Nitish Kumar has spotted a secular trend in Bihar and with the minority’s support he could trump Lalu Prasad, says Aditi Phadnis
The secret of Lalu Prasad’s electoral success used to be attributed to the MY factor -- the coalition of the Muslims and Yadavs in Bihar that represented a formidable alliance and enabled Lalu to rule over the state, including by proxy, for 15 years.
With the rise of Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal United, the alliance was fractured. The Yadavs stayed with Lalu, but other smaller castes including those which had borne the brunt of Yadav oppression but had no recourse to any other political option, went over to JD-U.
Similarly, the low-caste poorer Muslims -- called Pasmanda Musalman -- also found they were getting nothing from Lalu and decamped to Kumar. It is this caste-class base that prompted Nitish Kumar to break a two-decade-long friendship with the Bharatiya Janata Party -- because he knew that if he stayed in the company of the BJP and Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad would wrest his Muslim following back from him.
And latest evidence suggests that Kumar was right in breaking ties with the BJP: in the defection drama played out in Bihar last week, Members of Legislative Assembly who have crossed over from Lalu to Nitish Kumar and have opted to stay on with Kumar are almost all Muslim MLAs or MLAs representing constituencies that have a large Muslim population.
It is rare to spot such a clear-thinking, resolute politician as Kumar. But even more rare is a set of sitting MLAs who are so desperate about what their electorate will say to them that they are ready to give up their seats in order to be in the right party (at last count, the number of MLAs who had crossed over from Lalu to Nitish had dwindled from 13 out of a total of 22 of Lalu’s men to four).
Under the provisions of the anti-defection law, the defectors stand to lose their seats. The provisions are slightly different when it comes to legislators seeking “unattached” status, which is what the original 13 MLAs petitioned the Speaker, Uday Narayan Chaudhary, when they wrote him the letter.
So what really happened?
More than 10 days ago, the 13 MLAs wrote to the Speaker telling him they wanted to be treated as unattached. Part of the reason was their suspicion that in the new deal Lalu was signing with the Congress, they may be made lambs to slaughter -- that is, their seats might be offered to the Congress.
But most of them felt that Lalu had lost his ability to rope in Muslims and now feel that by snapping ties with the BJP, Kumar is the only leader in Bihar to have any credibility among the minorities.
So Akhtar ul Iman, for instance, who contested and won one of the assembly segments in the Kishanganj parliamentary constituency, which has 67.6 per cent Muslim population, has stayed on with JD-U.
It will take some time for the Speaker to rule on the grey area that being “unattached” represents in the anti-defection law, by which time assembly elections in Bihar, held last in 2010, will be round the corner.
The fact is, while Yadavs continue to rally behind Lalu Prasad and are angry that their leader had to suffer the ignominy of incarceration, the Muslims are unmoved by this. Add to this the significant lifestyle change that electrification of rural Bihar has brought about and the talking point in Bihar is Nitish Kumar.
The upper castes still don’t like him. And Modi does represent aspirations of a section of Bihar society. But for many in the rural part of the state, Kumar’s promise that by 2015, villages with a population of just 100 people will also have access to electricity is aspirational.
By 2015, power supply in the state will reach 5,500 Mw. Right now, it is 3,000 Mw. Kumar’s ambition is to make Bihar power surplus by 2018-19. This is a far cry from the situation in 2005-06 when Bihar had 800 Mw available at its disposal out of which only 550 Mw reached domestic consumers owing to commitments to Nepal and the Indian railways.
Kumar can see the challenges of the future. Economists say one of the implications of Bihar’s population growth rate and fertility rate is that its workforce is and will remain one of the younger workforces in the future.
Projections of India’s demographic dividend suggest that the working-age ratio, i.e., the ratio of people working to those not working, began to increase in 2001 and will continue to do so until 2025-40. Bihar’s working age-ratio will continue to increase well past India’s since it will only hit the replacement rate in 2027.
This gives Bihar a delayed demographic dividend and a window of opportunity to try to ensure that its workforce has the highest possible productivity when the demographic dividend unfolds. Obviously, this can’t be done unless every home has power.
Kumar has spotted a secular trend and hopes that if the state provides the basics, young people, no matter what their caste or religion, will be able to leverage it to achieve great heights. It is this that Bihar will vote for in 2014 and 2015.
Image: Lalu Prasad with wife Rabri Devi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh