Bihar: The new boys on the block

Smita Gupta | Updated on November 06, 2020

Generational shift: RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav (clockwise from bottom) has rapidly emerged as a mass leader, while LJP scion Chirag Paswan hopes to be a chief ministerial candidate by 2025; CM Nitish Kumar is fighting to stay relevant, while Kanhaiya Kumar is looking to make a quiet impact   -  ILLUSTRATION: PARTHA PRATIM SHARMA

Two young leaders have grabbed the centre stage in Bihar, signalling the decline of old heavyweights and advent of a new brand of politics

* Whether the elections throw up a surprise result on November 10 or not, what is evident is that they will mark an inflection point in the politics of Bihar

* Tejashwi Yadav has drawn frenzied crowds for the Rashtriya Janata Dal, reminiscent of the multitudes that his father, Lalu Prasad, once routinely attracted

* Chirag Paswan, who has inherited the leadership of the Lok Janshakti Party from his father the late Ram Vilas Paswan, has his sights set on a political career in Bihar

* Far from the spotlight, Kanhaiya Kumar, possibly better known nationally than the RJD and LJP scions, is struggling to clamber on to the same stage in his home state

The most striking images from the elections in Bihar hold portents for the things to come in the state. One set of images shows the supremely confident Tejashwi Yadav drawing frenzied crowds for the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), reminiscent of the multitudes that his father, Lalu Prasad, once routinely attracted.

The other set is of Chirag Paswan, who has inherited the leadership of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the mantle of his father, Ram Vilas. At 37, he is six years older to Yadav. His tonsured head — as he mourns for his father, who died last month — has not detracted from his movie-star good looks and flamboyant style as he, too, cuts a swathe through Bihar.

If Yadav has clearly emerged as a mass leader in a matter of weeks, Paswan, as a senior LJP leader puts it, hopes to be seen as one of the state’s chief ministerial candidates by 2025, when the next Assembly elections roll around. Yadav has already been deputy chief minister and is currently Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly. Two-time Lok Sabha MP Paswan’s sights are set on a political career in Bihar, not Delhi. He wants to use this election to be recognised as more than his father’s son, and use the next five years to build the party organisation from the panchayat level upwards.

Indeed, whether these elections throw up a surprise result on November 10 — as many are predicting — or not, what is evident is that they will mark an inflection point in the politics of Bihar. With the two young leaders now occupying centre stage, a new generation of politicians has arrived, and, possibly, a new brand of politics.

Meanwhile, a third star, possibly better known nationally than the RJD and LJP scions, is struggling to clamber on to the same stage in his home state. Far from the spotlight, Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, is quietly canvassing for the candidates of the Communist Party of India (CPI) [see box].

Yadav is the chief ministerial candidate of the mahagatbandhan or grand alliance that consists of the RJD, the Congress and the Left parties. Paswan is playing the Lone Ranger. The LJP recently pulled out of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but his relationship with its two major constituents — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) — is complicated. He remains unstinting in his praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even as he has fielded several former BJP leaders on the LJP symbol, candidates for whom the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are actively campaigning. But he uses every occasion to attack Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.


Old order changeth: Former chief minister Lalu Prasad (right) is languishing in jail on corruption charges, and is no longer in good health; while chief minister Nitish Kumar is a shadow of his former self   -  RANJEET KUMAR


For the three men who dominated the state’s politics for the last three decades, it is now the end of the road. Former chief minister Lalu Prasad is languishing in jail on corruption charges, and is no longer in good health. LJP leader Ram Vilas, who served six prime ministers as a Cabinet minister, is dead. And Nitish Kumar is a shadow of his former self, battling to retain his political relevance.

Instead of his acerbic wit, he has displayed bursts of ill-temper at election rallies. Little wonder that members of the audience at one rally shouted, “Lalu zindabad”, and, at another, threw a shower of onions at him. After 15 years in power, there are clear signs of Nitish fatigue in Bihar.

Pressing their advantage, the two inheritors — Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan — though in different camps, have trained their guns on him. Worse, the signals from Nitish Kumar’s alliance partner, the BJP, have been mixed, with one powerful section of the party’s Bihar unit actively opposing him.

“Tejashwi and Chirag may be going through an existential crisis but they will emerge from these elections as gainers,” predicts K Govindacharya, a one-time RSS pracharak and a former BJP national general secretary (organisation), who cut his teeth in politics in Bihar and emerged from the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement, of which Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas and Nitish Kumar were also a part.

