to lead the RJD since it was formed in 1997. His unanimous election earlier this week is being read as an attempt by the party to reach out to sections of the society, particularly the upper castes, which have, all these years, been seen to oppose it.
This outreach could be an indication that the RJD finally acknowledges that it has reached the limits of identity politics. Since the Mandal driven realignment of political forces in the 1990s, the RJD projected itself as a bulwark of the politics of secularism and the custodian of lower caste interests in Bihar. Yadavs and Muslims formed the core of this support base that included a spectrum of backward castes and Dalits. Though the Mandal consensus that briefly united the backward castes and Dalits disintegrated following splits in the Janata Dal, the Muslim-Yadav math helped the RJD to continue to win assembly elections. However, the layered politics crafted by the BJP since the advent of Narendra Modi in national politics, combining the Hindutva agenda and hard nationalism, has shown a trans caste appeal which has breached the core constituencies of several caste-based parties, including the RJD. With Lalu ailing and in jail, the RJD leadership has found itself short of ideas, tactics and a charismatic leader to challenge the BJP narrative and contain its spread even among the Yadavs. When a similar unravelling of Mandal politics took place in UP earlier, the SP and BSP had tried to broadbase their appeal by building pan-caste alliances.
Is the RJD planning to emphasise the class dimension in politics now, especially since there is a view that its opposition to the 10 per cent quota for the poor among the forward castes may have hurt its prospects in the May general election? It has already promised to reserve 45 per cent of the party posts for the Extremely Backward Castes and Dalits. The party now seems to want to build a broader social coalition and pitch a larger tent.