Why Modi wave lifts Lalu's boat, but leaves Bihar's Muslims at sea

Bihar's Muslims are in a quandary about whether to choose Lalu or Nitish Kumar.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English
Five years ago, Lalu Prasad Yadav and his Rashtriya Janata Dal seemed all but finished. In the 2009 Lok Sabha, his party won just four of 40 seats in Bihar. Now, thanks to Narendra Modi, Lalu Yadav is back in the reckoning.

Lalu's resurgence mirrors his original ascent to prominence, which was also due to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an upper-caste mobilisation roused by saffron slogans of a Ram temple to replace the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya also produced the phenomenon of Lalu. The Hindutva agitation peaked on December 6, 1992, with the demolition of the 16th century mosque. The riots that followed the demolition in many parts of India resulted in a mass switch of Muslim loyalties from the Congress – which was seen as sitting idle as the Sangh Parivar demolished the mosque – to Lalu in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

As it turned out, the Yadav duo’s success acted as a bulwark against the saffronisation of the cow belt. The closing of ranks between Muslims and Yadavs – the “M-Y factor” – became a winning combination in these states. In effect, the Mandalisation of politics found consolidation, represented by the assertiveness of other backward castes with the mass backing of Muslims. The BJP did make some gains, but the Congress collapsed.

Lalu, the man who led the new politics in Bihar, was in the beginning seen by many as sincere, socialist and secular. He claimed the legacy on which Congress had turned wobbly – with the added appeal of the language of the masses. But he soon came to be reviled for his mendacity, double-talk and self-serving recklessness.

What ended his 15-year rule in 2005 was the alliance between the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which succeeded in splitting the OBCs and the Muslims. Mandal politics, a rebellion of OBCs supported by a majority of Muslims against upper-caste dominance, lost its traction. With the backing of the upper castes, Lalu was pushed to the political margins of the state.

The Lok Sabha elections of 2009 had suggested that the Muslim-Yadav unity that Lalu had achieved in the 1990s had withered away. In that election, the RJD contested 28 of the 40 seats in Bihar but won merely four. All its five Muslim candidates lost the elections miserably. Also, in that election, two-thirds of the BJP-JD(U) alliance’s Bihar MPs won their seats on margins of under 50,000 votes. In more than half of the 20 Lok Sabha seats won by the JD(U), the winning difference seems to have been made by a swing in Muslim votes. Even the BJP victory in Bhagalpur – the seat won by Shahnawaz Hussain – is said to have received some Muslim support. In Pataliputra, Lalu himself lost to the JD(U)’s Ranjan Yadav, and this was at least partly because the RJD chief was deserted by Muslim voters in large numbers.

Lalu’s marginalisation continued in the assembly elections of 2010, in which the RJD won just 25 seats in a house of 243 members.

However, the worries over Narendra Modi’s march to Delhi seem to have refocused the attention of state’s Muslims. The RJD is once again at the state’s political battlefront mainly because its anti-Hindutva track record appears to be competing with the JD(U)’s claims to be able to act as the bulwark against the saffron surge.

The Muslim voter at a crossroads
Yet, matters are not so straightforward. Muslims in Bihar are certainly at a crossroads, weighing between the RJD and JD(U). Tactically, a switch in allegiance to Lalu’s RJD makes sense for them only if a significant chunk of the OBCs – primarily Yadav voters – also back the party in large numbers. From the point of view of the OBCs, Lalu did not  become the revolution he once promised. Even if the OBC assertion under Lalu changed some of the ways in which different castes engaged with one another politically, social justice remained a distant dream for most. Social hierarchies remained firm. Dominant OBCs, such as the Yadavs, might have wrested some of what was once an upper-caste monopoly, but the rest of the group benefitted little from it.

It was this discontentment among the lower strata of the OBCs – called most backward castes or MBCs – that helped Nitish Kumar carve out his own niche among these middle ranking castes in the state.

Nitish’s success – or failure – in consolidating his base among the MBCs will have great bearing on the way Muslims vote in the upcoming polls. If Bihar’s MBCs show signs of staying put with Nitish’s JD(U), Muslims may have both the options till the end. In terms of perception, however, Lalu has an advantage. His Yadav voters are already backing him enthusiastically, even as Nitish’s MBCs are yet to show whether they will continue to support the JD(U) now that it has parted ways with the BJP. The M-Y formula can work only if Muslims vote in unison for the RJD as they did during the Ayodhya-charged 1990s.

In Bihar, Muslims form 16.5% of the population, and the community’s votes are significant in at least one-thirds of the state’s Lok Sabha seats. On his part, Lalu continues to remain a public performer par excellence, with a unique knack for summing up an occasion with a pithy one-liner or a winning gesture.

For Bihar, the political uncertainty of 2014 is but a trailer. It will help define the ground for 2015, when Bihar will have another state assembly elections.
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