In this election of many moving parts, in which constituency-level social engineering plays a vital role, two leaders, two personas, are the centrepieces of their respective campaigns in Bihar. If the BJP-led NDA has Narendra Modi, the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan is anchored by Lalu Yadav in the state.
Yet the multi-media all-out projection of Modi is not at all comparable to Lalu’s wavering presence. The difference is unmistakable, even in Chhapra, where Lalu fought and won his first election to the Lok Sabha in 1977, and which became his political nurturing ground even though his home lies in adjoining Gopalganj.
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On a blazing morning, on the town’s main road, Nandan Path, on which traffic moves in all directions at once, the RJD office seems unmoved while songs with a chorus of “Har Har Modi”, “Ghar Ghar Modi”, sprinkled with references to “desh ke jawan (soldiers)” and their “maan samman (prestige)”, blare loudly from the BJP office across the road.
Inside the RJD office, Jitendra Kumar Rai, MLA from Marhaura, holds court: “Those who chant ‘Modi, Modi’ are paid while we have our people who are motivated and speak the local language. As for Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp — now our kids come to us and say, ‘bhaiyya, hum kar dete hain (let us help you with social media)’.”
The Mahagathbandhan campaign misses Lalu’s physical presence, admits Lalbabu Yadav, retired professor at JP university, and now the election agent for the RJD candidate from Chhapra, Chandrika Rai (also the father-in-law of Lalu’s son, Tej Pratap): “Laluji has such a sharp memory, he remembers names, strikes up relationships, makes people feel valued. He would coordinate and steer the campaign.”
In the Assembly election of 2015, in which a different Mahagathbandhan, made up of Lalu-Nitish-Congress, spectacularly defeated the Modi-led NDA, it was Lalu who picked on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on the need for a review of the reservation policy and used it to amplify backward caste anxieties against the BJP. In this election, the RJD slogan, even as it takes on Modi, seems to concede to him: “Modi nahin Mudda (It’s the issue, not Modi).”
But by all accounts, in Chhapra and elsewhere, the RJD still hasn’t woken up to, or continues to be in denial of, the BJP’s potent weapon in this election — its narrative dominance.
The NDA, which includes the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JD-U and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP as second-order players, is using its considerable resources at the Centre and in the state, to make the Modi message inescapable. The BJP’s social media teams are aided and abetted by the RSS network which seems to have cast aside its stated reservations about the personality cult and is going from home to home, as one RSS footsoldier describes it, with both “samagri (material)” and “agraha (persuasion)”.
Then, there is the Modi message of muscular nationalism which aims to stanch the visible discontents on unemployment, after-effects of demonetisation, farm distress by relentlessly framing and communicating a political inversion: “Agar desh surakshit hai toh (Only if the country is secure).”
On the other side, Lalu’s alliance consists of a Congress still scrambling to recover some of its lost ground in a state it once ruled, and three relatively new and small caste-outfits, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP and Mukesh Sahani’s VIP, which are still to be tested for their hold on their caste group and ability to transfer votes. The Mahagathbandhan must mostly rely on the public memory of a leader who played a pivotal role in shaping the state’s narratives of social justice — but who also became a symbol of their limits.
The RJD has apparently held on to its core base — even in the Modi wave election of 2014, its vote share seemed to hold, even showing a marginal increase from 19.30 in 2009 to 20.1 per cent. Yet that small increase masked a larger and longer shrinking — the party which at one time gathered within its fold a wide coalition of the disprivileged in a state of raging inequalities, has come to be seen, in large sections of the same people, as a party of, by and for the Yadavs, ruled by one Yadav family.
Today, Lalu’s politics of social justice must compete with the vaulting Modi message and machine and also with longtime rival in the state, and now Modi’s ally, Nitish Kumar. Nitish has made inroads into the same vote bank of the historically disprivileged castes, especially the EBCs, and has added governance to his repertoire. Unlike Lalu, in government, Nitish has also weaned sections of the upper castes to his side, attempted a coalition of extremes. The carrier of the Lalu message is an organisation, which like most regional outfits, lacks a second line of leadership — an especially conspicuous absence with Lalu in jail — is overrun by his family and now led by his son, Tejashwi, trying to emerge as his political heir amid an unpleasant family drama in full public view.
The Lalu message itself counts heavily on his past achievements apart from anti-incumbency against the Modi-Nitish regime — it shows no signs of having been re-imagined or updated. In the Dalit village of Radhanagar, in Musahari block, where JP camped and worked among the most disprivileged Dalit castes, Meera Devi recalls: “We used to toil in the fields of the Bhumihars, be paid a pittance, and couldn’t wear chappals (footwear). It is Lalu ji’s gift to us that we can ask for higher wages today, wear chappals.” Many talk about the “double standard” that keeps Lalu in jail, even as another former chief minister, Jagannath Mishra, implicated in the same case, but who belongs to the upper caste, is out on bail.
Yet, among young and first time voters, even in Chhapra, Lalu is a presence less vivid, his Mahagathbandhan overtaken by the Modi-led NDA.
In a classroom in Chhapra’s JP University, students speak about the pervasive joblessness and of how delayed sessions take an unbearable toll — the first semester result of the session of 2016-2018 is not yet out. Yet, “national security is most important,” says Ketan Kumar. “Earlier any and every country would stare us down. No more”, says Bittoo Kumar Singh. “Lalu ji was a leader of his time, but that time is past,” says Ketan.
Of course, in Bihar, that time is not fully past. The classroom still has a disproportionate presence of upper castes, the caste divide in which Lalu framed his radical politics in the 1990s is still entrenched.
It is a function of the divide’s resilience — but also of Lalu’s own inability and unwillingness, unlike Nitish, to soften the edges of his politics and build bridges — that he is still the politician the upper castes love to disparage. Non-Yadav support for the Lalu-led Mahagathbandhan seems strong and urgent primarily in the two sections where he may no longer be the first choice as leader but which feel alienated by the Modi government — the Scheduled Castes and Muslims.
The Modi message fumbles visibly among the Scheduled Castes still fighting basic fights for land and water who also bear the brunt of the economic distress. The Muslims, part of the fabled M-Y combination that Lalu stitched, are backing the Mahagathbandhan with added determination — and helplessness.
In Manjhi Mianpatti on the edge of Saran, Mohammad Hashim speaks for many: “This is our country, we will die here. We are party of the Indian army too. And you say to us, go to Pakistan! Why do you come to our doorstep and chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’? Why do you call us unpatriotic? Why does the PM call himself chowkidar, who is he guarding, from whom? We don’t want jobs, we’ll make our own living, but at least let us live in peace.”