One of the RJD’s many Modi-style campaign posters carries a picture of Tejashwi Yadav and this appeal: “Mujhse kahiye… main sunoonga, main karoonga (Talk to me… I will listen, I will act)”.
But travel in Bihar and it seems the voter who is looking for change is searching for an “Arvind Kejriwal-type” option, a “teesri vikalp” — a (third) alternative with a clean slate.
Tejashwi, the candidate with a past, will need to overcome the hesitations of this voter to talk to him, and listen to him, outside of the RJD’s Muslim-Yadav base.
From Sasaram in the south to Darbhanga in the north, there are visible signs of consolidation in the RJD’s core M-Y base. Among Yadavs, many point to the arresting image of this contest: A lone Tejashwi versus Everyone — Modi plus Nitish plus Yogi plus Fadnavis plus an array of Central ministers and BJP star campaigners.
“Whatever the result, he has made the BJP sweat,” says an RJD strategist in Lalu’s residence in Patna, where the picturesque verandah in which Lalu preferred to hold informal and imperious court lies forlorn, a bland office complex behind it the new hub of activity.
In Muslim localities, you hear Nitish described, bitterly, as “Paltu Ram”, the leader who switched back to the Modi-BJP.
In Mohalla Bagh Bhai Khan, which had become a site for an anti-CAA dharna in Sasaram early this year, Sadar Alam says, more wistfully than bitterly, “Inki udaan thi, ab Modi ji ki jholi mein (Nitish has cut short his own flight, landed in the Modi fold)”.
But if the RJD is again a vivid presence in its M-Y base, the desire for change in the non-Yadav and non-Muslim voter, must contend with something more powerful — voter fear of an earlier RJD regime.
It is not enough here that Tejashwi is striking a new pose. That for the first time, the RJD is making a serious effort to recast itself — to become the “A to Z”, not just “M-Y” party by distributing tickets to many more caste groups. Or that its slogans promise a caste-neutral “economic justice.” Or that Tejashwi has pledged to sign in “10 lakh jobs” with the first flourish of pen as chief minister.
Among the upper castes, vivid spectres of “jungle raj” still abound — PM Modi invokes them in his speeches and so does Nitish Kumar. They play on memories and stories of the kidnapping industry, the fleeing of professionals from Bihar, the reluctance to step out after dark or to come back home from the station after arriving on a night train.
But it is the persisting fears of a return to “Lalu raj” at the lower end of the caste spectrum — a Nitish bastion that seems more breachable in this election than the upper castes — that may turn out to be Tejashwi’s main stumbling block.
Here, among the non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs and Mahadalits, Lalu is a two-faced figure — the messiah who gave them a “voice”, taught them to speak and to vote for themselves, but also the leader who ended up presiding over Yadav unruliness.
“Jungle raj” may be an upper caste label, but in the EBC and Mahadalit bastis and tolas, talk of “zyaadti (excesses)”, “dhaandhli (rigging)” and “gundai (hooliganism)” of an earlier time hasn’t yet faded away.
“Aatank ka raj ho jaata hai (it becomes a reign of fear), Yadav ki zabardasti (Yadav right of way)”, says Lakshmi Sahani, a farmer who belongs to the Mallah (EBC) group, in Salaha village, district Muzaffarpur. “FIR hoga hi nahin, you could not even register a crime. Abhi kam se kam kanoon ka raj hai (at least now there is rule of law)”. Sahani is willing to consider the possibility that the son is different from the father. But, he says, the Yadavs next door haven’t changed. “They will feel emboldened”, he says.
In village Jamunapur in Patna district, Ashok Paswan says: “Dalit jitaya tha Lalu ji ko (It was the Dalit who powered the Lalu victory), but he was oppressed. How can we forget? If Tejashwi wins, the Yadavs will say, this is my government… Our homes, our land, nothing will be safe…”
Among the Yadavs, there is a dismissal of these spectres. In Ara’s Sakkadi village, Santosh Kumar Rai, a shopkeeper, says: “Just as a lot has been invested in painting Rahul Gandhi as ‘pappu’, there is an investment in defaming Lalu… Does the Opposition alone do wrong, why is there never any raid on anyone who supports the BJP?” Tejashwi is young, he says, and has time to make and undo mistakes.
And in Muzaffarpur, RJD state spokesperson, Iqbal Mohammad Sami asks: “How many times will they say ‘jungle raj’? People have already punished us for that, it is a spent card”. In the RJD war room in Patna, the hope is: “Agar pyaar nahin toh nafrat bhi nahi karte(they may not love him, but they don’t hate Tejashwi)”.
Brand Tejashwi must overcome fear of another kind in the poorest Dalit and EBC clusters. Here, many who have been touched by subsidies and government schemes, barely, but for the first time, fear that they may become invisible again.
“Nitish has already reached us, Tejashwi will take time to reach everywhere”, says Vinesh Manjhi in village Narauli Dih in Muzaffarpur. There is a difference, says Vipin Kumar, between “Jo pahuncha hua hai aur jo pahunchne wala hai”.
Last but not least, Candidate Tejashwi must persuade another voter who does not want any dialling back to the past.
“Jhijhak toota hai (I am hesitant no more), 50 per cent arakashan mila hai (women have got 50 per cent reservation in jobs and in panchayats)”, says Sushma Kumari in village Narauli, in Muzaffarpur.
Sushma’s husband, a school teacher, is determined to vote against Nitish this time. That’s not going to change her vote, she says. And laughs: “Nitish ji ghar todne ka kaam kar rahe hain”.
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