If convicted, party to play ‘victim card’, but will it work?

There is a buzz outside the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) office in north Bihar’s Madhubani. A fleet of Scorpios is parked outside. As uniformed guards saunter around, a dozen men — in starched white kurtas — and one woman are sitting around a table.

Ram Lakhan Ram Raman, former Bihar Education Minister and RJD MLA, is chairing a party meeting to prepare for a district convention. Describing the political mood, he claims, “The poor had got power, freedom from exploitation during the RJD rule, but Nitish Kumar has reversed it. People have begun remembering Laluji’s rule fondly.”

But if there is one theme that dominates conversations across Bihar’s towns, it is not Lalu Prasad’s past. It is his future. A court in Ranchi is expected to pronounce on Monday its verdict in a fodder scam-related case. And if the buzz in government and judicial circles is to be believed, Mr. Prasad is in for tough times. His conviction — if it happens — will take place at a time succession is unclear, and the RJD’s legendary Muslim-Yadav alliance is fraying.

Asked what would happen if the verdict is adverse, there is a moment of silence. Mr. Raman replies, “People will have double the energy. Everyone knows he is being trapped.”

The RJD’s campaign — in the absence of its mascot — will rely on a story of victimhood.

A senior RJD leader in Patna, on condition of anonymity since he does not want to be seen as casting aspersions on the judiciary, says: “We will say an upper-caste judge, linked to Nitish Kumar, deliberately issued such a judgment. We will question, why is it that the verdict came now, six months before an election? We will plaster Laluji’s images from prison, with his sons leading the charge in public.” In recent months, Mr. Prasad’s two sons — Tejaswi and Tej Pratap — have been seen on party platforms.

Another party leader says, “Indians have a deep desire to see their leaders penalised. But as soon as they are penalised, there is a surge of sympathy.”

But will it work? Sanjay Yadav, who runs a tea shop at Mominpur village in the Rahika block in Madhubani, says: “What sympathy? Is he Subhas Chandra Bose? Is he going to prison for the freedom struggle? If he made money, he will go in. If he didn’t, court will free him.”

Mr. Yadav’s comment does not merely illustrate the limits of playing the victim card, but shows that sections of Mr. Prasad’s own caste base may be exploring other options. There have been increasing Yadav-Muslim tensions on the ground. Dinesh Yadav, another resident of the Rahika block, complains, “Why should Muslim graveyards be fenced on government money? Why should roads be built on priority only where there are minority settlements?”

BJP’s message

Kirti Azad, BJP MP from the neighbouring Darbhanga constituency, admits eyeing the Yadav vote base. He has been visiting villages where such tensions have occurred. The subtle BJP message to Yadavs is that since Mr. Prasad is not in the fray to be Prime Minister, why not try out Narendra Modi? The BJP may also put up additional Yadav candidates. Even if the RJD’s core base remains intact, a churning is unmistakable.

Mr. Prasad retains a substantial — if not the majority — Muslim support till now. A Muslim schoolteacher at Bisvi village says, “Nitish Kumar may be against Modi’s BJP, but he is with Advani’s BJP. Can he be trusted? Laluji has always been secular.” The fact that there were no major riots during Mr. Prasad’s time is cited by Muslims across the State.

But Mr. Kumar is chipping away at this vote base. In an interview to The Hindu, the Chief Minister listed steps he had taken for the community, from fencing graveyards to allotting land for AMU at Kishengunj to providing commons like roads, education, and law and order, which benefited all communities.

The Janata Dal (United) has been specifically focusing on backward Muslims, and its split with the BJP has sent out a positive message to the community.

Congress factor

A key variable would be the Congress’s decision. Memories of the ‘betrayal’ Muslims felt after the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, and the Babri Masjid, are fading. Both the RJD and the JD (U) are keen on developing an understanding with the Congress — even though it has little organisational strength — to send a message to Muslim constituents that only their alliance will be the real alternative to the BJP.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi trashing the ordinance on convicted lawmakers will not only affect Mr. Prasad’s stint as lawmaker, but has almost closed the possibility of an alliance between their parties if conviction happens. RJD leaders, who say that ‘homework’ had commenced on stitching up an understanding, express shock. “Laluji had met Rahul Gandhi recently. And while we knew Soniaji liked Laluji more, we thought the son will listen to the mother at the end.”

Party management

The immediate question, however, will be who takes charge of the RJD in Mr. Prasad’s absence. If the job is handed over completely to the sons, there will be a possibility of senior leaders rebelling, with some shifting to the JD(U).

But if, party leaders say, Mr. Prasad devises a system of ‘collective leadership’ — with Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Jagadanand Singh and Abdul Bari Siddiqui at the top — the morale could be salvaged. RJD leaders say this will be cosmetic. “Laluji ran the State government from jail. You think he can’t run the party. He will still call the shots as far as ticket distribution, finances, campaign strategy, and alliances are concerned. The only loss is he won’t be there to campaign,” says a senior leader.

Irrespective of what happens on Monday, Mr. Prasad — with his intimate connections with segments of Bihar’s population — will not fade away. He smells an opportunity in the JD(U)-BJP break, and believes his vote base remains intact. Pre-poll surveys indicate that the RJD will get more than the paltry four seats out of 40 it won in 2009. But the challenges will, undoubtedly, multiply. Mr. Raman, sitting in the Madhubani office, says wistfully, “If it was any other person, his heart would have failed. But Laluji is a son of the soil. Don’t write us off.”