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Can over-confidence trip Lalu Prasad?

Rasheeda Bhagat


The Railway Minister and RJD chief, Mr Lalu Prasad... If the RJD wins, it is because there is no credible opposition.

IT IS early days yet but the irrepressible chief of the Rashtriya Janata Party and Railway Minister, Mr Lalu Prasad, has given the nation a taste of the fireworks it can expect from the Bihar Assembly elections, to be held in three phases early next year.

Hardly had the ruckus over the Railway Minister's absence from Parliament immediately after the train accident in Punjab subsided, than Mr Lalu Prasad was in the eye of the storm. This time, he was caught on television camera distributing 100-rupee notes to slum-dwellers in Patna. And that too after the Election Commission had announced the election dates and the model Code of Conduct had come into effect.

Though the outrage of the National Democratic Alliance — particularly, the BJP — will not impress too many people, especially the scribes who have witnessed such scenes from all political parties from time immemorial, infuriating is the arrogance and the disdain with which Mr Lalu Prasad continues to flaunt accepted norms of democracy.

Bluster, swagger and flamboyance have been hallmark of his politics. All this has made him a colourful figure to report on/write about and, hence, he has managed to hog media headlines. His supporters will put out a long list of positive points on why Mr Lalu Prasad deserves a prominent place in India's political scene, because in a State like Bihar, which was for decades in the stranglehold of the zamindari classes and upper-caste supremacy, he is believed to have given a voice to the helpless and the voiceless.

It is thanks to the tremendous backing from his M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) supporters that the RJD strongman has managed to rule Bihar for nearly 15 years; sometimes riding on the wave of strategic alliances, and at others managing to scrape together a coalition government when allies had shied away before the polls. If there is one Indian politician who has defied the anti-incumbency mantra, it is Lalu, who has done this doggedly and repeatedly. While the administrative machinery in Bihar continues to rust, the RJD chief moves from one success to another.

But there comes a time when too much success spells the beginning of the end. The nation watched this happen with the previous NDA regime; the BJP-led coalition was so taken in by the "India Shining" campaign, that it failed to imagine that dark clouds could be gathering, in the shape of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. The NDA's entire campaign and, indeed, even its governance was conducted in a manner that took for granted its return to power. What happened when the results came out is history.

Anyway, the subject of this column is neither the BJP nor the NDA; it is Mr Lalu Prasad and his party. Political pundits and academicians in Bihar, while analysing the RJD strongman's prospects in the coming election, have started comparing him to the pre-general elections over-confident NDA.

"They had never imagined they could lose; but look at what happened. Similarly, Lalu is so sure that he will somehow manage to get the votes — either by terrorising or buying voters' patronage — that it doesn't even occur to him that the people of Bihar might vote decisively this time for a change in the State's ruling dispensation. Pride always leads to a fall; and this time it appears that the man at the receiving end will be the RD chief," says an academic in Patna.

He says what is infuriating the people in Bihar is that while the rest of India is changing and developing, Bihar continues to languish under bad governance, violence and under-development. "Many people feel that while once upon a time, it was the zamindari system that was plaguing the State and its people, today it is a feudal stranglehold of a different kind... a system where known offenders like Pappu Yadav and Mohammed Tasleemuddin continue to rule the roost." He adds that it was not only the Election Commission but also the people of Bihar who were not amused by the RJD chief's antics, including the organising of Lalu Express and Rabri Express — among the 18 special trains planned — to ferry people to the kisan-mazdoor RJD rally in Patna, since called off.

"When he and his wife rule Bihar, they behave as though the State is their fiefdom; now that he is the Railway Minister, he behaves as though the entire Railway network belongs to him, and the voters do not take kindly to such things," says the academic.

The Election Commission has taken serious note of Mr Lalu Prasad's currency distribution and filed an FIR against his party asking why its recognition should not be cancelled. Mr Lalu Prasad has been the first to back down, cancelling the December 23 rally. But, again, his swagger is disturbing; he has said this cancelled rally will be converted into a "victory rally" after his party wins the elections.

That is easier said than done. An important factor in these polls will be Mr Lalu Prasad's parting of ways with the Lok Jan Shakti Party's Ram Vilas Paswan, and it looks as though this time around it will really be an uphill battle for the RJD.

Though, for the time being, the war of words between Mr Lalu Prasad and Mr Paswan may have ended, following the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh's intervention, it is clear that the rift is so wide — Mr Paswan feels humiliated by the manner in which the RJD chief grabbed the Railway Ministry, originally reserved for him — that there is no way Mr Paswan will close ranks with Mr Lalu Prasad once again. And Mr Paswan's exit will be a big blow in terms of the Dalit votes.

As far as the Congress is concerned, it hardly has a presence in Bihar; it is facing the dilemma of the major party in a coalition government at the Centre. In order to keep the seat of power in Delhi, it has to play the second-fiddle to regional allies in the States.

Again, Mr Lalu Prasad, with typical arrogance, had offered it only four seats in the Lok Sabha elections; in the Assembly elections, the RJD initially offered the Congress a paltry 10 seats. When Congressmen expressed outrage at this, the RJD leaders challenged them to select "winnable" seats and then revert to them with a wish list. So the Congress, at best, will be an unenthusiastic ally in this election

Of course, the beleaguered BJP and the deeply divided Janata Dal (U) are sparing no effort to woo Mr Paswan to their camp. But the Dalit leader was not exactly treated like a VIP in the NDA, which he left after an extremely uncomfortable coexistence.

If Mr Lalu Prasad retains Bihar, it will be less due to muscle power and misuse of official machinery and more because there is no credible opposition against him. The BJP leader in Bihar, Mr Sushil Modi, is no match for the Lalu charisma, and the other alternative — Mr Shatrughan Sinha — will only bring in more bluster and bravado than any hope of good governance.

(Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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