Patna: There is a new Tejashwi Yadav this election season is Bihar — with a much more firm grip on the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and certainty of who he wants as a candidate. And it has not gone unnoticed by friends and adversaries alike.
Over two weeks ago, the RJD-led grand alliance (mahagathbandhan) was scheduled to hold a press conference to announce its seat-sharing arrangement, when suddenly, news came in that Tejashwi’s maverick older brother Tej Pratap Yadav had fainted at his residence.
“Delaying the press conference, Tejashwi rushed to his brother’s house. I was accompanying him. We found Tej Pratap had not fainted; he was sulking because Tejashwi had not given the five seats he wanted for his followers,” said Mukesh Sahani, president of the Vikassheel Insan Party that subsequently walked out of the mahagathbandhan and joined the incumbent NDA over the delay in announcing seats.
“Tejashwi took Tej Pratap aside, talked to him and even managed to bring him to the press conference to sit beside him,” Sahani said.
The squabble within Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi’s family — Tejashwi versus Tej Pratap and their oldest sister Misa Bharti — has been a big hurdle for the RJD. In last year’s Lok Sabha polls, Tej Pratap fielded five candidates of his own against the party’s official candidates chosen by Tejashwi, and even campaigned against Chandrika Roy, father of his estranged wife Aishwarya, in Saran, while in Jehanabad, his candidate got enough votes to ensure the RJD’s defeat.
However, in the run-up to the assembly polls later this month, Tejashwi’s control over the party and events has been complete, and he has the complete backing of dad Lalu, who continues to be the party president despite being in Ranchi jail. Tejashwi has only gone to Ranchi once in the last two months, but he has consultations with his father on a daily basis, and Lalu has made it clear to other members of the family that Tejashwi’s word is the final, a senior RJD leader told ThePrint.
So, he refused to bow to Misa Bharti’s demand to drop Maner MLA Birendar Yadav, whom she holds responsible for her Lok Sabha defeat in Pataliputra, because there was low polling among RJD supporters in the segment where he’s influential.
Tejashwi also hasn’t given in to Tej Pratap’s demand for five seats for his supporters, but accompanied his brother to Samastipur when Tej Pratap filed his nomination for the Hassanpur seat.
Shivanand Tiwari, RJD’s national vice-president, said the list of the RJD’s 144 candidates (the other 99 have been given to allies) shows Tejashwi, Bihar’s leader of the opposition and former deputy CM when the RJD and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) were aligned together, has grown in maturity.
“I find Tejashwi much more mature. See the RJD list — it has a new social engineering. The RJD has tried to accommodate all sections of the society,” Tiwari said.
“RJD has given 18 seats to the EBCs — a section neglected on previous occasions. It has not left the upper castes solely to the Congress, and has fielded over a dozen candidates from this section. Tejashwi has made a genuine effort to reach out to sections considered hostile to the RJD,” he said.
This maturity also reflects in the way Tejashwi has handled the alliance, and been clear about who he wants in and out of it. He dumped Lok Sabha poll allies RLSP, VIP and HAM, parties that had contested 13 of the 40 seats but neither won a single nor got the votes of the castes they claim to represent. Instead, he got the Left parties on board.
“We refused to succumb to their arm-twisting this time and on their demand for disproportionate seats,” said RJD state chief Jagadanand Singh.
The Left parties may have been marginalised, but have their cadres at the grass-roots — the CPI (ML) for example has a support base among the Mahadalits or EBCs, 21 communities of Dalits who have voted for Nitish Kumar. Tejashwi even managed to get the CPI (ML) to drop its demand for 40 seats down to 19. Overall, the Left parties have got 29 seats out of the state’s 243.
The Congress has been a more difficult ally for the RJD to manage, due to its disproportionate demand for seats given its shrunken support base. This time too, the Congress demanded 75 seats and threatened to go solo. Tejashwi, who headed the negotiations with the Congress, struck a deal to give it 70 seats.
“We cannot afford to offload the Congress because it would open another avenue for our Muslim voters… Our role in national politics would also have been undermined,” said a senior RJD leader who did not want to be named.
Dealing with RJD old guard
Another look at the RJD’s candidates list shows that Tejashwi has shifted the old guard, like Abdul Bari Siddiqui and Lalu’s Man Friday Bhola Yadav, to avoid anti-incumbency. He has also dropped former RJD state chief Ram Chandra Purbey from Parihar in Sitamarhi district and replaced him with Ritu Jaiswal, wife of an IRS officer posted in Delhi, who stayed back in her native village and was elected as a ‘mukhiya’ (headwoman).
However, the list does include wives of criminals-turned-politicians.
“It’s a political compulsion. For example, Tejashwi needed to give a ticket to Rama Singh’s wife, because he needs Rajput votes in his own constituency Raghopur, and Rama Singh has influence in some pockets there,” another RJD leader explained.
Sticking to the agenda
Early in the lockdown, Tejashwi had raised the issue of Covid-19 management and the state of Bihar’s migrant labourers, but dropped them when he realised they would become non-issues during the poll campaign. He switched tracks to the biggest problem Biharis face across caste and creed — unemployment.
Bihar has an unemployment rate of over 46 per cent, and Tejashwi has promised that if he comes to power, he will give employment to 10 lakh youth in the first cabinet meeting, drawing scorn from opponents.
“Does he intend to distribute tamancha (country-made pistols)?” reacted former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, who is the BJP’s in-charge for the polls. But Tejashwi has stayed the course.
When Union minister Nityanand Rai made a statement that “Kashmiri terrorists” will visit Bihar if RJD is elected to power, Tejashwi refused to fall into the trap of communalising the atmosphere. “I will not be diverted from my key issues of unemployment, corruption and misgovernance,” he remarked.
Even NDA leaders privately admit that Tejashwi has handled the run-up to the assembly polls more maturely.
“He must have a competent adviser,” remarked a senior BJP leader who didn’t want to be identified.
RJD leaders anonymously say despite Tejashwi playing his cards well, winning Bihar is a tall order. “But six months ago, the battle appeared one-sided in favour of the NDA. Tejashwi has made it into a contest. He has succeeded in giving the message that he is here to stay in Bihar politics,” said an RJD MLA.