Nitish Kumar, the right-wing ideologue tells BLink, faces an identity crisis. “Should he remain with the Hindutva forces and risk losing the goodwill he enjoys with those ideologically opposed to the BJP?”

Their election speeches make clear that both Yadav and Paswan are hoping not just to consolidate their family legacies but also add to them. Yadav has described his father’s years in power as the era of samajik nyay (social justice)”. His own task, however, will be to take that forward and work towards “aarthik nyay (economic justice)”, he stresses.

In the last 15 years of Nitish Kumar’s reign, there has been a sharp rupture in the votes of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), with the Yadavs pitted against the rest. The RJD leader wants to end that, as the RJD’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) base of 30 per cent is not enough to help him seize power. By talking of economic justice, he hopes to expand his party’s base to include everyone who is poor, most of whom are non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits, while blunting the hostility of the upper castes.

The young LJP leader, on his part, is not just addressing fellow Paswans, Bihar’s most powerful Dalit caste who account for 4 per cent of the vote. With his emphasis on development — he laments at public meetings that while other states have moved ahead, Bihar is still struggling to get decent roads and basic infrastructure — he, too, is addressing a larger audience that he hopes will bring his total in this election to over 12 per cent, an LJP leader states. His target is the upper castes, who are less hostile to the Dalits than they are to the OBCs — and for their support, he has fielded several upper caste candidates against the JD-U.

Simultaneously, both men are focusing on the youth vote, hoping that they will be able to slice through religious and caste barriers. Paswan’s Twitter handle — @YuvaBihariChiragPaswan — is a message in itself. But in the battle for the youth vote, Yadav has stolen a march on him. He has been drawing the largest gatherings of young people after he promised 10 lakh jobs if voted to power, thereby setting the agenda for this election.

This has struck a chord in a state ravaged not just by a pandemic and floods, but also an endemic lack of jobs that forces people to migrate to other states in search of employment. The lockdown in March this year forced around 32 lakh Biharis to return to their state under the most trying circumstances — only to be greeted by a hostile administration. Poverty compelled many among them to retrace their steps, despite the continuing dangers of the novel coronavirus. Yadav’s announcement was initially mocked by the BJP and JD-U leadership. But, later, the BJP scrambled to do one better by announcing that it would give 19 lakh jobs if the NDA returned to power.

If the BJP-JD-U alliance has targeted Yadav for his inexperience and the “jungleraj” that they claim his father had presided over, he has stayed on message, often sounding like the only adult in the room.

He responds in a dignified fashion, simply saying that while these two parties are busy “abusing” him, he is more concerned about creating a Naya Bihar — New Bihar. In his slogans, he underlines his agenda by rhyming padhai (education), dawai (health), kamai (employment) and sinchai (agriculture) with mehengai (high prices), sunwai (a hearing) and karvai (action).

The mahagatbandhan is not attacking Paswan. In fact, Yadav publicly condoled the death of the LJP founder and admonished Nitish Kumar for not commiserating with him. The BJP, on the other hand, has been taking swipes at Paswan, with Modi even referring to him and Yadav as the “two yuvrajs” in the electoral fray.


In a sense, the pathways to power that Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan have chosen have been determined by the trajectory of their fathers’ political careers.

Lalu Prasad may have shared the political stage with Ram Vilas and Nitish Kumar but his contribution to changing Bihar’s politics far outstrips that of the other two.

“Lalu’s contribution to changing Bihar’s politics is immense,” stresses Shambhu Srivastava, who began his political career in the CPI before doing the rounds of the many Janata Dal variants and a short stint in the Congress as well, and has seen all three men at close quarters. “As a pro-Mandal leader, he broke both the social and political status quo that had existed for centuries,” Srivastava, a medical doctor and Nitish Kumar’s former college roommate, says.

Power, he points out, had traditionally been in the hands of the upper castes — till Lalu Prasad won the 1990 election.

“Lalu skilfully used the Mandal Commission’s recommendations to connect the OBCs to state power. Karpoori Thakur [former chief minister] implemented the Mungheri Lal Commission’s recommendations and provided reservation, but the OBCs under him were receivers. Under Lalu, the OBCs became givers,” Srivastava adds. And since then, there has not been another upper caste chief minister in the state.

Unlike Thakur, who was also an OBC, Lalu Prasad was never a “pawn” in the hands of the upper castes, he says. “Lalu broke the upper castes’ stranglehold over politics and society,” he stresses.

Lalu Prasad’s failure lies in the fact that, thereafter, he got busy in the battle of the OBCs with Nitish Kumar, who represented the Kurmis, Kushwahas and Koeris.

