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Don't dismiss Laloo just yet

By Sanjeer Alam
May 11, 2009 09:30 IST
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The Bihar results this election are expected to deliver a resounding defeat to the leader who has dominated that state's politics for over two decades, Laloo Prasad Yadav. Or will it? Sanjeer Alam, who works with Lokniti, Delhi, explains it may be unwise to write off Laloo just yet.

The politics in Bihar has long been centered on identity politics. The main political actors have relied on caste-community alliance as a means of political mobilisation.

However, ground reports as well as political watchers seem to indicate that the political strategy of caste-community alliance has played itself out. People are up for development in the state initiated by the present National Democratic Alliance regime in the state.

If the indications get it right (when the results are out on May 16), the politics in the state is bound take a new turn within a short span of time. And here is why.

The result of the 2009 Lok Sabha election is going to have an important bearing on the course of politics in the state. In the first place, it will endorse or negate the political strategy of the two major alliances -- the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janshakti Party and the Janata Dal-United-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.

If the RJD repeats its electoral performance of 2004 Lok Sabha or performs not so badly, it will get a fresh lease of life. On the other hand, if it performs badly, it is likely to suffer huge collateral damage.

Continuous poll debacles will undoubtedly have a demoralising effect among committed party supporters at the grassroot level and the party runs the risk of a split. Recent development within the RJD gives enough signals to this danger.

However, what invites a serious discussion is the question: How far will the depletion of the RJD alter the contours of politics in the state? If the RJD-LJP alliance dwindles, which party will occupy the space of the Opposition? There are many who believe that the Congress is experiencing some kind of resurgence.

The Congress decision to go alone in the fray was largely based on this premise. However, it is anything but a remote possibility. As things stand today, it is a rag tag organisation and has a long way to go before setting its house in order in Bihar.

The second possibility is that with the RJD's Laloo Prasad Yadav in oblivion, a variant of the RJD will emerge out from the ashes of the parent organisation. The new leadership will reinvigorate the party and turn the wheel back. But this too does not seem to be a viable proposition because the party is marked by absence of second rung leaders, who could recover the party's lost ground.

The third possibility is that the JD-U–BJP alliance splits like Orissa. The loss of the RJD is obviously the gain of the JD-U-BJP alliance. With a growing political base, the BJP would be increasingly assertive and demanding. It might lead Nitish Kumar, the JD-U leader and chief minister of Bihar, to snap ties with the BJP.

If this happens, the politics of development/governance is much likely to die out before it takes off and the politics in the state will return to the basics, that is, re-forging social alliances as a means of political mobilisation.

Having said that, it must be noted that neither is Laloo Prasad is a spent force, nor can his brand of politics be easily dismissed.

The RJD-LJP combine may do better than what political watchers expect. There are reasons for it.

While it is true that the overall situation worsened and the state got deeper into the quagmire of backwardness during the RJD regime, yet the party bags many credits for bringing about a fundamental change in Bihar's society and politics as well.

In the first place, the RJD regime headed by Laloo Prasad brought about political reconfiguration in the state not only in terms of party politics but also of the political class and power elites as well.

The political hegemony of the upper castes was brought to an end. The Other Backward Classes replaced the upper castes in the corridors of political power. Other marginalised communities also have had their share in power.

Secondly, the regime dismantled the patron-client system of voting in which the rayots (tenants) and near bonded labourers (mostly Dalits) had to vote to the call of their masters (mostly forward caste landlords).

The breakdown of this system undoubtedly brought about political freedom to a large section of people, though they continued to stand on the fringe.

This political emancipation of the lower castes and the Dalits may be described as 'tokenism' or 'symbolism', but it is hard to deny that once they became able to cast their vote against the will of their masters, they were free from several constraints and able to assert themselves with self-respect and dignity.

Besides, Laloo kept the state away from communal riots, which were a recurring phenomenon during the Congress regime. Undisputedly, the security of life and property happen to be the major concerns for the minorities, poor and marginalised castes. Other priorities like electricity, roads and drinking water are secondary.

Laloo's climatic moments in politics might have vanished, but he continues to be the symbol of power and pride for the Yadavs. He is also the undisputed leader of Muslims because it is widely perceived in the community that there is no alternative to Laloo. The Congress stands in disarray and there is no glimmer of hope for the party in the near future in Bihar.

Nitish Kumar is seen as a good leader and the Muslims have no grudges against him, but he is hamstrung by his alliance with the BJP. The Muslims might not vote for the JD-U in a big way, at least in the Lok Sabha election, because it would indirectly help the BJP.

Hence, Muslims have no option but to fall back on the Laloo-Ram Vilas Paswan alliance. With LJ leader Paswan alongside him, Laloo might be benefited from the aggregation of Dalit votes.

Apparently, the support base of RJD constitutes about 47 percent of the total population in Bihar (Yadavs 14 percent; Muslims 17 percent and Dalits 16 percent).

In the past Laloo Prasad has defied all speculators who tended to write him off. He may again prove his critics wrong.

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Sanjeer Alam