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How Nitish the Politician Outsmarted Lalu the Father

The Bihar CM’s resignation, which the RJD could have prevented, brings an end to not just the alliance in the state but also the idea of a grand coalition against Modi and the BJP at the national level.

Nitish Kumar speaking to the media after handing in his resignation as chief minister to the governor of Bihar. Credit: PTI

Whether Nitish Kumar was merely trying to alter the terms of his alliance with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal or actually preparing the ground for a dramatic new alignment with the Bharatiya Janata Party, his resignation as Bihar chief minister means an end to ‘politics as usual’ at both the state and central level. The short-lived grand-coalition, or mahagathbandhan, in the state lies wrecked, and the idea – poorly conceived and embryonic though it was – of a national-level opposition alliance to take on the BJP in 2019 will remain still-born.

But whatever happens next in terms of grand politics, it is important to clear up one misconception at the outset. The issue at stake in the Bihar crisis is not corruption and the rule of law but the manner in which politics drives public perceptions of crime, corruption and morality.

Tejashwi Yadav is not the first minister to face an FIR for wrongdoing. Weeks before the CBI charged him and other members of his family for a variety of offences – primarily possessing assets disproportionate to known sources of income – a minister in Narendra Modi’s council of ministers, Uma Bharati, was also chargesheeted by the same agency for arguably a far more grave crime, the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Last month, Narottam Mishra, a minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh was stripped of his seat for indulging in ‘paid news’ and falsifying election returns. Yet both Bharti and Mishra remain in their posts. Modi congratulates Nitish Kumar for joining the fight against corruption with his principled stand against the continued presence of Tejashwi in his cabinet but says nothing about his own unprincipled failure to push for the ouster of BJP offenders. What does that tell us about where he stands on fighting corruption, one might well ask.

Two negative tendencies

Not only is the BJP’s approach to corruption and criminality highly selective but it is also skilled at calibrating the scope and pace of anti-corruption investigations in cases involving politicians. The investigation into the Maharashtra irrigation scam remains in limbo because it does not suit the BJP to ratchet up the heat on the Nationalist Congress Party and its leaders who stand accused there. The same is the case with cases involving Samajwadi Party leaders in Uttar Pradesh. In Assam, the Louis Berger investigation corruption case is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Allegations against top industrial houses are not acted upon. In Bihar, however, targeting Lalu and precipitating a crisis in the mahagathbandhan before the ‘grand coalition’ idea goes national makes a lot of political sense.

Yet if Tejashwi’s indictment is the product of one negative tendency in Indian politics – the instrumentalisation of law enforcement – it took a second negative tendency, dynasticism, to push the crisis to breaking point.

The fact is that Lalu’s ‘putra-moh’ – blind love for his son – lies at the root of the current crisis. Tejashwi should never have been made deputy chief minister when there were other, more capable leaders in the RJD. And once there, his father should have had the sense to make him bow out at the first real sign of trouble so that he and the RJD could live to fight another day. If instead of his own son Lalu had been called upon to sacrifice some other RJD leader, it is hard to imagine him baulking at the prospect.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rabri Devi, Tejashwi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav. Credit: PTI

File photo of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rabri Devi, Tejashwi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav. Credit: PTI

Today, Lalu’s party, with 80 MLAs, is the single largest party, and together with the Congress also forms the largest coalition. “By right, the governor should call us”, the RJD patriarch seemed to be saying at his press conference on Wednesday night. But in the same breath, he pointed to the speed with which Modi tweeted his congratulations to Nitish  as evidence of a prior setting between the two leaders. “It is almost as if Modiji was in the meeting in Patna”, a member of Lalu’s family told The Wire. Questioning the legal and moral validity of the expectation that his son should resign in the face of the chargesheet the CBI had filed earlier this month, Lalu raked up an old murder charge against Nitish – hardly the stuff of marital reconciliation.

It is tempting to go back now and retrofit a curve to what were explained away earlier as random political positions by Nitish Kumar – his support for demonetisation (which he reiterated on Wednesday night), his support for Ramnath Kovind as president, an opposition dinner skipped, a prime ministerial lunch attended – and conclude that he has been looking for a way back to the BJP for some time now.  But that would tell only half the story. If the Uttar Pradesh election result upended whatever calculations Nitish had made and remade in 2015, the lack of any drive or initiative in the opposition camp would have surely been an additional source of dread.

Four scenarios, all bad news for Lalu

Privately, Lalu’s family members are convinced that Nitish and the BJP are coordinating their moves and that it is only a matter of time before the JD(U) wends its way back to the National Democratic Alliance. Nitish Kumar’s tweet appreciating Modi’s congratulations is a pointer of what is in store. But if that is really the RJD first family’s calculation, they have played their cards rather badly. It is hard to think of any scenario in which Lalu and the RJD can emerge stronger politically from Wednesday’s rupture.

