Tejashwi Yadav addressing an RJD press conference in Patna, June 15
In 2010, AS helicopters flew in and out of Patna airport at the peak of electioneering, two men in their twenties waited at the VIP lounge. A senior journalist travelling with Sushil Modi, Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader, recalls that the two youngsters— Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav and Lok Janshakti Party’s (LJP) Chirag Paswan— came up to the senior politician and touched his feet. Modi blessed them and asked where they were headed for campaigning.
At that time, Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP were fighting in alliance against the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-BJP combine. Their sons were just learning the tricks of the trade. The JD(U)-BJP alliance swept the election, winning 206 of the 243 seats. A decade later, with Lalu Prasad in jail and Ram Vilas Paswan no more—having died at a Delhi hospital on October 8th while recuperating from heart surgery—Tejashwi and Chirag, greenhorns in politics, are faced with a common adversary in the veteran Nitish Kumar, but from different sides of the political aisle.
By the 2015 Assembly elections, Lalu and Paswan had parted ways, with the LJP joining the BJP-led NDA in 2014 and the RJD aligning with the JD(U). Tejashwi fought from Raghopur Assembly seat, in an election micromanaged by Lalu. At 8AM, in the fall of 2015, when a group of journalists from Delhi landed at former Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi’s house in Patna to meet her husband Lalu Prasad, a security guard asked them to wait outside. Some RJD supporters had also come to visit him from Raghopur. “Jayin (you may enter),” the guard said, in Bhojpuri. He repeated it to a group of people from Mahua, the Assembly seat from where Lalu’s elder son Tej Pratap Yadav was fighting. After over an hour, two of the journalists were asked to go in. Lalu sat in the courtyard, under a shed where he usually met people, typically wearing a dhoti and a vest. He gave hurried, short interviews, his mind focused on what the visitors from Raghopur and Mahua had to say.
Lalu Prasad was holding forth, his shadow looming over the campaigning. It was said then that it was Lalu who was fighting in every Assembly seat. Five years later, he celebrated his 73rd birthday at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) hospital in Ranchi, 354 km from Patna, being treated for various ailments. Back home, Tejashwi, his younger son whom Lalu chose to pass on the mantle to, is not as indulgent as his father when it comes to connecting with people. In his own words, politics is “not a career option, but a responsibility” he has bestowed upon himself.
Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, Tejashwi has sought forgiveness multiple times for “some mistakes” during the RJD’s 15-year rule shared by his parents. “There might have been certain shortcomings in our rule, even though I wasn’t around then, I do not hesitate to accept them,” says Tejashwi, but quickly adds that RJD rule ensured social justice. Caught between the past and the future, the old Yadav-Muslim affinity and going beyond the arithmetic of identity politics, his father’s rustic connect and his own social media campaign, Tejashwi is doing a tightrope walk. He may want to move out of his father’s shadow, dusting himself free of his taints and carve out a niche for himself, like Akhilesh Yadav, the son of Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh. But at the end of the day, Tejashwi’s political survival is hinged on being Lalu’s son. And that, without his father‘s countrified appeal and legacy of building a formidable social alliance.
According to a veteran politician who has closely watched Lalu and Tejashwi, unlike the father who would take everyone’s opinion even if in the end he took his own call, the son rarely sought advice of the party’s senior leaders. Politicians in Bihar, across party lines, agree he lacks his father’s “charisma”. Whether one likes or dislikes the blunt, shrewd and sometimes comic Lalu, whose party’s 15-year rule has been dubbed “jungle raj”, his ability to connect with the masses remains uncontested. One senior RJD leader says Lalu remembers every Assembly member by name. None of Lalu’s children, including Tejashwi—catapulted to being RJD’s chief ministerial candidate by virtue of being his son—has anything close to the acceptance the father had, despite allegations of corruption and the fodder scam that cut short his tenure as chief minister, landing him in jail.
“Tejashwi has been away whenever the state has gone through some major crisis like floods and chamki fever. This new generation tweets two lines and thinks this is politics,” says Sushil Kumar Modi, who is Deputy Chief Minister again in Nitish Kumar’s government. In 2010, when the JD(U) and the BJP fought the Assembly polls together, the RJD was reduced to 22 seats. Defining the JD(U) and the BJP as natural allies, he says good governance clubbed with a strong social combination gave it an edge over the RJD which was dependent solely on the Yadav and Muslim votes.
Tejashwi, 30, who was Deputy Chief Minister in the JD(U)-RJD regime, has not proved yet that he has it in him to be a challenger in the battle with the 69-year-old Chief Minister, a leader with a legacy and leadership experience. Dubbed a part-time politician by his critics, Tejashwi is banking on anti-incumbency against Nitish, who has been in power for 15 years, shuttling between aligning with the BJP and the RJD.
In what would be the first election in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tejashwi launched an offensive against the JD(U)-BJP government over its handling of the crisis, even as the ruling alliance accuses him of being absent from the state during the pandemic. Tejashwi alleged low testing and said the state government machinery was more focused on elections. Chirag Paswan, then an NDA ally, echoed Tejashwi in expressing reservations about elections being held at this time, saying it would add to the financial burden on the state and might witness a low polling percentage. “Leave aside playing a constructive opposition, the RJD has been absent as an opposition in the state, from their duty towards the people and otherwise too,” says Bihar water resources minister and JD(U) leader Sanjay Jha.
