Lalu Yadav is ebullient especially after the capturing power in the November 2015 Bihar assembly elections. A year before Lalu was on the way to oblivion. Fractured polity in Bihar with Nitish in BJP camp, colossal BJP after 2014 Lok Sabha elections made political pundits write him off as a spent force. From such a state of irrelevance, Lalu ascended as a kingmaker as well as a strong political entity in Bihar riding piggyback on a grand alliance of numerically strong other backward castes backed up by secular Congress.
Is Lalu a Goliath of Bihar politics? What are his chances to extend his kingmaker status at the national level is going to be my discussion? What is the strength of Lalu? Lalu rose to Bihar politics by clinging to the ideals of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and later established himself as a key ally of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh who brought Mandal politics to the center stage.
A charismatic speaker Lalu gravitated the poor and minorities to himself by siding with V.P. Singh on caste reservations. Secondly, he stopped L.K. Advani who was riding Ram Rath to unite Hindus in India and endeared himself to the Muslims. A poor state like Bihar where OBCs, Dalits, and Muslims constitute a vast chunk of the population, Lalu played to their emotions and established himself in Bihar politics for almost fifteen years, later he became Union Railway Minister and making railways profitable for the first time. Now let us discuss what the future of Lalu in Bihar is and national politics, and what can make or mar him.
Lalu’s tenure as chief minister in Bihar was marked by lawlessness. This dented his credibility to a large extent. Can this be changed? If Lalu can support Nitish wholeheartedly in maintaining law and order in Bihar, he is sure to be a darling of aspirational backward castes as well as section of the forward caste communities who holds Nitish Kumar in high esteem. The forward communities in Bihar the Bhumihars, Rajputs, Khayastas, and Brahmins are apprehensive about Lalu’s ascent in Bihar. It is in this area, Lalu should display his chivalry by wooing them with maintaining the law and order. As Bhismacharya in Mahabharata advised King Yudhistara that ‘dharma is the most important thing in administration’, Lalu should do justice to all communities. If he does this, he can blunt the image of being partisan to his own caste and can build a larger than life image.
The next issue surrounding him is the image of being a corrupt politician. Corruption is a global phenomenon and politics is basically corruption. When somebody is caught in corruption he is labeled as corrupt. Secondly, an antagonistic media can sully whatever reputation one has by constantly harping on the cons of the politician they are targeting. For example, there is fewer mention of Vyapam scandal in Madhya Pradesh today as the press is not too antagonistic to the State government there. Everything is in managing the media. If Lalu can aid Nitish in building Bihar as an investment destination by proactively dealing with overseas business honchos and attract investment in billions of dollars, Lalu can regain the public confidence through employment generation, power generation, infrastructure building etc.
It has to be remembered that during Lalu’s earlier tenure in Bihar for fifteen years by him and by proxy, the trend of development was not catching up in India other than Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. It was after former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s attention diversion tactics from caste/communal politics to development politics with the opened up economy, political leaders entered development bandwagon.
Prior to that Indian economy was protectionist where MNCs had limited entry in India. By the time protectionist economy was replaced by the market economy, opened up economy Lalu was thrown out of power. Now that Lalu is calling the shots in Bihar politics, he can focus on building up infrastructure, laying broad highways, setting up power plants and change the face of Bihar.
Lalu can also draw lessons from the Gujarat model and create a more balanced approach. Gujarat model of development grabbed headlines with massive investment and employment generation for more than a decade. But due to automation of industries employment growth is shrinking. At the same time, small and medium traders are affected by cash-rich multi-national retail chains. Besides, wages of blue-collar as well as other laborers are less compared to other states in India. This reduced the purchased power of middle class and lower middle class to purchase new products and luxuries that resulted in economic contraction. This is what prodded the elite Patel community to vie for reservations as they view reservations can guarantee them permanent jobs in government sector. It is in this area Lalu should exercise his management wisdom to turn the State economy around with inclusive growth.
Let us check out another advantage of Lalu. Lalu was interpreted as a rustic man by the elite Indian media. But if examined carefully, one can see the continuous learning thirst of Lalu. In the last decade, Lalu visited London and spoke fluently in English. Today Lalu tweets in social media and has 197K Twitter followers. Lalu even went to the extent of challenging prime minister Narendra Modi for a political discussion in English. If Lalu creates a vision document In English and gives presentations in the TV channels, he is sure to create an impact among the middle class that largely constitute the yesteryears’ OBCs who are armed with English education today. Remember how Lalu hit headlines with his lecture to IIM graduates on how he made railways profitable. If Lalu comes out with an action plan to make railways profitable, to reduce the train fare he can surely win the heart of all sections of the society. This is the way he should choose to enhance his national appeal.
Ravi Shankar an Editor of New Indian Express expressed his concern in his editorial column Caste’s Finest Hour where he described Lalu’s ascension as an endorsement of criminal politician. History is replete with examples of how some of them learn lessons from past to create a better future. Indira Gandhi declared an emergency and she lifted it. Delhi chief minister Kejriwal asked pardon for not rising up to the expectation of Delhi electorate and came back to power with a brute majority. If Lalu is ready to respond to the apprehensions through his tweets and follow up actions he can convert opponents to supporters. For that communications are required from Lalu’s end. This is essential to consolidate his hold on Bihar politics as well as to emerge as a key player in the national politics.
Public memory is short. The nation requires a development-oriented secular front in the center. As the era of a single party is over Lalu should assume the role of a convener of a secular alliance. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has already declared that success of grand alliance will be replicated elsewhere. As Nitish Kumar will be busy administering Bihar, Lalu can use his wits and energies to stitch a secular alliance across India.
BJP got a very good chance to consolidate itself as a strong national party. But unfortunately, the party is disregarding the ground realities facing the vast section of the population. Elections after elections substantiated that India is secular and communal polarization is short lived. The much-touted Gujarat model is facing troubles from within the support base which BJP earnestly espoused for decades together. The local body elections UP and Gujarat indicates all is not well for BJP. Coupled with this is the image of ‘intolerance’ that is driving away the intellectual community. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections BJP won hands down due to the insecurity in the economy and political uncertainty as a result of Congress’ omission and commission. Now there is an opportunity for a secular front to act on the failures of BJP. And it is in this space Lalu the secular politician can turn to his favor. For that secularism is not just enough, he should develop Bihar and showcase it as a growth model.
An opportunity is there, it is thrown up by none other than the ruling party in India. Lalu the Goliath in Bihar politics has the wits, support base, strong secular credentials to become a national alternative. If Lalu is flexible the rest assured.