Understanding Tejashwi Yadav’s Lacklustre Campaign in Bihar

As anything less than the chief minister, Tejashwi may not be able to hold on to his “dynastic empire”. Such a scenario would consign him to political oblivion.

The day Tejashwi Yadav became eligible to contest elections, he began to see himself as the chief minister-in-waiting. His aspiration met no challenge within the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) or its core support base. That he began only as deputy chief minister under the apprenticeship of chief minister Nitish Kumar, was to his people, just an interregnum. That turned out to be shorter-lived (less than two years) than anyone expected.

Barely in his twenties, Tejashwi had daunting challenges upon his shoulders. He had to: Keep the flocks together, strengthen the organisation and broaden the RJD’s base beyond Yadavs and Muslims, as a section of Yadavs had deserted him for the BJP. Muslims remained his captive voters.

With Lalu, the real crowd-puller, in jail, Tejashwi ought to have realised the need for a blistering campaign exposing the failures of the Modi regime on all fronts: the urban economy, on rural distress, on employment, on demonetisation, on traders’ sufferings because of GST and on vaunted welfare schemes. More than that, the undercutting of social justice – in the form of the 10% quota for ‘economically weak’ upper castes – and needless to say, the persecution of Muslims.

Tejashwi’s supporters also expected him to cash in on sympathy for Lalu’s incarceration.

The word on the street

They have not. Instead, ticket allotments have sent the wrong message to many constituencies, including Madhubani, Sheohar and Motihari. Rumours are now afloat, and believed by many voters, that the smaller parties in the grand alliance – the LJP, RLSP, VIP and others – sold their tickets to candidates, and added charges to support their rallies.

Meanwhile, family feuds within the Lalu clan have released bizarre claims into the public square. All these have depressed the morale of party workers.

Reports from the ground suggest that the alliance with Upendra Kushwaha (of the RLSP) is failing to transfer Kushwaha votes to the alliance, except in Aurangabad. One of the reasons for that may be that many Kushwaha political workers have already been co-opted by Nitish. Similarly, the alliance with Mukesh Sahni may not have attracted Mallah votes in Muzaffarpur and Vaishali. In 2014, the BJP’s Ajay Nishad was elected from Muzaffarpur, and JDU’s Vijay Sahni secured around 1.5 lakh votes in Vaishali.

In the face of these red alerts from the ground, Tejashwi and his allies seem complacent in terms of their public rallies.

Also read: ‘Mahagathbandhan’ Announces Seat-Sharing Formula in Bihar, Left Parties Left Out

Equally mystifying is the tenacity with which Tejashwi insisted on contesting Begusarai – and not to sharing that seat with the CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar – against the ease with which he surrendered Madhubani to Sahni, and threw out their own senior Muslim candidate, Ashraf Fatmi.

Tejashwi went further, making a humiliating comment about Fatmi (that Darbhanga was not anyone’s ‘bapauti’, or ancestral right). In 2014, the RJD lost Begusarai by 60,000 votes, while Madhubani was lost by only 16,000.

Fatmi was not even offered the adjacent seat of Sheohar. It went instead to an outsider, a political newcomer from Magadh. As a result, Fatmi has gone over to the BSP and has filed his nomination from Madhubani, enlisting the support of Muslim bodies as well as from CPI, which has a sizeable historical foot-hold there.

All this has irked many Muslims, as well as the RJD’s own senior leaders, such as Mangani Lal Mandal, and Tejashwi’s elder brother, Tej Pratap.

This in-fighting, defection and poor decision-making could cost the Bihar mahagathbandhan the seats of Motihari, Sheohar, Madhubani, Darbhanga and Supaul.

The belief is that Tejashwi, in order to checkmate his challenger Pappu Yadav, moved to bring in Sharad Yadav and push Pappu out of the grand alliance. He also fielded an RJD candidate against Pappu’s wife, Ranjeeta Ranjan, the Congress nominee in Supaul – the intra-alliance challenge was only withdrawn after much persuasion.

Method in the madness

So why is Tejashwi carrying out this self-defeating misadventure?

Some RJD insiders confide that Tejashwi is acting on a design. The aim is to get rid of senior and assertive leaders and pack his party with his own loyalists. That is, he has his eyes on the Vidhan Sabha elections in late 2020.

They anticipate that if RJD allies are too successful in the general election, they will extract more seats in the assembly polls. In that eventuality, Tejashwi’s candidature for chief minister may be torpedoed.

There are also apprehensions that, should a Congress-led alliance replace Modi’s government in New Delhi, then Nitish Kumar might renegotiate with the Congress to have early assembly elections.

Owing to such apprehensions, Tejashwi has allegedly passed over the Ajlaf-Arzal leaders in ticket allotment, since there is a longstanding impression that these Muslim communities are more inclined towards Nitish than the RJD.  The moment Nitish deserts the BJP, he will win back this base. Of course, the upper-castes of Bihar would prefer anybody over the Lalu dynasty.

As anything less than the chief minister, Tejashwi may not be able to hold on to his “dynastic empire”. Such a scenario would consign him to political oblivion.

Alternatively, the low success of his allies and a stronger BJP would scare Muslims into clinging even tighter to the RJD, and the aspiring, articulate Muslim youth will not ask for a more proportionate slide of the cake. The RJD would hold the votes of Muslims captive.

In reality, Tejashwi and his advisors must foresee another possibility: If Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) wins the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat, then in the forthcoming assembly elections, it will have the possibility of winning few more seats in Seemanchal. One never knows, the MIM may emerge as the key player in ragtag coalitions in 2020 assembly; or in the worst case, MIM would have the potential of spoiling RJD’s chances of victory in many assembly seats of Seemanchal.

Similarly, regardless of Kanhaiya winning or losing Begusarai, he and his CPI, as well as the CPI-ML, will remain a force to reckon with in Bihar. A lot of electorates are looking for alternatives. Tejashwi will need them in assembly elections anyway.

Tejashwi must realise that the rising voices of his “captive voters” cannot be suppressed for long. Besides, his complex calculations are fraught with risks. If Tejashwi’s cardboard props fall down, he will be the biggest loser, and political oblivion will come that much faster.

Mohammad Sajjad teaches History at Aligarh Muslim University and is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours. He tweets @sajjadhist