Once the undisputed leader of the cow belt, Lalu Yadav is on a sticky wicket now. For the last 20 years, Lalu has commanded the support of the Yadavs and Muslims in Bihar. He ruled the state for 15 long years, and also played a crucial role at the Centre.
But, as the Bihar elections draw closer, it is worth asking–is that M-Y combine still with Lalu and the Rashtriya Janata Dal? Can he revive his political fortunes after his disastrous show in the last assembly elections and then in the Lok Sabha polls? Or is it end game for Lalu? Has his grand alliance with friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Nitish Kumar worked? Many doubt that the alliance is a winner, considering the dismal show the alliance put up in the recently concluded legislative council polls, where it managed to win only 10 out of 24 seats.
Lalu’s star seems to be waning. And there are reasons why. After being the first MP to be disqualified after his conviction, and subsequently jail in the fodder scam, Lalu has become a pariah for many political parties. Once a fierce supporter of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Lalu doesn’t enjoy the same rapport with the new generation in the Congress, led by her son Rahul.
In fact, it was Rahul who infamously thwarted a legislation the UPA tried to enact to primarily to bail out Lalu. His tainted image was the reason why Congress decided to ditch him in favour of Nitish Kumar. A chastised Lalu was subsequently forced to accept Nitish as the lead partner in the grand alliance. He had no other choice.
Playing second fiddle
The Yadav strongman has had to swallow his pride when Nitish refused to share the dais with him in public twice in the recent past — first during the Prajapati Samaj Chetna rally on April 18, and then at Nishad (fishermen) Maha Rally on May 30 in Patna.
The conviction also means that Lalu can’t contest the upcoming elections. Not a good sign for a political party when it’s top boss can’t lead from the front.
Accepting Nitish’s suzerainty has also sent a wrong message to the Yadavs. Nitish, for long, has fought elections on the plank of ending the ‘Jungle raj’ in Bihar under the Lalu regime. Most Yadavs see Nitish as someone who brought a bad name to their community by associating them with Lalu’s misrule. The Yadavs say they have always felt victimised under Nitish’s regime. Lalu now joining hands with Nitish has left many in the community livid.
Knowing this well, the press conference held just after electing Nitish the leader of the alliance was symbolic. Lalu shared the dais with another prominent Yadav i.e. Sharad Yadav, and of course Nitish himself. The pictures said it all. Two Yadav chieftains had elected a Kurmi to lead them. Lalu is hoping that he will gain from Nitish’s image, but on the other hand he might lose his Yadav core votes.
Lalu has also been very open about promoting his family. First he chose his wife Rabri Devi to be the Chief Minister when he himself was convicted and went to jail. Senior leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad were ignored. While Rabri’s rule was a disaster for Bihar, it was compounded by her two brothers, Sadhu and Subhash, who became bywords for hooliganism.
Like many regional parties, RJD has few second rung leaders. The projection of Lalu’s sons and daughter as heirs apparent has forced leaders like Ramkripal Yadav to quit the RJD. Ramkripal on a BJP ticket then went to defeat Lalu’s daughter, Meesa Bharti, in the 2014 polls.
Some of Lalu’s sons and daughters are likely to contest in the upcoming assembly elections too. Many of his close associates have deserted Lalu after being sidelined. Other like Taslimuddin, Prabhunath Singh and Raghuvansh Prasad prefer to remain silent.
Not surprisingly, challenges are emerging from within he community. Lalu was once the face of the Yadav community, but now the situation has changed. The expelled RJD MP from Madhepura, Pappu Yadav, has openly challenged Lalu. Pappu is a five time MP and holds significant clout over the Yadavs of Madhepure-Saharsa-Kosi belt. In the elections he could easily poach RJD voters. Lalu’s ex-aide Ramkripal Yadav is another challenger.
The forthcoming assembly election is a litmus test for Lalu. Whether the RJD-JDU alliance wins or not, its highly likely that Lalu himself stands to lose. If it wins, it would be Nitish who would emerge all powerful, while Lalu is relegated to the sidelines. If it loses, Lalu has only another five-year stint in the opposition as a junior partner to look forward to. A third scenario, where the RJD wins enough seats to bargain hard with Nitish, looks quite remote.