If Raghuvansh Prasad Singh joins Nitish, there is no hope left for the Opposition in the Bihar polls
There is no doubt that Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav changed the political discourse in India by carving electoral worth for the backward castes and empowering them enough to dictate the course of the coalition era. He worked the ground, picked up the people’s pulse and cleverly used his rustic charm to become a cult phenomenon. Yet much of his acceptability in the intellectual space has got to be credited to Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who has been his loyal lieutenant since the 1980s, an upper caste inclusion in the early years of the movement. He is said to have crafted India’s biggest welfare programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of 2005, which continues to be the one bright spot of the Congress-led UPA-1 Government and has a legacy strong enough to survive regime changes. And for all his commitment to Lalu, he wasn’t a blind courtier, quick to point out his leader’s flaws in public and force him into course-correction. For the persona that he is, Lalu, too, didn’t mind such criticism, knowing it was well-meant. And so the duo continued as each other’s sounding board for years together. Singh, who was feted by the Congress for his welfarist models and was even invited to join it many times, didn’t do so. In 2009, he even turned down the Congress offer of heading the Rural Development Ministry as RJD was no longer an ally then. So when he resigned from the RJD — that too while recovering from COVID-19 in hospital — Singh, known for his honesty and integrity, seemed like he had been broken irreparably. Of course, Lalu himself refused to accept his letter, knowing that his resignation would not just be a body blow for the party but the movement he shared with his colleague. But the truth of the matter is that regime change within the RJD and Lalu’s frail health meant that there weren’t enough takers for this old comradeship. Tejashwi Yadav had new ideas and yes men and sidelined him badly, overturning his advisories. Much to his discomfort, Tejashwi met his upper caste rival from his seat of Vaishali, Rama Kishore, hoping to induct him, a clear message that Singh’s traditional constituency could be taken away from him. And Lalu’s older son Tej Pratap Yadav recently insulted his contribution to the party as just “a potful of water.” Lalu’s silence on his sons hurt him even more and this drift just might prove RJD its costliest moment. For it would make Lalu look like a doting father who forgot realpolitik and sacrificed a wise lieutenant and asset for dynastic interests.
The most unfortunate part for Lalu is that Singh would be a prize catch for the Janata Dal (United) just ahead of the Assembly polls. Though the party is in alliance with the BJP, Singh himself has had no problems confabulating with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Bihar’s problems at various points in time. In fact, he has already written a separate letter to Nitish to upgrade development in Vaishali and ramp up MGNREGA work in the State with suitable amendments, a move which is being seen a precursor to his inclusion in the JD(U). Nitish, swamped as he is by the barrage of criticism on handling the pandemic, flood management and the returnee migrants, could benefit from Singh’s advice. Any further slide in image and his credibility as a leader would take a further hit. He may be in alliance with the BJP but the latter, while acknowledging him as chief ministerial candidate, is still as ambitious about becoming the voters’ first choice and having its own man in the future. It hasn’t helped that he has lost out in ratings to his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath in crisis management, the appreciation damagingly coming from his own people, mostly labourers and students. So he needs to have someone like Singh on his side before the BJP coopts him. Given the Congress’ past respect for him, the BJP, too, may lure him to Delhi with a ministerial posting and use him for correctional policies. Nitish already has the Dalit vote, having neutralised the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), whose leader Chirag Paswan was attacking him almost every day, by inducting Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) founder and his protégé Jitan Ram Manjhi into his fold. According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Castes are 15 per cent of Bihar’s population. The Mahadalits constitute nearly 16 per cent and though cultivated by Nitish, are now swerving towards the RJD, which has the core traditional votes of the Muslims and Yadavs. Manjhi could return the Dalit swing in his favour. Meanwhile, Singh could bring in a part of his old base too. This would bring Nitish the numbers he needs to stay relevant. Besides, by valuing Singh, he could make amends for his mishandling of affairs so far, be it the Patna floods, the Muzaffarpur encephalitis deaths, the accumulation of prohibition-related cases in courts and the State’s dismal rank in the Sustainable Development Goals India Index. Singh could help Nitish win back the respectability that he lost, just like he did for Lalu. As for Lalu himself, he now just has a shell called the Opposition.