This prevented the former RJD chief minister from taking the changes in society to the next level, spreading the advantages of political power and economic benefits among all those who had been deprived all these years — the OBCs and the Dalits. He believed he could remain in power without doing so, and famously said at the time: “Maine swarg nahin diya hain, magar maine swar diya hain (I may not have created a heaven, but I have given you a voice).”

It was Nitish Kumar who succeeded the Yadav husband-and-wife duo as chief minister, and in his 2005 election manifesto talked of an economic agenda and the creation of a category of EBCs — the poorer among the OBCs. He won that election and provided a 20 per cent quota for EBCs and 50 per cent for women in panchayats to bolster his slim 10 per cent vote base.

The first five years went well — he built roads, and his social alliance with upper castes helped him create a social equilibrium that immediately improved the law and order situation. This was reflected in the results of the 2010 elections. But then, observers believe, Nitish Kumar began to see himself as a prime ministerial candidate and lost his way.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, he broke with the BJP and his party was almost wiped out; a year later, he joined hands with the RJD and Congress, thus retaining the chief ministership. But in less than two years, he returned to the BJP fold — and added to the confusion about his political intentions and ideology.

End of an era: LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan (right), who served six prime ministers as a Cabinet minister, passed away last month   -  RANJEET KUMAR

Ram Vilas was both a tall leader and a competent one. When VP Singh led the Janata Dal, Ram Vilas’s organisational skills helped in the running of the party. But neither Lalu Prasad nor Nitish Kumar wanted him to grow in Bihar as it would signal the rise of Dalit politics, cutting short their own careers. It was also the period that saw the rise of Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party — and Ram Vilas decided that he would be better off in Delhi, heading a party of his own.

He shared a better relationship with Lalu Prasad, who was more accommodating, than with Nitish Kumar.

The breaking point with the latter came when, as chief minister, he divided the 23 Dalit communities into Dalits and Mahadalits — the Paswans were the Dalits, the 22 others were categorised as Mahadalits.

If Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan are both seen as targeting Nitish Kumar today, the answers lie in the past.

Yadav calls him Paltu Chacha (Somersault Uncle) because, after taking the RJD’s support in 2015 — incidentally in an election in which the RJD won more seats than the JD-U — Nitish Kumar ditched the alliance for the BJP. Paswan, too, wants to destroy Nitish Kumar politically because he believes the CM tried to do just that to his father by separating the Paswans from other Dalits in the state.

Indeed, it is only after the political demise of Nitish Kumar — if this election achieves that — that the two yuvrajs will take each other on for the next battle of Bihar.

Task cut out: Kanhaiya Kumar battles personal circumstances and the modest footprint of his party   -  RANJEET KUMAR

A learning curve

Of the three youth leaders of Bihar, Kanhaiya Kumar is arguably the mostly articulate and political — yet whose rise to fame has been the hardest. Unlike Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan, the 33-year-old Bhoomihar did not inherit a legacy. A PhD holder from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he grew up in a village in Bihar. His mother is an anganwadi worker and his father was a factory worker till his death some years ago.

Kumar had to crowd-fund his campaign when he fought for a Lok Sabha seat from Begusarai in 2019. Though a clutch of celebrities campaigned for him, the spadework was done by the local CPI, to which he belongs.

He lost the election. And now — four years after the then president of the JNU Students’ Union gained national notice on being charged with sedition for delivering politically charged speeches on campus — he has had to come down to earth.

“He should have understood that he would not be able to win an election merely with the help of old JNU friends and film stars such as Shabana Azmi and Swara Bhasker but would need the help of CPI workers to mobilise voters,” says a CPI source. The source adds that, initially, Kanhaiya was unwilling to bow down to the CPI discipline, but in the current Assembly elections, he has understood the importance of that — and is quietly campaigning for party candidates in the state.

“But in Bihar, he is not the hero of JNU who challenged the might of the State. He is just a Bhoomihar politician,” says a former JD-U leader.

But hear him speak and you know you are listening to something special: Indeed, in 2019, it was widely known that Lalu Prasad was not keen to help Kanhaiya as his support to him would have been at the expense of his son. “Once Kanhaiya emerged, Tejashwi would have had to take a backseat,” a senior RJD leader points out.

In the years to come, Kanhaiya will have to fight his personal circumstances and the modest footprint of his party, the CPI, to take on the challenge of Yadav and Paswan, who have both money and a solid party organisation behind them. For it is widely acknowledged that he has the potential to reach the top.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

Published on November 06, 2020

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