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Bihar

Lalu’s Party is Over

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The RJD chief was once thought to be invincible in his home state. Now Nitish Kumar is working overtime to draft his political obituary

LALU PRASAD’S political career seems closer to a dead end than anyone dared expect. After almost being squeezed out of the Lok Sabha in the recent election, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief now faces the threat of losing his voice in the Bihar Assembly even before the state goes to polls in 2010. A revolt is brewing among RJD legislators, stoked by a gnawing sense of insecurity after the party’s woeful performance and fuelled by a secure political future being promised by the Janata Dal-United (JD-U).

Sources in the RJD say that things are so bad that each party MLA is being monitored closely, and any dissension in the ranks would be dealt with strongly by Lalu Prasad himself. In the opposing camp, a senior JD-U leader is working day and night to turn the rebellion into a split in the RJD’s Assembly contingent. This back-channel operator, who also happens to be an RJD defector himself has been in touch with “a group of RJD MLAs” ever since the Lok Sabha poll results were out. “Several new MLAs have joined this group (of RJD legislators) since then,” says a source in the thick of the action, “Presently, a little less than two dozen MLAs of RJD are against Lalu’s dictatorial grip over the party.”

It’s obvious that Lalu Prasad’s nightmare is not over yet. The challenge of keeping his MLAs together has assumed utmost importance for the RJD chief, who knows that a split would spell doom for his hopes of a near-term revival of political fortunes. Of course, all is not lost for him yet. By the country’s anti-defection rules, at least two-thirds of a party’s legislators have to forswear allegiance to the electoral symbol they were elected on, for the Assembly speaker to recognise a formal split. The MLAs who the JD-U is trying to lure are short of that number right now, but the ruling party seems confident of more RJD legislators
joining the anti-Lalu chorus soon. At present, the RJD has 54 MLAs in the Bihar Assembly. At least 37 need to defect for the JD-U to claim victory. Any fewer, and these defectors would be disqualified as legislators. Naturally, any move to effect a split demands complete secrecy.

ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE

The question of why the JD-U would go in for such a cloak-and-dagger operation in Bihar, though, is not equally obvious. Nitish Kumar, who leads the JD-U, is currently Chief Minister of Bihar and has a majority in the Assembly supporting his government. The defection game, however, is aimed at widening his options as he prepares for the 2010 election.

At present, the JD-U has 81 MLAs in a house of 243 members. This means Nitish Kumar must lean heavily on the BJP, which has 52 MLAs, for legislative support in the Bihar Assembly. But the alliance is fragile; influential JD-U leaders are exerting pressure on the CM to part ways with the BJP. Such a snapping of ties could help the JD-U lure away a useful chunk of Muslim votes in the state from Lalu Prasad. This could possibly give the party a majority on its own.

Party strategists keen on this plan recently outlined its finer points at a two-day national executive meet in Delhi this May end, arguing that if the JD-U goes to the Assembly polls in alliance with the BJP, the swing minority vote might end up with the Congress. However, in the event of a split in Lalu Prasad’s party, a sizeable group of ex-RJD MLAs would back the Nitish Kumar government. This would allow the CM to dump its saffron ally without losing power, and offer him the freedom to woo minority voters openly.

It is a plausible plan, one that Lalu Prasad will do anything he can to thwart. By the dynamics of Bihar politics, perceptions of winability are a critical success factor. Now that the Lok Sabha results have revealed cracks in his coalition of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Muslims and Dalits, a vote base that catapulted the RJD to power in Bihar in 1990, Lalu Prasad is thought to have lost his touch. His party led the vote count in only 33 Assembly segments, an indication of waning support among voters. In as many as 19 segments that are currently represented by the RJD, the party trailed miserably.

Even the core of this coalition—the Muslim-Yadav combination—could not withstand the JD-U juggernaut, which wrapped up 20 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats it contested. This involved a groundswell of support in as many as 110 Assembly segments. It could mean big gains for JD-U next year. This is bad news for Lalu Prasad. If the RJD cannot hope to win, voters might drift towards parties that can.

NITISH NOTCH UP

The Bihar CM notches up his support mostly from upper castes, lower-rung OBCs, the poorest of Dalits, and even Muslims. The last of these has had a wedge driven by the JD-U between the upper and lower ‘castes’ (Ashrafs and Pasmandas) among them. The party’s support base explains why Nitish Kumar has recently approved a Rs 815 crore project for the benefit of ‘Mahadalits’, under which the government plans to grant home and water free to poor Dalits. As the CM resumes his Vikas Yatra, expect more sops to follow.

Government efforts could hasten a social churning sponsored by the JD-U. Just weeks after the Lok Sabha result, Bhim Singh, a one-time Lalu loyalist, switched to the JD-U. As a Kahar, a backward caste even among OBCs, he might now be able to draw a significant grouping away from the RJD. Lalu Prasad’s nerves are so taut precisely because such desertions have dealt his morale a huge blow. Even a small crisis now, say observers, could result in a party upheaval. “It is this consideration that forced Lalu Prasad to ask Rabri Devi (his wife who is the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly) to stay away from a crucial meeting of party leaders in Patna to assess the factors for the party’s debacle and to prepare a revival plan,” says a senior RJD leader.

Rabri Devi’s position has been vigorously questioned by RJD MLAs. By keeping her away from the meeting, Lalu Prasad bought himself peace. But for how long?

Long enough, say those who haven’t quit reciting old odes to his political longevity: ‘Jab tak samose mein aalu, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu (as long as the samosa has potato, Bihar will have Lalu).’

Nitish Kumar, not one for vegetative propagation, or organic growth of any other kind, is in a hurry to prove them wrong.