Not just Bihar in Tejashwi Yadav's line of sight

Lalu Yadav’s political heir has an opportunity to rebuild his party and play a hand in the prospects of the Opposition beyond his state, writes Nagendra

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav addresses an election rally at Digha. (Photo: Getty Images)
RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav addresses an election rally at Digha. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Nagendra

On August 7, when Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) hit the streets, to protest the alarming price rise and unemployment, in all district headquarters of Bihar, there was no indication that three days later, a new state government would take over.

It happened against the apparent run of play, and Nitish Kumar, the embattled incumbent Chief Minister, demonstrated yet again that his survival instincts were matchless.

Much has been said already about the war of attrition the BJP was running against its own ally in the state. These manoeuvres to weaken Nitish Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United), had begun even before the BJP-JD(U) government was sworn in again.

In the run-up to the 2020 assembly election, the BJP cynically manipulated Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to destabilise Nitish and even replaced his trusty deputy Sushil Modi, a BJP veteran with deep roots and great influence in the state. The knives have been out ever since.

Nobody knew this better than Nitish himself. Earlier this year, when he walked across from his official residence on 1, Aney Marg in state capital Patna, to attend an Iftar get-together at Rabri Devi’s house, a move pregnant with political meaning, it expectedly created a flutter.

The already raised eyebrows twisted and knotted when Tejashwi, in a reciprocal gesture, attended an Iftar get-together at the chief minister’s residence. Speculation reached fever pitch when Nitish walked up to the gate to see off young Tejashwi. A visible line had been drawn in the sand.

As a mark of his deference to ‘Chacha’ Nitish Kumar, Tejashwi touched his feet at the swearing-in ceremony and Nitish, in turn, hugged him and offered him the chair next to him. The optics were meaningful and not lost on anyone.

Soon after, he was seen in Delhi, meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja. The outreach with national leaders who will likely play critical roles in any future Opposition understanding for the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 is not without significance either.

Tejashwi knows how critical Bihar will be to shape the Opposition’s campaign and electoral prospects in the Hindi heartland. The reverberations will be felt not just in Bihar and the 40 Lok Sabha seats it has but the entire Hindi belt. The Left parties including the CPI(M-L), which has 12 members in the Bihar assembly, are important allies in the state and the RJD leader is alive to that dynamic as well.

Tejashwi is still only 32 years old. People who have interacted with him in recent years say he is curious and a quick learner. Of the fact that his political learning curve has been sharp, there is little doubt. Let’s pull back a bit to understand this.

Tejashwi Yadav touches Nitish Kumar’s feet after taking oath
Tejashwi Yadav touches Nitish Kumar’s feet after taking oath

The first phase of polling in the Bihar assembly election of 2020 was scheduled for October 28. Till the first week of October, there was no sign of an opposition alliance, and nobody gave the Opposition even an outside chance of winning. The result was a foregone conclusion: a formidable NDA coalition of the BJP and JD(U), with support from caste satraps like Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, looked all set for a landslide.

The ‘gathbandhan’ or the coalition of opposition parties, was announced on October 7. It barely caused a ripple. But over the next few days, media began to notice the rapidly swelling crowds at the election rallies of Tejashwi Yadav. They also didn’t miss that the election posters of the RJD now featured Tejashwi alone—no sign of Lalu Yadav or Rabri Devi (both former Bihar chief ministers). Something was afoot.

Before long there was a restless hubbub in NDA circles, and a victory that looked certain yesterday was suddenly looking shaky. With every passing day of the campaign, the possibilities looked more open, the NDA more fidgety and the Opposition a little more hopeful of pulling off an unlikely miracle.

The big crowds at Tejashwi’s rallies were getting bigger and more exuberant. They were greeting him with a fervour that took everyone by surprise—and the pundits were now reminiscing about Lalu Yadav in his heyday.

