Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad: The Fraying of Brotherhood

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What has gone wrong between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad?

ON 26 MARCH, BIHAR Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, along with Health Minister Tej Pratap Yadav, was scheduled to inaugurate a kidney transplant unit at Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (IGIMS) in Patna. The programme was slated to begin at 4 pm and the institute was decked up for the occasion. With just 15 minutes left for the event, IGIMS director Dr NR Biswas received a phone call from the Chief Minister’s Office informing him that Nitish Kumar would not make it because of his busy schedule. Tej Pratap Yadav, health minister and the elder son of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad, had already excused himself citing ill health. The last-minute cancellation of the high- profile event came as a bolt from the blue for hospital authorities, who had delayed the discharge of two kidney transplant patients in order to have them interact with the Chief Minister. The patients were discharged the same evening.

There is a worrying political subtext to what may seem like a minor incident. Yadav’s and Kumar’s withdrawal from the event is symbolic of the growing animus between their two parties, which are locked in an uncomfortable coalition, reluctantly sharing power. The official invitations to the inauguration, though they mentioned the health minister, had featured just one photograph—that of Nitish Kumar. This did not go down well with Tej Pratap Yadav, who decided to give the event a miss. A Health Ministry function without the presence of the health minister would have raised eyebrows, so Kumar too decided not to show up. This is only the latest episode in the poster war that has widened the rift between the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the RJD, the two main parties of the Grand Alliance government in Bihar. A short while ago, a Road Construction Ministry advertisement featured pictures of the Deputy Chief Minister, Lalu Prasad’s younger son Tejashwi Yadav, who is in charge of the ministry. There was no mention, however, of the Chief Minister. “This is the first time that an ad for a government programme features a picture, not of the CM, but of the minister,” says Nand Kishor Yadav, senior BJP leader from the state. “All is not well between the two main parties of the ruling coalition.”

RJD and JD-U leaders deny reports of one-upmanship between them and insist that their alliance is a success. “A decision like complete prohibition couldn’t have been taken if both the parties were not on the same page,” says Sanjay Singh, chief spokesperson, JD-U, Bihar. But the unease between the partners is palpable, especially in the JD-U. “There are certain small things which you ignore as part of a coalition. But the question is, how long can you deal with it?” says a senior JD-U leader on condition of anonymity. “Ultimately it affects the image of the government and gives the opposition a chance to attack.”

In the four months since Bihar’s government was formed, there have been numerous instances where Nitish Kumar and his party have had to face embarrassment, thanks to the unseemly behaviour and lawlessness of some RJD legislators and ministers. The claims of sushaasan (good governance) have no takers left and the opposition has pinned the blame on the RJD. With the JD-U being the junior partner in the alliance, Nitish Kumar has had to maintain a deafening silence.

Take the case of Raj Ballabh Yadav, a former state minister and three-time RJD MLA from Nawada, who was accused of raping a class 10 girl on 6 February. When the victim’s family approached the police, they refused to register a case, reportedly following the orders of senior RJD leaders. When the media and opposition highlighted the issue, an FIR was finally registered on 9 February after an inspection by DIG (central range) Shalin. Despite the issue of an arrest warrant on 13 February, the police couldn’t arrest Yadav for almost a month. He surrendered before a court on 10 March. Insiders reveal that he was frequently seen in public in Patna during the time he was supposed to have been absconding. Raj Ballabh Yadav has been suspended from the party.

On 8 March, Abdul Ghafoor, state minority welfare minister from the RJD, along with another party MLA, Harishankar Yadav, met former party MP Mohammad Shahabuddin in jail over snacks and tea. Shahabuddin has been convicted by a Siwan court in eight cases and sentenced to life in two. He is lodged in Siwan jail since 2005. Pictures of his meeting with Ghafoor went viral on social media and the government, under extreme pressure, suspended the jail authorities. But no action was taken against the minister who claimed it was a courtesy call. “I was not the first politician to meet someone in jail,” says Ghafoor in his defence. Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav backed him up, saying that Ghafoor followed the jail manual. The ‘courtesy call’, however, appears to have resulted in Shahabuddin’s nomination to the RJD’s national executive in a party meeting on 3 April. “Shahabuddin’s appeal in the cases against him is pending in the Supreme Court,” says Manoj Jha, RJD spokesperson. “Nothing more should be read into this.” The incident has put the Nitish Kumar government on the back foot, with the opposition decrying it as the return of ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar. “Lalu’s politics cannot survive without criminals,” says Mangal Pandey, president of the BJP in Bihar. “The biggest worry is that Nitish Kumar doesn’t defend it—or cannot oppose it. We expected this.”

The claims of sushaasan (good governance) have no takers left and the opposition has pinned the blame on the RJD

“Both Lalu and Nitish have different agendas to pursue and they realise that in order to be in power, they need to compromise on their original positions,” says NK Chaudhary, professor of Political Science at Patna University. “Law and order is clearly a victim of this compromise.” Running a government with the RJD as the primary party goes against the grain of Nitish Kumar’s style of functioning, Chaudhary says. “Nitish is authoritarian by temperament. He is used to absolute power. Now, with the emergence of Lalu Yadav as a de facto CM, officials no longer consider Nitish as the chief authority in the government.”

