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June 13, 2015



Laloo’s ‘poison’ sweetens Bihar elections

Has a secular anti-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance finally been sealed in Bihar, following Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad’s declaration that he would consume “poison” by fighting the coming assembly elections in alliance with the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress, and proposing Nitish Kumar as its chief ministerial candidate in the presence of JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav?
The tentative answer is yes, but the final answer would only emerge when seat-sharing arrangements between the different parties have been negotiated. Going by their leaders’ recent verbal duels, many hitches are likely in that process.
Yet, it’s clear that if a strong JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance is forged, it could give the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a bloody nose and prove a trendsetter even more momentous than the Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi victory.
The BJP’s defeat in a core Hindi-heartland state would take much shine off Narendra Modi’s artificially glorified image and strengthen the nationally growing disenchantment with him.
It wasn’t easy for Yadav to persuade Laloo to accept Kumar’s leadership. The two have been bitter rivals and traded charges of “jungle raj” (under Prasad) and “betrayal” (by Kumar) for forming a coalition government with the BJP, which he broke up only in 2013.
Even more important was the BJP’s recent pressure, coupled with handsome inducements, to wreck JD(U)-RJD reconciliation. This was reportedly discussed between Prasad’s financer-confidant Prem Gupta and BJP president Amit Shah. Shah has managed to get all the accused indicted in Gujarat’s ‘fake encounter’ cases, including himself, discharged or freed on bail. He apparently promised to have Prasad exonerated in the fodder scam too.
What brought Prasad around was a two-pronged approach: convincing him that he would become a pariah if he was seen to be even remotely collaborating with the BJP; and second, getting the Congress to force him

to accept Kumar’s leadership.
Yadav got RJD members to lobby Prasad in favour of a JD(U) alliance, with over one lakh SMSs. The second task was left to the Gandhis. Prasad met Rahul who told him that the alliance with the JD(U) was non-negotiable.
Finally, Prasad declared: “I want to assure the secular forces and the people of India that in this battle of Bihar, I am ready to ... drink all types of poison. I am determined to crush the hood of this ... cobra of communalism.” This showed as much rancour as reconciliation. One can only hope Prasad puts his heart and mind into building a viable alliance with the JD(U)-Congress.
Earlier, he tried many tactics to undermine the alliance, such as using Samajwadi Party leaders to veto a merger between various former Socialist groups, who were once part of the Janata Party. The ‘Janata Parivar’ merger, proposed last November, was to precede the Bihar alliance.
This Parivar, to be headed by SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, would include, besides the JD(U) and RJD, HD Deve Gowda’s JD (Secular), Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal, and smaller splinters. The grouping now only has 15 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 25 in the Rajya Sabha.
Last month, the SP ruled out a merger before the Bihar elections. This was partly to test the idea’s viability at the state level; partly it also reflected the reluctance of Janata Parivar leaders to cede to others the perks they enjoy as chiefs of their parties, including exclusive party offices built on subsidised land in central Delhi.
Prasad tried yet another ploy, that of proposing to rope in Nitish rival Jitan Ram Manjhi into the alliance. Manjhi, a Musahar (a designated Mahadalit caste), was made CM by Kumar after the JD(U)’s rout in the last Lok Sabha elections. He started building his own base; so Kumar had him removed. He has since cosied up to the BJP.
Kumar was no innocent either. He wantonly antagonised OBC groups like the Kushwahas, whose leader formed his Rashtriya Lok Shakti Party and won three Lok Sabha seats. Kumar need not have rubbed Manjhi up the wrong way. He also failed to build up his JD(U)’s cadre base.
The RJD and JD(U) are divided along caste-community lines. The RJD mainly represents the Yadavs, the uppermost OBCs, about 12 percent of the Bihar population, and a section of ashraf (upper-layer) Muslims. The JD(U) is a party of the Kurmis (eight percent of the population) and other lower OBCs and non-Paswan Dalits.
The BJP-led alliance exploited these social-level rivalries and won 31 out of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. This was attributable to the false hopes Modi created, his use of his OBC identity, and the immense caste-class polarisation he wrought. According to post-poll surveys, a staggering 78 percent of the upper castes and 68 percent of Paswans voted for the BJP-led combine, as did 53 percent of the lower OBCs.
The opposition vote was divided between RJD (20.5 percent), JD(U) (16.0), Congress (8.6), and NCP (1.2), but still added up to 46.3 percent – well above the combined vote of the BJP (29.86 percent), LJP (6.50 percent) and RLSP (0.12 percent), totalling 36.5 percent. Ten percent represents a massive lead in a two-way fight.
If the opposition now gets together, its combined vote may fall somewhat, but it will probably still have an unbeatable advantage. The public’s honeymoon with Modi is long over; and the underprivileged who voted for him out of ignorance of the Gujarat model, and the desperate hope that he would deliver jobs, are sorely disappointed. Even the upper castes are unlikely to show the pro-BJP enthusiasm they did in 2014.
The election won’t be a cakewalk for the JD(U)-RJD combine. But it’s an eminently winnable fight if it agrees on a reasonable seat distribution formula and campaigns sincerely for the selected candidates, without sabotaging their chances.
That formula cannot be based on the 2010 assembly elections, when the RJD won a mere 22 seats (of Bihar’s total of 243) with a 18.8-percent share, and the JD(U) won 115 seats with a 22.6-percent vote-share, in alliance with the BJP.
Nor can the formula be founded on the exceptional 2014 election. A new paradigm is necessary, based on balanced constituency-wise representation of social groups and high candidate credibility.
The secular bloc parties must negotiate this soon. They would be wrong to exclude the Left from their front. The Communist Party of India and the CPI(ML-Liberation) have a sizeable base among Bihar’s poor peasants and landless – and a capacity to bring them out to vote. They can also provide sensible policy and programmatic guidance to the secular bloc.
The socialists and the communists in Bihar had a creative dialogue and mutually beneficial competitive relationship from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. They both lost heavily when that relationship was disrupted with the socialists’ merger into the Janata Party, from which they came out splintered and disoriented. The long-interrupted dialogue must be resumed through formal inclusion of the Left into the secular bloc.
Nitish Kumar is relying on the likes of publicist Prashant Kishor, who played a key role in Modi’s 2014 campaign through Citizens for Accountable Governance, funded by Big Business. Kumar would do better to get advice from tried and tested progressive secularists.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.
Email: [email protected]