The LJP’s graph has been falling with every Assembly election since 2005, having been reduced to just two seats in 2015. Senior politicians say Ram Vilas Paswan had remained politically relevant till the end. Chirag has a long way to go
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Tejashwi, meanwhile, has faced disquiet in his own backyard, raising questions about his ability to keep the RJD flock together. Former Union minister and Lalu aide Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who resigned from the party days before he died, had been miffed over bringing on board Rama Kishore Singh, who had defeated him from Vaishali in 2014 as a candidate of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Raghuvansh Prasad, who had held the seat since 1996, had told Open that Lalu’s appeal was still there, but in his absence, the party workers get disillusioned. Like Raghuvansh, Rama Kishore is a Rajput, an upper caste, which the RJD is trying to reach out to, in an attempt to cast its net beyond its Yadav (constituting 14 per cent of the 51 per cent OBCs in the state) and Muslim support base. However, Raghuvansh Prasad had been of the view that bringing in people like Rama Kishore, who had a criminal background, would hurt the party’s image. Tejashwi has brought in Lovely Anand and Chetan, wife and son of Anand Mohan Singh, a former MP who is in jail on murder charges. Another don, Anant Singh, a Bhumihar, was also inducted into the party. The RJD lost five of its eight MLCs, who joined the JD(U). The resignations indicated a discontent brewing within sections of Tejashwi’s own party.
The RJD-JD(U) alliance in 2015 had brought the Yadavs, Kurmi-Koeris, Economically Backward Classes (EBCs), Dalits and Muslims under one umbrella, securing 80 seats for the RJD and 71 for the JD(U). This time, Tejashwi does not have the JD(U) by his side. The challenge before him will be to reach out beyond the RJD’s traditional Yadav-Muslim vote bank, in a state where social engineering holds sway over elections. His opponents say he will find it difficult to retain even the Yadav-Muslim votes, which his father had nurtured. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, two years after Nitish had snapped ties with the RJD as corruption charges mounted against Lalu, and realigned with the BJP, the NDA won 39 of the 40 seats with about 30 per cent of EBCs backing it.
Tejashwi is not the only legatee fighting in his father’s shadow in Bihar’s electoral arena. Chirag Paswan, seven years older than him, is hoping to cash in on Ram Vilas Paswan’s legacy. Now the chief of the LJP founded by his father in 2000, Chirag has altered his party’s equations with the NDA, refusing to be part of the Nitish Kumar-led alliance, despite being offered 25 Assembly seats by the BJP. The LJP’s graph has been falling with every Assembly election since 2005, the party having been reduced to just two seats in 2015. Senior politicians in the state say Ram Vilas Paswan had remained politically relevant till the end, was affable and had kept in touch with the common people. Chirag, they say, has a long way to go.
While Tejashwi, a school dropout, tried his hand at cricket, Chirag, who did his schooling in Delhi, acted in a Bollywood film. Paswan had announced his son’s entry into films at a gala event in Mumbai and even accompanied him on his promotional tours. With the film flopping, Chirag joined politics sooner than he had planned. Both Tejashwi and Chirag have their eyes set on 2025, when the older generation vacates the political stage. Both are banking on Nitish’s supposed disadvantages as the incumbent.
Tejashwi, Deputy Chief Minister in the JD(U)-RJD regime, has not proved that he has it in him to challenge the 69-year-old Chief Minister. Dubbed a part-time politician, Tejashwi is banking on anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar
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For both, the test will be to go beyond the caste arithmetic. If Lalu Prasad had limited his outreach to Yadavs and Muslims, comprising about 30 per cent of the vote bank, Paswan’s was further narrowed to 6 per cent (Paswan) of the 16 per cent Dalits in Bihar. Chirag, in an attempt to widen the LJP’s outreach, came up with the “Bihar First, Bihari First” slogan in February. Paswan, who switched parties to remain relevant at the Centre, never became chief minister. Chirag, with age on his side, is strategising to cash in when the time is ripe to take centrestage in state politics. In 2005, Paswan had played spoiler for the Rabri Devi regime, making way for Nitish to become Chief Minister. His son has now revolted against Nitish.
“He can take bold decisions, has a charismatic personality and connects with the youth. His father was like a banyan tree. Chirag will take time, but given his energy and vision, he will do well,” says Abdul Khaliq, LJP General Secretary, who was a confidant of Paswan.
Although the LJP has walked out of the NDA, it has said it would not field any candidate against the BJP. It gave tickets to nine BJP rebels, who were later expelled by the national party, as it was causing unease with ally JD(U). Chirag’s decision has cast a shadow on the LJP’s relations with the BJP at the Centre, where the late Paswan was Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution.
Unlike their fathers, who emerged from political agitations and humble backgrounds, the sons—reluctant politicians—have led comfortable lifestyles, lived in cities and inherited their legacies. A senior journalist in Patna describes Chirag as a fly-by-night politician who has not been able to establish a rapport with party workers the way his father did. Paswan’s death may have triggered a sympathy factor, but political pundits doubt if that will translate into votes for the LJP.
When Tejashwi and Chirag campaign in Bihar, their fathers’ images will loom large. But the blame, or the credit, will all be the sons’ this time.