JD-U leaders admit Lalu’s interference in government affairs. “He has control over the lower bureaucracy of the state,” concedes a JD-U leader. “On top of that, he is accessible to his own people. Anyone can call him or meet him anytime.” Last month, when a fight broke out between RJD and JD-U workers in Ara district, Nitish Kumar called local police officers to get a briefing on the incident, only to be told that they had received instructions from Lalu Prasad and had acted accordingly. Even as the Chief Minister squirms in his throne, Yadav has hoisted himself as the super-CM, even replacing his son Tej Pratap at public functions. Be it the Homeopathic Science Congress or the Patna Medical College Foundation Day, Lalu Prasad made sure he was the chief guest. In January, he reportedly called the civil surgeon of Darbhanga asking him to reinstate some health workers. He also made a surprise check on IGIMS, Patna, despite not holding any office.

Lalu Prasad’s impositions aside, the Chief Minister is also said to be unhappy with a health minister who is always absent. Tej Pratap hardly attends Assembly sessions and has other ministers reply on his behalf to questions related to his ministry. On 2 April, the Bihar chapter of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had organised a blood donation camp for which more than a hundred lawmakers, including ministers, turned up. Tej Pratap, however, chose that very day to fly to Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, to pray at the Shani Shingnapur temple. “We can understand that he is a novice in politics,” says a JD-U leader. “What is worrying is that he doesn’t want to learn. Ultimately his deeds will affect the image of Nitish Kumar.”

THE TROUBLES FOR an image- conscious Nitish Kumar do not end here. On some occasions, he has been let down by his own party MLAs. Last month, Gopal Mandal, a JD-U MLA, announced in public that he would resort to the politics of murder just as he used to in the past. Another leader, MLC Rana Gangeshwar Singh, described the National Anthem as a symbol of slavery. Both legislators have been suspended from the party.

There is growing unrest among JD-U leaders and the senior bureaucracy in the state over the influence wielded by Prashant Kishor, Nitish Kumar’s election strategist-turned-advisor who holds a cabinet rank in Bihar. On 26 March, Kishor was honoured for his role in the poll victory in a meeting at Nitish Kumar’s official residence attended by party office bearers. One of the legislators reportedly asked if it was a JD-U victory or Prashant Kishor’s victory. “I understand he gave slogans for the party, but I won on my own image,” says an MLA who was part of the meeting. Kishor is in charge of Bihar Vikas Mission, a new institution to execute Nitish Kumar’s poll promises. The state bureaucracy is said to be uncomfortable with the sweeping powers given to Kishor. A senior IAS office from the state, Sudhir Kumar Rakesh, has reportedly applied for voluntary retirement over his difference of opinion on the new mission. “I wouldn’t like to talk about the conditions of my VRS. I am serving till August,” says Rakesh, principal secretary of the Panchayati Raj Department with additional charge as director-general of the Bihar Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development. He now has to report not only to Kishor but also to his junior, Atish Chandra, a 1994 batch IAS officer who is the mission director. Opposition leaders point out that around 36 IAS officers from Bihar have requested central deputation in the last six months. “Kishor is not from the Service and is a political appointee,” says an IAS officer on condition of anonymity. “If the CM really wanted us to follow Kishor, he should have made him a minister.” Kishor is supposed to coordinate and advise the Mission on fulfilling seven resolves under different ministries and departments. He will put up his own team of professionals to work in collaboration with officers at different levels, which could cause further friction with the existing bureaucracy.

In the wake of these challenges, the JD-U and the RJD, while attempting to gloss over their differences, are each charting their respective political futures. “This alliance is a transitory one and both Lalu and Nitish know they cannot move together beyond a point,” says Chaudhary. Discussions are underway over the proposed merger of the JD-U, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM). Nitish Kumar is all set to become the national president of the JD-U later this month. He is trying to forge an alliance at the national level for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In Uttar Pradesh, he is working with smaller parties and the Congress to create a new alternative. Kumar will address a rally on 10 April in Varanasi.

Lalu seems focused on Bihar. Convicted of the fodder scam, he cannot contest elections and is trying to get his two sons political careers in the state. “He is working on the Jharkhand model, where Shibu Soren first made his son Hemant Sorena Deputy CM and he was later promoted to the CM’s post,” says Chaudhary. “He wants to do something similar with Tejashwi in Bihar. For Lalu, Nitish is just a caretaker CM who is needed until Tejashwi is ready for the big assignment.” In July this year, the RJD will get two Rajya Sabha nominations. Chances are Lalu will send his wife Rabri Devi and daughter Misa Bharti to the Upper House. The Yadav chieftain is keeping his cards close to his chest over his national ambitions. If Nitish Kumar has his own plans, so does Lalu Prasad.