Bihar Diary: The coming of age of Tejashwi Yadav

The young leader’s remarkable maturity may have turned the tide INDIAwards amidst faultlines in the NDA

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav with Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) president Mukesh Sahani and others in Patna.
RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav with Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) president Mukesh Sahani and others in Patna.

Abdul Qadir

The relatively low voter turnout in Bihar during the first phase of elections on 19 April may not have been entirely due to the scorching summer heat and the wedding season.

Enthusiasm for Brand Modi has dwindled compared to 2019. There is also palpable wariness among the BJP’s allies, which kept traditional NDA supporters (read: upper caste voters) away from the polling booths, say observers.

The less-than-warm relations between the BJP and Nitish Kumar on the one hand and between Nitish Kumar and Chirag Paswan on the other are open secrets. There is also uneasiness within the JD(U), as a large number of loyalists are getting ready for life after Nitish Kumar.

The first phase of polling also drew attention to the astute attempts by Tejashwi Yadav, the rising star of Bihar politics, to expand the social base of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) beyond the Muslims and Yadavs. For one thing, a conscious attempt to get on the right side of the Kushwahas, an important intermediary caste, was initiated during the Assembly elections in 2020 and has become more pronounced ever since.

The Kushwahas, numerically significant in the state, were at one time aggressively anti-Brahmin. Under the leadership of the late Jagdeo Prasad, the Kushwahas were at the forefront of a movement to burn the sacred thread, the janeu.

A section of the community still does not invite Brahmins to preside over rituals like marriages, with the bride and the groom’s exchange of garlands sufficing to solemnise the union. While the RJD fielded as many as five Kushwaha candidates in the 22 constituencies it is contesting, other INDIA allies—the Congress, the CPI(ML) and Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party—put up Kushwaha leaders from three other constituencies.

The Kushwahas constitute just 3 per cent of the population; but in a bold move, the RJD—known in the mainstream media as the Yadavs’ party—gave them almost 25 per cent of its 22 allotted seats.

The CPI(ML), the most aggressive and organised Left party in the state, also fielded a Kushwaha candidate, Raja Ram Singh, from the Karakat constituency against former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha, who fancies himself the foremost leader of the community alongside state BJP chief Samrat Chaudhary.

The RJD also put up a Kushwaha candidate in Aurangabad, traditional bastion of the Rajputs, which went to the polls in the second phase on 26 April. Sushil Singh, the sitting MP, has been elected from here thrice already—twice as a BJP candidate and once as a JD(U) nominee. Indeed, this constituency has never elected a non-Rajput candidate before, but this election may surprise us.

By all accounts, Singh was engaged in a close contest. If he loses, as RJD sources claim, the fall of Aurangabad may portend trouble for upper-caste BJP candidates across Bihar. Besides wooing the Kushwahas, Tejashwi Yadav impressed friends and rivals alike with his political maturity in cultivating Mukesh Sahani, leader of the fisherfolks’ community and influential in a dozen parliamentary constituencies.

Sahani, an NDA discard, had no option but to join the INDIA bloc; but rather than play up his helplessness, Tejashwi embraced him and made a point of showing him respect. A viral video showed them sharing Sahani’s packed lunch in a helicopter during a campaign break, both vocal about their enjoyment of the fish.

It clearly touched a nerve with the BJP, with even the prime minister lashing out at Tejashwi for eating meat during Navratra. The INDIA allies had the last laugh, however, pointing out that the video was shot a day before Navratra commenced, and the duo got more than the planned publicity.

In yet another bold move, Tejashwi put up a Dalit candidate, Chandrahas Chaupal, in Supaul, a ‘general’ constituency and a Yadav stronghold. This was ignored by the media, but it is a rare gesture—a first even for a mainstream political party.

The RJD fielded three Dalit leaders, compared to the BJP’s one. As many as 10 (60 per cent) of the 17 BJP candidates in Bihar are upper-caste, though they constitute just 10 per cent of Bihar’s population.

Also, belying its anti-women image, the RJD fielded women in 5 of the 22 seats, while the BJP had none. Two of the women are Tejashwi’s siblings Misa Bharti and Rohini Acharya, inviting barbs from the BJP; but on the ground, RJD voters rallied around them.

The RJD also fielded young activist Archana Ravidas against Chirag Paswan’s brother-in-law Arun Bharti. In yet another sign of political maturity, Tejashwi Yadav refrained from attacking Nitish Kumar in any of his rallies, focusing instead on the core issues of unemployment and inflation.

He did paint Nitish as a ‘tired’ chacha he was once close to, who is about to retire; but refrained from responding to the crass and often crude personal attacks from the Bihar chief minister himself. Indeed, Tejashwi stated that he regards them as blessings from a wayward elder. RJD leaders concede that Tejashwi’s strategy paid off, showing up the JD(U) leader.

Indeed, flogging a dying horse, they quip, would have done Tejashwi no credit. Instead, his mock-reverential references to ‘Paltu Chacha’ won him brownie points. Now he may well eye the political constituency cultivated by Nitish Kumar himself—the extremely backward classes (EBC). Meanwhile, even BJP supporters found it difficult to overcome their scepticism of Nitish Kumar, for fear he might somersault yet again.

JD(U) workers are resigned to the possibility of the party disintegrating after him, leaving them little choice but to join either the BJP or the RJD. The Nitish camp also believes that if the NDA returns to power at the Centre for a third term, the BJP will lose no time in pushing over the JD(U). A weak Bihar BJP is their only insurance. Relations between Nitish Kumar and Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party are also frosty.

The Bihar chief minister blames Paswan for the JD(U) candidates’ defeat in the 2020 Assembly elections, reducing it to third-largest party after the RJD and the BJP. This, the Nitish camp suspects, was done at the BJP’s behest. Nitish, not surprisingly, tried to promote Paswan’s uncle Pashupati Paras as heir to the late Ram Vilas Paswan; but the BJP in 2024 has opted to side with Chirag.

Ashok Chaudhary, until recently a member of Nitish Kumar’s coterie, found himself at the receiving end of the chief minister’s wrath for hobnobbing with Chirag to get his daughter Shambhavi an LJP ticket. “Ab MLC bhi udhre (LJP) se baniyega (seek a ticket for yourself too),” the chief minister tersely advised him during a chance encounter.

The faultlines in the NDA are in public view. Indeed, Nitish supporters—at least a section of them—did not vote for the NDA candidate from Gaya, Jitan Ram Manjhi, on 19 April, we hear. “The NDA’s disgruntled upper-caste voters also appear to have abstained,” confided a JD(U) leader.

On a grim note, he added that other Nitish supporters did have the option to simply switch their vote to the INDIA bloc.

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