What about the new party posters? They were neither a mistake nor unconsidered nor even driven by an inflated sense of selfworth and personal charisma. They were an attempt to signal a new beginning, under a new leader; an attempt to make a break from the RJD’s past; an attempt to counter the NDA narrative that bringing back the RJD would mean a return to goonda raj.

Tejashwi’s electoral pitch had something new, and it was clearly resonating with the crowds. He was addressing not just the same old constituencies known to be solidly behind his party (the famed Muslim-Yadav combination, or the ‘M-Y axis’) but the state’s wider audience, its unemployed youth, desperate for jobs. Hence, the promise to ensure 1 million jobs, announced on October 16. The tide was now turning and the young RJD leader was a man possessed.

Pitted against a star cast of seasoned campaigners like PM Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and a formidable array of Union ministers and BJP leaders, this lone ranger was addressing 15-20 election meetings a day.

Tejashwi has certainly inherited a gift for communication, if not his father’s rustic turns of phrase. He is direct and simple, and he seems to have a finger on the political pulse, a sense of what people really care for. What do the people of Bihar want, he’d ask in his rallies. ‘Kamai, Dawai, Padhai, Seenchai’ (Jobs, healthcare, education, irrigation).

He would repeat this in meeting after meeting, letting people know that he had done his homework. His promises were not just hot air, he would insist, alluding to the many unkept promises of Narendra Modi’s BJP.

On the campaign trail, he refused to rise to the baits of the prime minister, who mocked him publicly as ‘Jungle ka Yuvraj’ (the prince of anarchic kingdom). When the media pumped him for a reaction, he would simply ask: what kind of party abuses rivals to seek power? How is it going to help Bihar and its people?

The gathbandhan did not finally make it to power, but it came within sniffing distance, and made the NDA sweat and smell defeat before making it by the skin of their teeth. The RJD emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats, one more than the BJP.

Tejashwi seldom misses the opportunity to point out that the RJD is among the few regional parties to have never aligned with the BJP. Groomed by socialist leaders, Tejashwi certainly has his heart in the right place, says Ruchira Gupta, an award-winning journalist and author based in New York. His heart beats for the poor, she says, and he understands their problems.

Observers talk about his growing political maturity and his ability to build relationships. It’s not always easy to make party veterans see eye to eye with younger leaders, but Tejashwi seems to have managed to win over the likes of Jagdanand Singh, Abdul Bari Siddiqui, Ramchandra Purve and Shivanand Tiwari, among the older leaders.

His ambitious older siblings Misa Bharti and Tej Pratap (Rabri’s first choice) also fancied themselves as Lalu’s political heirs, but Tejashwi seems to have settled that question too.

In December last year, Tejashwi married Rachel (alias Rajshree), a Christian from Haryana and a school friend he’d been dating. The fact that he chose to marry outside his caste milieu would have been noticed, but that didn’t deter him. (Another matter that brother Tej Pratap’s ‘same caste’ marriage, brokered by mother Rabri, is on the rocks.)

Tejashwi has challenges ahead of him— and not only from the BJP, which now acknowledges him as a political threat to their prospects in the state. His party has had a well-earned reputation for lawlessness, lent credence by its association with the underworld and the state’s Bahubalis (powerful musclemen); he’ll have to rein in those elements.

He has tried to play down dynasty, but the BJP will no doubt wave that stick over his head. He will have to work on his party’s image and build new associations in the public mind with his party.

Shivanand Tiwari, a friend, associate and critic of both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, says: “Tejashwi has displayed a tremendous sense of responsibility. He has transformed the party to a great extent and reached out to voters in 2020 like never before. He has to now realise his full potential.”

Like Tiwari and senior journalist Praveen Baghi, Tejashwi now has quite a following of people who believe he is here to play a long innings. He also seems to have a larger picture in his line of sight, a picture that is not only about his home state but the nation and the role that like-minded parties must play to mount a credible challenge for a marauding BJP in 2024.

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