Lalu: BJP’s Manpower Supplier?

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It was the mid-1990s and the Socialists were making a beeline to the BJP. For many, this did not make sense. How could a fiery socialist like George Fernandes or Yashwant Sinha or Nitish Kumar or Sharad Yadav or Ramvilas Paswan align with BJP post the ‘Rath Yatra’ by L K Advani and the Babri Masjid demolition? Hadn’t they sacrificed a government by arresting Advani to stop his Rath Yatra?

The somersault by Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Paswan in the recent times to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dumping Congress and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) brought these questions back on table almost 20 years later. Paswan refused to share the blame for joining the Narendra Modi bandwagon, indicating ‘my way or highway’ attitude of Lalu had forced him to abandon his secular friends.

BJP should be happy that Lalu remains their staunch critic among Lohiaites. His style of functioning for the past 25 years ensures that BJP is not left without allies in Bihar. The best of minds among Lohiaites deserted the Janata parivar to either join BJP or form an outfit that aligns with them. This election season, Lalu ensured that he gave NDA an upper hand by donating LJP and his close aide Ramkripal Yadav. Why shouldn’t BJP thank him?

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(From Left: Fernandes, Sharad Yadav, Nitish)

This is not the first time the Bihar leader, who is now a diminished presence in national politics, inadvertently acted as the manpower supplier for the BJP or the NDA. This may sound outrageous about a ‘socialist’ leader, who never had a relationship with the saffron brigade and boasts of arresting Advani to stop his ‘Rath Yatra’.

Take the case of 83-year-old Fernandes, a man of steel and idealism who wanted to be a Catholic priest in his teenages and now in the grip of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Fifteen years ago, he told eminent writer Amitav Ghosh why he, a secular to the core, chose to be an ally of a party that is perceived to be communal.

In his book ‘Countdown’, a narrative on the second nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998, Ghosh recalls his conversation with Fernandes. ‘He had tried desperately hard to reach agreements with various secular, left wing parties. None of them would touch him for fear of antogonising his arch enemy, Lalu Prasad.’

“I tried many doors,” he said. “I went to BJP only when all other doors were closed. I was facing a wall. There was nowhere else to go.”

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(The iconic image of Fernandes during his arrest in 1976)

This was the man who led the Railways Strike in Mumbai, the same leader who went underground and later arrested during Emergency, the same minister who showed the exit doors for IBM and Coca Cola in the 1970s.

Ghosh goes on to write that ‘the causes of Fernandes’ despondency were suddenly blindingly clear. He had spent a lifetime in politics and the system had spun him around and around until what he did and what he believed no longer had the remotest connection’.

Sinha does not have anything ideological to talk about his joining the BJP. Lalu remains the centre in Sinha’s political narrative too. In his autobiography ‘Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer’, Sinha remembers Lalu as someone who has “no qualms in ill-treating people, even insulting them”. He says he knew that he could not get along with such an individual even for a day. There were talks about a united Janata Dal then. Sinha, a close confidante of S Chandra Shekhar, had already opened a channel with BJP leader L K Advani but nothing had materialized.

A flight to Delhi in 1993 had sealed Sinha’s exit. Lalu entered the flight “like a monarch” and he glanced at Sinha “but refused to show any sign of recognition. Even while alighting at Delhi airport, when they stood side by side, Lalu “deliberately ignored” him.

“His behavior confirmed my worst fears about him. Whatever little possibility had remained of my returning to the Janata Dal evaporated that day. I made up my mind.”

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Sinha remembers that his personal loyalty to Chandra Shekhar could not persuade him to stay back. As soon as he reached his Delhi home, he rang up Advani and on November 13, 1993, Sinha was a BJP cardholder.

One may wonder whether Sinha’s was a flimsy reason and that an ego massage could have made him stay. In politics, hypothetical questions sometimes do not lead you anywhere but what Fernandes told Ghosh could be an eye-opener. ‘He (Fernandes) spoke of an old political mentor, Ram Manohar Lohia, who had urged him always to be flexible, to maintain a dialogue with every end of the political spectrum’.

Among the Lalu detractors, Nitish Kumar is the star in terms of electoral success. Kumar fell out with Lalu within three years after he led the inner party struggles to propel the latter the posts of Leader of Opposition and later Chief Minister. Journalist Sankarshan Thakur’s biographies ‘Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and The Making of Laloo Yadav’ and ‘Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar’ chronicle the split between the two. Again, Lalu emerges as the villain of the piece. In early 1990s, ‘several senior MPs from Bihar had begun to feel the same way as Nitish – ignored and insulted by Laloo. He wouldn’t heed their advice, he often wouldn’t grant them time, he would dismiss their requests out of hand’, Thakur wrote in his book on Nitish.

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Nitish did not rush into BJP bandwagon after forming his own party with Fernandes. He fought a lost battle alongside CPI(ML) in 1995 bagging just seven seats. Nitish soon realises that to realise his ambition he needs to have on his side an ally and he found that in BJP along with Fernandes.

For Lalu, Thakur quoted Dr Shaibal Gupta of Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute in ‘Subaltern Saheb’, marginalising traditional socialists like Nitish and bringing an entirely new crop of leaders was essential to establish his political supremacy over Janata Dal in Bihar.

Along with Nitish, Lalu managed to banish many from the Janata Parivar and they merrily support in another parivar, the Sangh. The list would be a political who-is-who of Bihar who grew up politically with Lalu.

(PS: Article appeared in Deccan Herald in Election Blog section on April 5, 2014)

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