Patna: It was in March 1988. The towering Socialist patriarch and Lok Dal Legislature Party (LDLP) leader, Karpoori Thakur, had died a few weeks ago and his colleagues, Gajendra Himanshu, Anuplal Yadav and Vinayak Prasad Yadav were competing to step into his shoes.
Shyam Rajak – a young Lok Dal activist then and senior Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader now – dropped at the Patna’s Hindustan Times office with a press handout issued in the name of Nitish Kumar. As Rajak left, the solitary landline phone in the reporting room rang. The chief reporter, Narmdeshwar Sinha picked up the call; the caller was Nitish.
Sinha, who was called Lama ji because his face resembled that of the Buddhist monks, passed on the receiver to me as he had assigned me to make a news report out of what Nitish had to say.
“I am Nitish Kumar, MLA of Lok Dal. Please make the news in the name of Lalu Prasad,” Nitish – whom I had not yet met personally – told me on the phone. A cub reporter, I got confused.
Lama ji – a veteran political journalist – stared at my face, and said, “You are not a student supposed to memorise a political science chapter. As a reporter, you have to understand real politics. Nitish is on a mission to make his friend Lalu the Lok Dal Legislature Party leader. The young brigade from JP movement is on its way to execute a generation shift in Lok Dal. Nitish is the brain of the young brigade”, Lama ji said with his enigmatic smile.
Later, we learnt that Nitish was operating from the back-room to make Lalu the LDLP leader and was circulating the “right messages” in the media.
The might of Lalu-Nitish combination
Lalu and Nitish worked together to execute a phenomenal change in the course of Bihar’s politics. Lalu became the LDLP leader, edging past Himanshu, Anuplal and Vinayak. Lalu, who’s three years elder to Nitish, called him “chhota bhai” and Nitish called him “bade bhai”. Their relationship was rooted in student activism under the “tutelage” of Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, as he was popularly known, who led the movement that culminated in the removal of the mighty Indira Gandhi’s rule in 1977.
The journalists coined the sobriquet ‘Chanakya’ (Indian version of Machiavelli) for Nitish. It aptly fitted to Nitish who had played the pivotal role in changing the course of Bihar’s politics through Lalu, the way Chanakya had done by replacing the Nanda dynasty with Chandra Gupta Maurya in 3rd Century BC.
Tejashwi Yadav was not born yet when Lalu and Nitish had combined to define the course of history. And the murder case which Tejashwi referred to in Bihar assembly on Thursday and which sent Nitish in the fits of anger belonged to 1991 elections when Lalu was the chief minister and Nitish was his closest confidante. It was a trumped-up charge on Nitish which the courts had quashed describing it as “mala-fide”. Moreover, Lalu who was in power for the next 15 years never made a public statement on this case.
Reasons for Nitish’s loss of temper
In the rarest of the rare loss of temper, Nitish shouted, “Ask your father who had made him Lok Dal Legislature Party leader. I don’t speak, I keep silent… He (Tejashwi) is the son of my brother-like friend. Who made you deputy chief minister? You are charge-sheeted; action will follow,” after Tejashwi had referred to the murder case.
Nitish must have bottled up memories about the phenomenal chapters that the ‘Lalu-Nitish combination’ had scripted in the state’s political history.
As recently as in 2015, Lalu and Nitish together gave the biggest blow to Narendra Modi-Amit Shah. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won 33 of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2014. The ‘Lalu-Nitish combine’ constituted the ‘nucleus’ of what Nitish termed as the RJD-JD(U)-Congress Mahagathbandhan, which won 177 seats in 242-member Bihar assembly, reducing the BJP’s tally to 53. In many ways, the Lalu-Nitish combination was mightier than A.B Vajpayee-L.K. Advani one through 1990s.
Perhaps, the Modi-Shah duo now have a fair sense of what Lalu and Nitish can do together. And the fear of them getting together has goaded the BJP to accept Nitish as the chief minister.
However, it’s hard to decipher the “personal equations” between Lalu – bellicose and flamboyant, and Nitish – adept thinker and dexterous strategist.
Lalu-Nitish’s unique bond
Over the years, Nitish symbolised Lalu’s “brain” and Lalu symbolised Nitish’s “might”. Nitish was the happiest person when Lalu became chief minister against the wishes of Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1990. Their closeness became evident when reporters asked Lalu about his possible ministers, “Ye sab baat Nitish se poochho, mantriyon ka list-phist wah banat-e hain (Ask about these things to Nitish; he makes the list of ministers.)” And when Nitish was asked about the same, he said, “Selecting the ministers is the chief minister’s prerogative.”
Nitish was the main cog in Lalu’s missions – be it the arrest of L.K. Advani in 1991 or forcefully implementing the Mandal Commission.
Lalu, in fact, never denied Nitish’s contributions. In his memoir, Gopalganj to Raisina – My Political Journey, Lalu has twice expressed his gratitude to Nitish for helping him become the LDLP leader.
While Nitish helped Lalu in edging past the entrenched Socialist stalwarts, Lalu cemented the bond between the warring Kurmis and Yadavs in Barh-Nalanda regions to smoothen the pitch for Nitish, helping him to win the Barh Lok Sabha seat successively.
Reams have been written on the two leaders falling apart in the mid 1990s. Nitish formed his Samata Party which contested against Lalu’s Janata Dal and lost heavily in 1995. Nitish joined the BJP-led NDA and eventually replaced Lalu-Rabri regime in 2005. But the personal equation between Lalu and Nitish has always remained an enigma; they haven’t allowed a “third party” to operate in that space.
The Mahagathbandhan defeating the BJP in 2015 was not as stunning as Lalu and Nitish burying their 20-years-old hatchet, so suddenly. During the Vajpayee-Advani era, Nitish worked with the BJP high command with the help of “interlocutors” – Arun Jaitely, Sushil Modi, Sanjay Jha etc. Currently, he works with the Modi-Shah combination through Bhupendra Yadav.
No “interlocutors” between Lalu and Nitish
But neither Lalu nor Nitish required interlocutors when it came to forming the Mahagathbandhan in 2015. Admittedly, Lalu called Nitish after the RJD and JD(U) suffered at the hands of the BJP in 2014 and the alliance was firmed up. Such was the power of Lalu-Nitish combination that as many as six splinter groups of the old Janata Parivar, including the Samajwadi Party, moved on to reunite and revive the Janata Parivar.
For a moment it appeared that Lalu-Nitish combination would build a formidable alternative against the BJP at the national level. Due to in-house differences in the Samajwadi Party, it didn’t work but it inflicted a crushing blow to the BJP in Bihar.
Nitish left Lalu and went back to the BJP in 2017 again in an inexplicable manner as he had left him in 1995. Reports were doing the rounds in 2019 that Nitish was willing to join Lalu again. Lalu’s memoir co-authored with me says that election strategist Prashant Kishore met Lalu five times for the revival of Lalu-Nitish combination.
The grapevine has it that Lalu was not opposed to the idea but Tejashwi became the main hurdle. Perhaps, Tejashwi – young, ambitious and reasonably successful son of Lalu – is the first to come in the way of Lalu and Nitish in about 50 years of their political life. In a way, Tejashwi has “appropriated” the space that Nitish enjoyed in Lalu’s inner core of heart and mind over the years. And that might be the reason for Nitish’s loss of cool when he feels cornered by the BJP and is clueless about how to deal with Tejashwi – his brother-like friend’s son.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of Gopalganj to Raisina – My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s memoir. He has also authored The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.