On April 11, a day before meeting Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and then top leaders of the Congress, Lalu Prasad Yadav told me that there was no way the Bharatiya Janata Party can win the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
“People are fed up with [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s lies and misgovernance. Nitish Kumar is on the right course to unite opposition parties,” Lalu said.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo told me that he was confident about Nitish remaining steadfast in his role. “It is meaningless to talk about Nitish leaving the grand alliance. The people at large are united against Modi. It’s now the duty of all the opposition parties to respond to the people’s wishes…after all, the people are the masters of the parties,” he said.
What appears to have given Lalu the confidence to predict the fall of the Modi government in 2024 is the convergence of all the parties, especially the Congress, around the caste census. Another issue is the advocacy for the removal of the Supreme Court’s mandate of a 50% cap on the job reservations quota.
While Lalu largely spoke to this correspondent in the context of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, sources close to him and Nitish said that the two who had their beginning in the JP movement of the 1970s are also keeping a close watch on the assembly elections in Karnataka.
Lalu is one of the staunchest champions of the Mandal Commission today. He was in the vanguard of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990, ensuring a 27% quota for the backward classes in government jobs. The then leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi, had vociferously opposed it. The Congress dubbed the BJP and the Mandal Commission supporting parties as “communal and casteist” respectively for over 30 years till Rahul Gandhi decisively “corrected” his father (Rajiv) at his election rally at Kolar, Karnataka, on April 17.
“When we talk about the distribution of wealth and power, the first step should be to find out the population of every caste,” Rahul said and asked for the removal of the Supreme Court’s mandate of a 50% cap on the job reservations.
He emphatically said, “Reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections should be in proportion to their population.”
Two days later the Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to the PM seeking to conduct the caste census at the national level. And now the former Karnataka CM and Congress leader Siddaramaiah has promised to “increase the reservation limit from the present 50% to 75% if voted to power”.
My letter to the Prime Minister demanding the publication of Socio Economic Caste Census.
Regular decennial Census was to be carried out in 2021 but it has not been conducted. We demand that it be done immediately and that a comprehensive Caste Census be made it’s integral part. pic.twitter.com/eoL52gRFC1
— Mallikarjun Kharge (@kharge) April 17, 2023
Thus, Karnataka polls are going to be a test for what is known as politics of “social justice” that the grand old party – which was noncommittal till Rahul’s Kolar declaration – adopted it and got in sync with the regional parties like Samajwadi Party, RJD, Janata Dal (United) and others on the issue.
The issue of the caste census has emerged as the “glue” to bring together Lalu’s RJD and Nitish’s JD(U) after the two acrimoniously parted ways in 2017. At the direction of his father Lalu, Tejashwi Yadav, then leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly, first demanded that the Nitish government in 2021 press for the caste census at the national level and then carry out the same at the state level.
Nitish subsequently got a resolution to this effect passed in the state assembly and sent an all-party delegation to the PM, pressing for the same. The BJP’s discomfort with Nitish grew and simultaneously, so did the proximity between Nitish and Tejashwi.
In June 2022 Nitish walked to Rabri Devi’s home for an iftar party and Tejashwi visited the JD(U)’s iftar party a couple of days later.
On August 9, 2022 Nitish dumped the BJP and joined the grand alliance in Bihar, giving a call to opposition parties to unite against Narendra Modi.
The Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav too has raised the pitch for carrying out the caste census at the national level. Nitish and Tejashwi met Akhilesh at Lucknow on April 25. Akhilesh met Lalu at the latter’s daughter and MP Misa Bharti’s Pandara Park home, New Delhi on April 26.
It can be safe to say that Lalu, Nitish, Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi are almost on the same page on the issue of the caste census and reservation.
“Their (Lalu’s and Nitish’s) primary focus is the 2024 Lok Sabha polls but they are keenly watching the Karnataka polls. They strongly believe that the Congress’s victory in Karnataka – if it happens – will be a booster dose for the parties trying to build a strong narrative around “social justice” against the BJP’s radical Hindutva,” said a senior RJD leader.
Amidst efforts at opposition unity, Lalu Prasad Yadav came to Patna today, Friday, for the first time after the transplant of his kidney on December 5 last year. Unlike the perception gaining ground that he would leave the centre stage of politics, Lalu is full of zeal to return.
He, according to family sources, had planted a piece of sugarcane at Misa Bharti’s Pandara Park home before flying off to Singapore for the kidney transplant in November last year. “He had said”, a family member told me, “The sugarcane should grow when I return after my operation. I will chew on it once I return”.
When Lalu returned in March, the first thing he did was to pick up the sugarcane and eat it. “I am fine now. I will gain strength to campaign against the BJP in the 2024 elections,” Lalu told me with a chuckle.
“The pot of wood can’t be kept on the burner again and again. It’s time for Narendra Modi to leave,” the RJD boss said in his inimitable style, signing off.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, media educator and independent researcher in social anthropology.