Editorial

The message from Shahabuddin

If there is one person who embodies the contradictions in the alliance between the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, it is the criminal-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin. A former Member of Parliament of the RJD who is now out on bail after spending 11 years in jail, he symbolised >everything that was wrong with the Lalu Prasad raj in Bihar. Indeed, when Nitish Kumar first took over as Chief Minister in 2005, he seemed intent on making an example of the gangster who defied law-enforcing authorities and ensured his writ ran in his constituency Siwan. With Shahabuddin roaming free in Bihar on being granted bail by the Patna High Court, Mr. Kumar >will necessarily have to ignore his veiled threats and snide remarks. When Mr. Kumar got the government to pursue the cases against the gangster, he was fighting the RJD; now, however, he is in alliance with that party. Although the government is likely to oppose the bail order in the Supreme Court, there is little doubt that the political situation in Bihar has changed since the time Shahabuddin went to jail. Improving the law and order situation — freeing Bihar from ‘jungle raj’ — was one of Mr. Kumar’s campaign planks in 2005, when in the company of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he ousted the RJD from power. Now, as the head of a JD(U)-RJD government, he must speak a different language. So far, in Bihar, with his clean, no-nonsense image he has bested Mr. Prasad in two elections and a Narendra Modi-led BJP in a third. To not take on Shahabuddin for fear of offending his alliance partner is therefore not an option for Mr. Kumar.

If the Nitish Kumar government were to continue to put pressure on Shahabuddin by pursuing the cases against him to their logical end, it would be to shake the JD(U)-RJD alliance from its comfort zone. Shahabuddin seems acutely conscious that he needs to drive a wedge between the RJD and the JD(U) for the sake of his own political survival. His remark that Mr. Kumar was a Chief Minister of circumstances and that the RJD would come to power on its own in the next election is a reflection of this. Shahabuddin found endorsement for this view from another prominent RJD leader, Raghuvansh Prasad, and it was left to Lalu Prasad to strike a semblance of a balance. Clearly, the short-term interests of the RJD are tied up with the interests of Mr. Kumar, but equally, the long-term interests of the party depend on Mr. Prasad striking an independent line. No one could have driven home this truth the way Shahabuddin did.

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