Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In Bihar, a battle to become the pillar of power

For all their big-bull reputation on the national political stage, the closest Biharis have ever come to claiming prime ministership has been through a Punjabi: I.K. Gujral once contested the Patna Lok Sabha seat under Lalu Prasad’s tutelage and got a famously indigenous introduction to his rustic constituents.

“Padha-likha gujjar,” Lalu Prasad would call him, keen to ease local discomfort over the intellectual-outsider. “Padhe-likhe gujjar ko Gujral kehte hain.” (An educated gujjar is called Gujral.)

Gujral’s tryst with Bihar and Bihar’s with high office were both short-lived and both rather farcical. So farcical that Lalu Prasad himself joked upon it sardonically during the trust vote last July — “Who doesn’t want to become Prime Minister? I do too, but will someone let me?”

The only thing that looks like putting a Bihari into the top job at the moment is a quirk of fate, or of arithmetic, no less. But that serves as no deterrent to the enthusiasm for power among the contenders — it’s not about being crowned king in Delhi, you see, it’s about becoming chief kingmaker of the durbar.

In a state where politics comes far easily to people than their daily meal, the reasons for the elaborate campaign fuss and filibuster are lost on few.

Dolai, a shoeshine boy not yet 18, has no illusions about what the stampeding clamour around the “netaji” arrived from Delhi on platform one of Patna railway station means. “Dekh tamasha, dekh, PM Bihar ka nahin banega, lekin Bihar ke bina bhi nahin banega, jai ho, jai hoooooooo!” (Nobody from Bihar will become Prime Minister but nobody will become Prime Minister without Bihar’s support.)

It’s tough getting wiser than Dolai on the whys and wherefores of the frenetic scurry that Bihar is — choppers churning the skies north and south of the Ganges, SUV caravans barnstorming the countryside, the air thick with dust and dirty demagoguery.

Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi have had their tongues lashed by the Election Commission for lurid lapses; Ram Vilas Paswan is littering the trail with below-the-belt barbs on how poorly chief minister Nitish Kumar has treated his family; Nitish himself is hotfooting around in angry retort.

Too intense for a battle that is unlikely to deliver any of these men the top prize at the end of it? “Not at all,” says a Nitish aide who refuses to attach his name to a quote on future prospects. “This is about who will become the pillar of power, you win Bihar and you dictate terms, you lose and you get dictated. For Nitish, winning means many open roads; for Lalu Prasad and Paswan, it is about survival in the state itself.”

He wouldn’t be drawn into speculation on Nitish jumping allies post-poll and joining either the Congress-led UPA or the Left-led third front, but he did more than hint that no options were closed. “Nitishji himself has said he is with the NDA, but who can tell the future? Need I say more?”

On paper, the Bihar chief minister is spoilt for choices at the moment — he could be part of any power combination at the Centre.

Lalu Prasad and Paswan, well aware that they have rocked (though not broken) ties with the Congress over seat-sharing, are desperate to do well enough not to allow room to Nitish to replace them in the UPA or third front scheme. Paswan, analysts say, enjoys more options, having been part of a BJP government in the past, but Lalu Prasad’s choices are really limited — it’s bust for the time being if the NDA manages to grab power in Delhi.

Conceding seats to Paswan and snatching them away from the Congress were both prompted by Lalu Prasad’s desperate need to get enough numbers in the next Lok Sabha.

His alliance with Paswan — a far cry from their bitter bickering in the Assembly polls of 2005, when both suffered — is aimed at consolidating the Yadav-Muslim-Dalit vote. The rupture with the Congress — temporary, Lalu Prasad insists — is a gamble on the party not cutting much ice with the electorate, not enough to damage Lalu Prasad’s prospects anyhow.

Spurned, the Congress reacted with spite, determining to contest all 40 seats, even welcoming such a rowdy lot of RJD rebels as Sadhu Yadav (Lalu Prasad’s stormy brother-in-law) and murder-convict Pappu Yadav.

But Lalu Prasad may yet have counted wisely on the Congress tally not going too far beyond the three in the last Lok Sabha; the man who has made most news for the party in the state is a political rookie and small-screen comedian called Shekhar Suman. Any guess on who the state Congress chief is? Anil Sharma. Google him, but don’t be too sure you’ll find him listed.

On the other side of the spectrum is a man who lived — and chafed — many years under Lalu Prasad’s long shadow but has now leapt out and cast his own over the state: the workmanlike and adroit Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). Even critics and adversaries aren’t able to take grades on performance away from the chief minister who has made governance his plank.

The allegation that does stick, though, is that he is in “communal coalition” with the BJP; Lalu Prasad and Paswan have been hammering that point hard. Nitish is too hardboiled a politician not to know caste runs thicker than calibre in Bihar — the support of the BJP’s upper caste base is a critical addition to his extremely backward caste constituency.

But it is often evident Nitish is suffocating in his alliance with the BJP and is looking for a route out. He has wooed Muslims, ignoring the BJP’s displeasure and recently made it known he would not have Narendra Modi campaigning in the state.

Should the BJP sense alarm in that? And the Congress an opportunity? They probably both need to keep a keen eye. Nitish Kumar could be the difference between one Prime Minister and another. Lalu Prasad and Paswan would hope they are too.

1 comment:

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