Scenario 1

Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi invites the RJD-Congress alliance to form a government. The two parties together have 107 seats, 15 short of a majority. The only way to reach the half-way mark is by winning over the JD(U) en masse – a highly unlikely prospect – or by engineering a split in the party that is large enough to trump the anti-defection law. With Lok Sabha elections only one year and 10 months away, Nitish’s MLAs, as risk averse politicians, will weigh the long-term political prospects of the RJD-Congress alliance at the national level against how the NDA – with or without the JD(U) inside – is expected to perform in 2019. To sum up, Lalu will have a tough time enticing two-thirds of the JD(U) MLAs to his camp.

Scenario 2

If an RJD-Congress coalition falls short, Nitish, with 71 MLAs could form the government again, this time with outside support from the BJP (53 seats) – if he is not ready to formally tie up with the party yet. With smaller parties like the Lok Jan Shakti, this NDA-Minus arrangement would have a comfortable majority. Nitish would remain in a half-way house politically until he feels the time is right to re-enter the NDA.

Scenario 3

The JD(U) and BJP cement a formal alliance and form a government in the manner they had been doing before Nitish broke with the BJP over the selection of Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Scenario 4

No government is formed and fresh elections are held for the Bihar assembly. These elections may either be a three -cornered fight – RJD+Congress vs NDA vs Nitish Kumar – or a two-cornered race in which Nitish is part of the NDA. Either way, the RJD is bound to win less seats than it currently has.

A crisis foretold

When the CBI filed a chargesheet against Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi and other members of the Lalu family, the RJD leader only really had one option. He should have asked his son to resign. He should have then prepared a list of all those BJP ministers who have been chargesheeted or indicted for one crime or another and demanded that they too step down. If Lalu believed Nitish was looking for an easy way to break the alliance and embrace the BJP, such a course of action would have called the JD(U) leader’s bluff about the call of his conscience.

The RJD is right when it accuses Modi of misusing the CBI and practicing double standards, but it should have resolved to fight the BJP politically – by raising the issue amongst the people. By digging their heels in this fashion and allowing the JD(U) leader the luxury of a ‘principled’ exit out of the mahagathbandhan, Lalu and his family have ensured that Nitish and, eventually Modi himself, will cash in on the ensuing public sympathy. Instead of gaining a higher moral vantage point from which to expose the BJP’s hypocrisy in holding on to ministers like Uma Bharti, Narottam Mishra and others, Lalu has ended up handing over not just the mantle of anti-corruption to Modi but also the keys to Pataliputra and eventually ‘Indraprashtha’ as well – which is what New Delhi will resemble if the BJP comes back to power in 2019.

Note: The anti defection law requires that at least two-thirds of the members of a legislature party split in order for them to not be disqualified, and not one-third, as was incorrectly stated in an earlier version.

Note: The CBI has filed an FIR against Tejashwi Yadav and not a ‘chargesheet’ as was erroneously conveyed in an earlier version of the article.

  • ashok759

    Scenario # 3 would be fair to the people of Bihar. For the BJP to formally enter the government, perhaps led by Sushil Modi as DCM, would impart stability, allow it to contribute to governance and faster development, with some support from the Centre, also make it accountable. 2. Barring LP himself, now disqualified, there does not seem to be a single member of the family who is not a minister or a legislator. Whether real estate or public office, the avarice of the Yadavas stands out even by lax Indian standards.

  • Anjan Basu

    The JD(U)- BJP deal is done and dusted already, so the three other scenarios, which looked plausible enough at one point, need no longer engage our attention. Indeed, as Mr Varadarajan sets out here, the pointers to this possibility had been on view for quite some months now. The way a hard-nosed ( also battle-scarred, as one feels tempted to add) Lalu Prasad insisted on cutting his nose to spite his face remains somewhat baffling. The only possible explanatation — other than of course, the ‘putramoha’ that Mr Varadarajan talks about — could be that Lalu had bet on Nitish feeling shy of jettisoning the ‘secular’ stance that he had taken so much trouble to cultivate post-2013. Mr Varadarajan is dead right ( and Lalu woefully off the mark) in his assessment that Nitish Kumar can trump

  • Anjan Basu

    The JD(U)- BJP deal is done and dusted already, so the three other scenarios, which looked plausible enough at one point, need no longer engage our attention. Indeed, as Mr Varadarajan sets out here, the pointers to this possibility had been on view for quite some months now. The way a hard-nosed ( also battle-scarred, as one feels tempted to add) Lalu Prasad insisted on cutting his nose to spite his face remains somewhat baffling. The only possible explanatation — other than of course, the ‘putramoha’ that Mr Varadarajan talks about — could be that Lalu had bet on Nitish feeling shy of jettisoning the ‘secular’ stance that he had taken so much trouble to cultivate post-2013. Mr Varadarajan is dead right ( and Lalu woefully off the mark) in his assessment that Nitish Kumar can trump

  • Amitabha Basu

    Scenario 3 was a foregone conclusion. The fact that Nitish Kumar lost no time in embracing the BJP shows that he had no inhibitions about reviving his former gathbandhan, and that all his criticism of Narendra Modi and the BJP during the Bihar election campaign, and likewise Narendra Modi’s broadsides against Nitish Kumar (DNA of Bihar etc etc) were all for public consumption (or rather confusion) only. No high moral grounds or principles can be expected from such scheming politicians.