Or, why the chief minister is headed for drastic diminishment even if he were to secure a record fourth term
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has become the hare of the Bihar campaign, the BJP its hound. The two are running together; it doesn’t test imagination to tell how hare and hound tandems usually end.
Bihar has turned into a teeming melee, thick with the kicked-up dust of battle that defies clear deciphering, just as it also defies cognition of a rampant and killer pandemic.
But the verdict on Nitish Kumar already lies inscribed in bold letters on the unintelligible skirmishing for Bihar’s honours: he is headed to drastic diminishment. Should Nitish manage to secure — as Union home minister Amit Shah has publicly promised — a record fourth term as chief minister, it will be as chosen bunny of the BJP.
The Nitish who used to dictate terms to the BJP is long history; the Nitish now in the making — or unmaking — is one who will take dictation. Amit Shah’s guarantee on Nitish becoming chief minister again “regardless” of who gets how many in the alliance must be read as just that — a chief minister on Amit Shah’s guarantee, an office granted at his pleasure.
The one clear message ringing out from Bihar is that Nitish’s public image has nosedived — “sushasan babu” has become a thing of ridicule. He has been mocked and taunted during election outings, angrily motioned to go back where he came from, called, among other things, a “chor”.
Revisiting the consequences of Laloo Yadav’s absence from the Bihar’s battlefield
Tejashwi’s anointment as leader of Bihar’s Opposition gathbandhan in the approaching elections must be music to the ears of the rule NDA
Zero. It has never been this bad; it cannot get any worse.
Or it probably still can.
It is one thing for Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to have drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha this summer; it is quite another for him to have nobody around to take that blank and build on it. The party, as it used to be under Lalu’s helmsmanship, is over. Bihar’s once fabled and formidable House of Yadu has become the shape of a pack of cards tumbled upon itself.
Here’s what fragments of a clan in collapse can look like up close. The confetti of serial abuse of power and public office floating about the defeated air; there are bills to be paid yet, and someone will come knocking. The unseemly rites of a turbulent son’s ruptured marriage playing out on the doorstep. Spewing from within, grim tales of competing grouses and internecine family feuding — son versus son, daughter versus mother, sister versus brother; in the absence of the arraigned father, there’s nothing to quell the quarrelling over what may remain. The man he left behind in charge having also skipped station. There’s nobody around to pick up the pieces.
The Bihar Assembly came into session this Friday. Tejashwi, who leads the Opposition benches, wasn’t there. There were rumours he’d turn up, but they turned out to be rumours. Tejashwi Yadav has been gone from the scene a long and inexplicable while. So long and so inexplicable that his own ranks have begun to wonder if he’s interested in his bequeathed job. So long and so inexplicable that Lalu no longer bothers with worrying, what would be the point? He is 71 and ill. He is incarcerated on a medley of corruption convictions and charges in Jharkhand. The circumstances of his coiled labyrinth allow him to do so much and no more. Tejashwi has stopped to heed his command. Where is Tejashwi? In Delhi. Probably. But he will come. Oh look, he has already tweeted a long distance hello to “My dear Bihar!” on the plea of orthopaedic treatment that nobody hitherto knew of. Bihar should rest assured.
Lalu wanted Tejashwi to stay on the deck and take the storm, like he himself had often done in the past. Tejashwi was in such a rush to get away, he did not wait to cast his vote this election. Tejashwi was not drawn to the hollering tragedy of 130-odd children snuffed out by encephalitis in Muzaffarpur. Tejashwi did not arrive to lead his flock in an Assembly that faces re-election just next year. Tejashwi has been gone from Patna a whole month. Tejashwi is Lalu’s chosen mantle-bearer. Such as that mantle is; it has zero freshly inscribed on it.
Political obituaries can turn treacherous on their authors. When they are about someone like Lalu, feisty and defiant through his roller-coaster life, they can turn and sting too.
This is not a political obituary. This is a Doctrine of Lapse notification. Lalu has a legacy, but those he entrusted it to have bungled it. The entity central to Bihar’s politics for three decades is tearing out like a meteor in tailspin.
