After Lalu, who?
By Santwana Bhattacharya and Ajay Kumar | Express News Service
Published: 06th Oct 2013 07:45:34 AM
Bihar’s first family and the party it controls is experiencing subterranean seismic disturbances after its patriarch and mentor Lalu Prasad was sent to jail for corruption in the Fodder Scam. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s jovial, paan chewing, Santa-cheeked leader with the famous white thatch of hair has been sentenced for a five-year term and banned from contesting elections for 11 years. This has put both the party and the family in a quandary. If sources are to be believed, a succession war is already on in the party and even the family.
The main protagonists are Lalu’s better half and former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, her two sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap and a section of senior leaders who would like to be in the captain’s cabin, reluctant to serve under either of the two young men or their mother. But there are no indications that Rabri is in any mood to take a backseat unless it is to drive the party. When the RJD holds its emergency meeting on Sunday, Rabri will be in the presiding chair. The venue is significant—10, Circular Road, Patna, her official residence. Last week, Rabri Devi asked the media, “Tell me, in which party there is no dynastic rule?”
This may not be an indication of how the post-Lalu leadership issue may pan out. Rabri, the more prominent failed cricketer Tejaswi—who already is showing the signs of a winner—and his older sibling Tej Pratap and senior party leaders are vying for practical control of the daily affairs in the RJD in Lalu’s absence, though he has the final word, even as he reads the Bhagvad Gita in prison.
The pulls and pressures, subtle and not-so-subtle, are in marked contrast to the last time Lalu went to jail, in 1997. “A lot of water has flowed down the Ganga ghat since then,” says a senior RJD leader, pointing to an altered political reality.
The family is facing some opposition to the regency model that was used last time without any questions being asked. But it is wary of ceding even a little ground to the senior leadership. Sources close to the senior leadership say that slight cracks have appeared in the family itself as to who in the Yadav GenNext will be in charge. The mother supports the elder son, and the younger one is clearly Lalu’s favourite.
The conviction of RJD chief Lalu Prasad has set off a war of succession within his party and family. While Lalu himself wants his failed cricketer son Tejaswi to take charge while he is behind bars, his wife Rabri Devi is for elder son Tej Pratap taking over the helm.
On Rabri’s pronouncement that she and her elder son will run the party, senior RJD leader and Lok Sabha MP Raghuvansh Prasad Singh says indulgently: “Unko jo pasand hai bolta hai (she says things according to her likes). We have to think of the political reality also.”
There are many who are advancing arguments to back their claim. Says Ram Kripal Yadav, RJD leader and Rajya Sabha MP: “Rabri Devi has been our CM once. Lalu is our leader and will continue to be so. But Rabri, as his wife, can go to the people to expose the conspiracy against Lalu,” implying that she can tap into a sympathy vote. The senior RJD leadership does not want a repeat of 1997 before a crucial general election, which is a do-or-die battle for Lalu and the party. They want the RJD to be run on a collegiate model of leadership with Rabri as the campaign face and Lalu a phone call away in Birsa Munda Jail.
Raghuvansh would have been a natural contender except for the fact that he is a Rajput in an OBC party. His stint as Union Rural Development Minister saw the successful rollout of MGNREGA, and he would have liked to be the standby for Lalu in his absence. Quite suggestively, he said after the conviction, “We are all Lalu. All workers of RJD are kings.”
This does not, however, mean that there will be any open rebellion against Rabri at the meeting on Sunday. The senior leaders are well aware that everyone has to work together at this crucial hour. The two things on the agenda are exploring legal relief for Lalu and a solemnisation of the role of Rabri and sons.
On the legal front, if Lalu’s lawyers are to be believed, he will be out of jail sooner rather than later. “Unlike what our rivals and the media are putting out, he is not one of the main accused in this case, and it’s not a criminal charge either,” says a party man. RJD leaders expect their boss would be out on parole in two months and take charge of the 2014 election campaign. The best case scenario for the RJD is a stay on the conviction in a higher court, which would enable Lalu to get back his Lok Sabha membership, contest the election and hit the campaign trail crying conspiracy.
Tejaswi is genuinely hopeful. “My father has always cooperated with the judicial process and he’s the one who ordered the probe, so we are certain of getting relief from the higher court,” he said outside Birsa Munda Jail. Tejaswi is, at the moment, acting as Lalu’s personal spokesman. The 24-year-old may not have been a success at the crease, but has seemingly shown enough spark on the political pitch for the father to want him as his heir apparent, aka Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi.
Rabri is not entirely comfortable with this. She would prefer herself in charge, along with the better educated Tej Pratap, who handles the RJD’s finances but has no contact with cadres or voters. Insiders say Rabri is nervous about a possible scenario in which Lalu is out of the frame for long and second-rung leaders take control using the inexperienced Tejaswi as a front, leaving the family high and dry.
Tejaswi’s appeal lies primarily in the promise that he may be able to attract a new vote bank in a state where youth constitute 65 per cent of the population and a huge chunk of first-time voters will choose candidates in 2014, says a retired bureaucrat from Bihar.
Unlike Tej Pratap, Tejaswi has been involved in grassroots programmes and Lalu sees a reflection of his own as a mass leader in him. Tej Pratap’s only recent political activity is campaigning in support of the Parivartan rally in different parts of the state. Earlier, Lalu and he had campaigned together before the parliamentary elections. But it is Tejaswi who controls the RJD youth wing and has covered 20 districts in the state as part of his political activities. Before going to jail, sources say, Lalu made a promise to Tejaswi that 50 per cent tickets would be given to the youth, in other words people hand-picked by Tejaswi. Lalu’s favourite daughter Misa Bharati was reportedly his first choice; she has thrown her hat in the political ring too. Half the conflict in the party may be over this.
RJD sources say despite his inexperience and the misgivings of other leaders and even of his own mother, Lalu’s backing may see Tejaswi through. There could also be a compromise formula of Rabri sharing the responsibility. In his own coy way, Tejaswi too has spoken of a “collective leadership”.
Ambitious second-rung leaders, who would want to have some say in the running of the party, and not hand it over entirely to the family, are watching the internal family drama closely. Keeping Raghuvansh company are Buxar MP Jagadanand Singh, Maharajganj MP Prabhunath Singh, former deputy speaker Shakuni Choudhary (a five-time MLA) and old-timer Abdul Bari Siddiqui, who was leader of the Opposition in the assembly till the BJP split from Nitish and claimed the post. Of the five, Shakuni has been making statements that would never have been uttered if Lalu had been around. He has openly questioned if Tejaswi can be projected as party leader, so can his son Samrat Chandra Moura. (An MLA from Parbatta, Khagaria district, Moura enjoys the hapless distinction of having lost his ministership after being found underage in 1999).
The need to retain these ambitious leaders and yet avoid fragmentation of the party is as much of a challenge to the imprisoned Lalu as retaining the Muslim-Yadav vote bank whose claims cannot be ignored. Already, Choudhary and Siddiqui have been approached by JD(U) led by Nitish Kumar. Lalu who came to power riding the anti-upper caste vote after Mandal mostly has Rajputs in the second-rung leadership, and they cannot conceivably be the face of a Yadav-centric poll campaign.
At the same time, 2013 is not 1997. The negative impact of handing over the gaddi to a political novice wife is still fresh in the minds of the people of Bihar. This time, there is no power to hand over though; only the party. The RJD has been out of power in Bihar for nearly a decade. And even at the Centre, it is only an outside supporter with no portfolio to prop up its prospects in the state.