File image: RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav
Soon after the 1990 Bihar assembly elections, there was a three-way contest to elect Janata Dal’s Chief Minister. Prime Minister VP Singh backed Ram Sundar Das, his deputy Devi Lal and majority of the Young Turks — including Nitish Kumar and Raghuvansh Prasad — backed Lalu Prasad, while Chandra Shekhar angled for his protégé Raghunath Jha. Lalu got the backing of most legislators and the rest is history.
Contrary to public perception, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the Yadav chieftain, having to stave off multiple crises. Lalu emerged victorious again in 1995, with predominantly the backing of Muslims and Yadavs, but also other backward castes, after a storied tug-of-war with Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) TN Seshan.
Following an arrest warrant in the wake of the fodder scam in 1997, Lalu floated the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and passed on the Chief Minister’s mantle to wife Rabri Devi in an unprecedented move, spinning it as ‘women empowerment’.
The election in 2000 was a close shave, with Kumar getting a fleeting chance to occupy the Chief Minister’s chair, before resigning on the floor of the house, having failed to cobble up the numbers. Despite his diminishing popularity, Lalu’s grip on power was strong enough in 2005 to warrant a second successive election to finally consign his party to a defeat.
The RJD was routed in the 2009 general election, 2010 assembly election and again in the 2014 general election, soon after Kumar parted ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The formation of a ‘Maha Gathbandhan’ (Grand Alliance) in 2015 between the RJD, the Congress and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) saw the RJD getting another shot at power after a decade. Lalu nominated his younger son Tejashwi Yadav, then all of 26, as Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s deputy with his elder son Tej Pratap Yadav also making it to the council of ministers.
That alliance wouldn’t last beyond 18 months and Kumar was back with the BJP once again to rule Bihar till the end of his term, after inflicting the most devastating defeat of the RJD in the 2019 general election — a result attributed primarily to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
Turning his party into a family concern and poor governance record aside, Lalu’s diminishing returns at the hustings had to do with his social justice plank not resonating anymore. Moreover, Kumar had carved out the extremely backward classes (EBC) and the Mahadalits (all Dalit communities save the Paswans) with quotas within quotas and converted them into his vote bank mid-way through his first term. Lalu was left with just the Yadavs and Muslims. Even his Yadav vote base was being cleaved by Modi’s appeal, as reflected in the BJP’s performance in 2019.
Cut to October. An election that was being seen as a foregone conclusion suddenly turned competitive. Tejashwi Yadav, written off after the 2019 elections, has suddenly emerged as an alternative, tapping on the three-term anti-incumbency. Tejashwi Yadav’s carefully-charted out promise of million government jobs turned the tide. About a half of Bihar’s population is made up of youth who have no recollection of the ‘Jungle Raj’ evoked often these days by Kumar and, in Tejashwi Yadav they see someone who is young and holds out promise.
With his guaranteeing a million government jobs, Tejashwi Yadav has also succeeded in turning the focus of the election to bread-and-butter issues. Unemployment has become a running theme in this poll with even the BJP coming up with a knee-jerk manifesto promise of 1.9 million jobs to counter the RJD.
Although caste is always a factor in Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav is looking beyond the traditional Muslim-Yadav vote base of the RJD by speaking about ‘economic justice’, a clear departure from the (now empty) slogan of social justice. Tejashwi Yadav had seen how the RJD’s opposition to the BJP’s 10 percent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) on the eve of the 2019 elections backfired on the party.
While opinion polls continue to predict a win for the JD(U)-BJP combine, the massive crowds in Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies suggest a momentum shift. Whether that momentum would be good enough to carry the RJD-led alliance is moot. Yet, Kumar’s increasingly personal attacks on Tejashwi Yadav suggest that the latter has got under the skin of the Chief Minister. Tejashwi Yadav gives the air of someone firmly in control of proceedings and continues to set the agenda.
Even as Lalu’s absence from the field for the first time in an election in three decades was supposed to dent the RJD’s campaign, Tejashwi Yadav has successfully managed to cast the RJD in his own image and the party’s hoardings bear only his picture. As Lalu’s chosen one, Tejashwi Yadav is seen to be backed by elder siblings Misa Bharti and Tej Pratap Yadav, despite murmurs of disquiet within the family following the general election.
There are many factors at play in this polls including Lok Janashakti Party’s Chirag Paswan as the ‘X factor’, but whatever the result, it will be marked as Tejashwi Yadav’s coming-of-age election and, if he does emerge victorious, he will become India’s youngest Chief Minister at 31 beating Assam’s Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.