This is the first election of his political career that Lalu stood barred from turning up to campaign; this is not the first time he has lost, but this is the first time the RJD can hear what death-rattle sounds like.
Consider this: Based on the Lok Sabha results — a stunning 39 out of 40 for the NDA — the RJD managed to win a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. Tej Pratap, Lalu’s elder and maverick son, lost the Mahua seat by more than 10,000 votes.
Tejashwi held on to Raghopur by its membranes, barely 200-odd votes. Misa, the eldest of Lalu’s children, lost the Yadav borough of Patliputra a second time running, bested once again by Ram Kripal Yadav, once Lalu’s trusted protégé.
Everything suggests a daylight heist on the Yadav vote which once kept Lalu securely banked in power. 2014 was probably the first sign Narendra Modi had disrupted traditional voter behaviour and snatched away a section of Yadav loyalty from Lalu. 2019 is resounding confirmation of not merely a drift away from Lalu but of a new polarisation behind the BJP and its Bihar allies. Nearly 40 per cent of the Yadav vote has shifted base; there is little to suggest on the ground that number will not mount. The RJD has been turfed out across its traditional Yadav strongholds — from Madhepura and Saharsa, from Saran and Siwan and Sonepur, from Maharajganj and Gopalgunj, from Danapur and Maner which, for decades was quite literally the family’s personal backyard. “Laluji ke bina ab kya raha?” asks Jitender Singh, an avowed Lalu loyalist and apologist, “Kuchh bhi kahiye, Laluji neta thhe, ab kaun raha?” (What’s left after Lalu? Say what you will, Lalu was a leader, who’s left?) We are at a tea shack in Maner, about 30 kilometres west of Patna. Jitender can’t stop ruing what’s happened and what’s to come. “I feel for Laluji, I am committed, but look at his children. Why did Misa have to contest the Lok Sabha when she is already in the Rajya Sabha. She is laalchi, greedy. Tej Pratap is a vagrant, nobody knows what he is up to. Tejashwi makes no effort at communicating, spending time with people. They control the party, but nobody has a clue what they are doing or what they have in mind. Kya future hoga?” The anger and the unease is palpable. It can no longer be called a crack in the RJD voter base, it is more akin to a sundering. “Lalu’s party minus Lalu looks like a wipeout,” a senior RJD leader and Lalu’s contemporary says, “Tejashwi and his ranks have failed to deliver, the party is nervous, its faith lies shattered, we are in a mess.”
The good news for Narendra Modi just refuses to ebb, it oozes like the viscous sweetness of summer fruit. May 23 was breathtaking beyond expectation, a second-term endorsement that rendered the parliamentary polls almost presidential. What has followed that spectacular turn at the ballot is a high-calorie spectacle of sheer and unbelievable delight for the prime minister. It has come to be revealed that Modi had not merely won an election, he had also acquired a loyal and obliging Opposition, an Opposition keen to give the truth to his every prognosis and prophecy.
Mahamilavat, Modi called the effort to build collective electoral fronts against him. And so it has turned out. A bunch of opportunists with no objective or narrative other than to pull him out of office, he called them. And so it has turned out. Outmoded dynasts deluded on priority and entitlement to power, he repeatedly railed. And so it has turned out. The Opposition is daily mimicking what Modi called it out to be.
The boldest bid this summer to stymie Modi’s run on a second term — the unlikely tie-up of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Mahagathbandhan, so called — has swiftly collapsed under the burdens of defeat, and become quite what Modi christened it:
‘Thugbandhan’. Bua (Mayawati) and bhanja (Akhilesh Yadav) have terminated what they briefly attempted to pitch as a heart-warming kinship and returned to default practices — blame-gaming, vituperation, renewed oaths of separation. If power isn’t the prize, what are we on stage for together? It’s curtains. Mayawati has solemnly declared, yet again, she’ll go it alone. Akhilesh, never the one to display open disregard for Buaji’s wishes, has gone off to London. It’s a summer destination he usually makes it to; the dates happen to coincide with his birthday.
