Hunger is writ large on Tejashwi Yadav’s face as he swiftly uses his fork to dig into a bowl of chow mein and manchurian gravy. Do paranthe kha ke nikle the, bhai (Had just two paranthas before stepping out [for the day]), he says. It’s 7 pm and Tejashwi has just returned to 10, Circular Road, mother Rabri Devi’s official residence in Patna, after addressing four public meetings in Khagaria, Madhepura and Madhubani districts. With father and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad in judicial custody, following conviction in the fodder scam, and Rabri Devi stepping back, Tejashwi is the man in the RJD hot seat.
The Lalu Factor
The younger of Lalu’s two sons, 29-year-old Tejashwi knows he has big shoes to fill. The 2019 Lok Sabha contest is the RJD’s first major electoral campaign without Lalu at the helm. That RJD will be missing his political acumen, charisma and oratory skills is an understatement. Though Lalu’s parliamentary career ended in September 2013 when his first conviction in the fodder scam cost him his Lok Sabha membership, besides rendering him ineligible to contest elections, he has remained a political force with an extraordinary connect with Bihar’s masses. Out on bail, Lalu had campaigned for the RJD in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2015 assembly election. Lalu Prasad is a crafty campaigner who can read the voters’ pulse and swing the fence-sitters in his favour, says an RJD leader. He has always been a great consolidator.
But to Tejashwi’s credit, he has silenced those who questioned his eligibility for the RJD mantle after Lalu went to jail in December 2017. Since then, Tejashwi, who is leader of the opposition in the Bihar assembly, has maintained his party’s winning streak. Since July 2017, when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) left the mahagathbandhan and joined hands with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the RJD has won three byelections in the statethe Jokihat and Jehanabad assembly seats and the Araria Lok Sabha seat.
A Leader Is Born
As a politician, Tejashwi’s ability to connect with the people is apparent. At a public meeting in Jamui, where voting was held on April 11, he called a boy from the audience on stage and asked him, Tender jaante ho? Financial bid kya hota hai? Noticing the boy’s bewilderment, Tejashwi turned to the crowd. I was of the same age. Tell me, can a 10-12-year-old know what a tender is? Still, the CBI filed a case accusing me of irregularities in railway tenders, he said. An outbreak of support from the audience followed. Tejashwi had made his point.
But it is still a baptism by fire for him. Unlike 2014, when the NDA, RJD-Congress and JD(U)-CPI (Communist Party of India) were pitted against each other, this election finds the RJD-led alliance locked in a bipolar contest with the NDA, consisting of the BJP, JD(U) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). The RJD’s five-party grand alliance in Bihar is in partnership with the Congress, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rastriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP).While the RJD’s core Muslim-Yadav base, which constitutes roughly 31 per cent of Bihar’s population, may have proven decisive in multi-pronged contests, it may not be sufficient in a two-cornered fight.
Tejashwi also has chinks in his own armour, with elder brother Tej Pratap embarrassing the RJD by often speaking out against the leadership and the party’s candidates. The buzz is that, fed up of playing second fiddle to Tejashwi, Tej Pratap played into the hands of their maternal uncle, Sadhu Yadav. Tejashwi has tried to limit the damage and project normalcy. He called on Tej Pratap on his birthday on April 16 and sought to raise the stakes by describing the Lok Sabha election as a bigger battle for democracy.
The BJP is dismissive of Tejashwi’s capability to steer the RJD ship. Despite his best efforts, Tejashwi Yadav is not Lalu Prasad, says a senior BJP leader in Patna. He cites Tejashwi’s campaign against the 10 per cent jobs-education quota announced by the Modi government for the economically backward in the general category. The campaign, apparently initiated at Lalu’s prodding, also demanded an increase in the existing quota for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). To many, the issue was a lost opportunity to consolidate the RJD’s social base. Lalu would have milked it to create a backward-forward caste divide. Tejashwi appears to have lost steam midway, says the BJP leader.
Another BJP leader, though, concedes that Lalu’s absence could be a double-edged sword for the rivals. There is a strong possibility that Lalu’s supporters vote with a vengeance out of sympathy, he says. The RJD realises the potentialRabri Devi has issued a video message alleging a BJP conspiracy to poison the RJD chief in judicial custody while Tejashwi has called the Jharkhand jail administration’s ban on visitors for Lalu as inhuman.
The Yadavs, with their various sub-castes, are the single-largest caste group in Bihar and make up nearly 14 per cent of the population. They propelled Lalu to electoral prominence in 1990 when he first became Bihar’s chief minister. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a fraction of the Yadav youth had voted for the BJP. But riding on the Yadav vote bank, Lalu bounced back to power in 2015, bagging over 44 per cent votes in the seats contested by the RJD. Analysts expect this consolidation to remain intact in 2019. Along with Muslims, who are roughly 17 per cent of the population, Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav combination packs a punch. For comparison, the RJD-Congress vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was 29 per cent.
The Extremely Backward Castes, or EBCs, who are roughly 30 per cent of the population, have been decisively voting for Nitish since his 2006 decision to reserve 20 per cent panchayat seats for them. Once the fiefdom of the upper castes and dominant backward castes, the state’s panchayats are now considered as seats of EBC power. EBCs have been instrumental in Nitish’s wins in the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2010 and 2015 assembly elections.
However, by weaning away Manjhi and Kushwaha from the NDA and inducting the VIP, Tejashwi hopes to nose ahead of the NDA. The Kushwahas (7 per cent votes) are considered the largest non-Yadav entity among the OBCs. Similarly, Manjhi is expected to deliver the Dalit votes, including the 4 per cent Mushahar vote, and Sahni is expected to bring in the Mallah votes to the grand alliance. Tejashwi may have reason to smile, but will he have the last laugh on May 23?