In neighbouring Bihar, the turn has been slightly more bizarre. It just happens that Tejashwi Yadav, anointed scion of Lalu Prasad and lead act of the challenge to the National Democratic Alliance, was so disinterested in helming the show that he did not stay back in Patna even to cast his ballot. He saw through the campaign, but felt so weary of chopper-stopping at the end of it, so requiring of things that B-towns like Patna cannot provide, that he begged off. He returned briefly to survey the size of wounds he must now lick — it was all wound for his Rashtriya Janata Dal scored a first-time duck — and vanished again. Last heard, he was still promising a return via social media missives fired from undisclosed locales. One party elder issued a stupefying response to questions on where Tejashwi had vanished. ‘You voted Modi and you want to seek out Tejashwi?’ There. No review of what went wrong where or how, no assurance to the ranks that this coma could be temporary and critical care is on the way. Bihar goes to the polls next year; on the basis of what happened in the Lok Sabha polls, Tejashwi’s party tallied a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member House. His legislators cannot be blamed for wondering if their future is secure under the Tejashwi umbrella, wherever it is that it currently lies pitched.
There’s a third son, the biggest, the eldest of them; he can be no stranger to the other two, they’ve all played power-power together at different times, though it can be doubted that they are able to look back on their tandems with any cheer. Rahul Gandhi, Congress president-in-resignation, is most certainly not in the mood. Not even the mandatory summertime jaunt to England, or thereabouts, has helped. He’s been playing Quits and not doing terribly well even at this from the looks of it. It has been a month since he put in his papers, but it would appear that his letter did not have a receiver’s stamp and signature. Might actually be worth a ponder, while the shenanigan drags on, who Congress presidents resign to. And who do Congresspeople resign to when the Congress president is in extended resignation mode? That too is a question worth a ponder because over the past couple of weeks a fair few resignations, or offers of resignation, lie piled at the door of the would-be former Congress president. This at a time when positions to resign from in the Congress are getting fewer and fewer.
Has any sense emanated from the Congress on what it thinks went so terribly wrong? On why nothing of what the leadership did seemed to resonate with the electorate? Any diagnosis of this debacle which, in real terms, is far worse than how the Congress fared in 2014? No. At least not yet.
What has emanated in dribs and drabs are such things: Priyanka Gandhi, party general- secretary in charge of east UP, made one trip to the truncated family borough in the vicinity of Rae Bareli-Amethi and unleashed an accusatory finger at party workers. Inspired leaks set the blame for bloated pre-poll Congress ambitions on Praveen Chakravarty, head of the party’s data cell. The shadow boxing between old courtiers and the new set is still playing out. The one-upmanship between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot has been resumed in Rajasthan. Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu press on with their theatre. There are uneasy murmurs rising from the party in Maharashtra. The coalition government in Karnataka is tottering on the brink. Another set of elections looms. Nobody seems to be able to arrange a Rajya Sabha renewal for Manmohan Singh. Who’s minding the floor? Sonia Gandhi took on the job of chairing the Congress parliamentary party, but for some reason, Rahul Gandhi did not want to move up the benches and shoulder the responsibility of party leader in the Lok Sabha. Suddenly, he wants to be party MP from Wayanad, no more. And the party is lapsed into its all-too-familiar posture, prostrated at his retreating feet. Whereas it should have been at the barricades, fighting the battles it must fight. But then, a house in deep disorder must first fight to set itself right.
Meanwhile, in the five weeks that have gone since May 23, Modi has put in place a new government, appointed a new working president for his party, announced a new, expanded membership drive, re-jigged his Twitter handle and profile picture, reordered and upscaled the office around him, cleared necessary appointments at the top of the bureaucracy, addressed Parliament twice (if not more times), hosted an array of foreign dignitaries, made multiple visits abroad, posed in a Kyrgyz choga and hat, inaugurated a bromance with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, guffawed with Donald Trump, been cold to Pakistan’s Imran Khan, convened meetings of the cabinet and chief ministers, confabulated with current and potential allies, extended governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, relentlessly assaulted his political adversaries, as if he were facing an election and not just triumphed in one. Last Sunday, he also resumed ‘Mann ki Baat’, his version of the fireside address to the nation. It was about water. The Opposition, if indeed there is one out there, needs it dearly.