What next for Tejashwi?

The young RJD leader may have changed the discourse of post-COVID politics but needs to make more convincing moves

Does Bihar indeed mark a generational shift in Indian politics and will young Tejashwi Yadav inspire others of his kind to steer the national discourse back to fundamental issues? Yes, the BJP-Janata Dal (United) combine scraped through with a face-saver of a victory but seemed tired out by the chase forced on them by the brash but determined challenger. And despite winning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led the campaign to pull up both his party’s scoreline (74 seats) and JD(U)’s fortunes, had to sweat it out to the finish line even as Tejashwi had the last laugh of catapulting his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as the single largest party with an increased voteshare. He may have been a late starter but if he can take on the BJP’s organisational network single-handedly, then there’s a lot going for him and much that we have not seen yet. And if he can connect with the masses with his Bhojpuri-laden witticisms, making Modi’s speeches sound like a drone, then he has the pulse of the people. At one time seen as the entitled and indulged son of RJD chief and socialist-secular crusader Lalu Prasad Yadav, the proverbial bad boy has shown that the outlier can become an insider. The best part is he did not ever try to mimic his father, though he picked up his fighting spirit, and created an all-new playbook for himself, one that didn’t have any reference points. Stacked against the BJP, he had no political capital and he converted this relative weightlessness to his advantage, giving the BJP no reason to change tack. So the Central party did nothing remarkable really, except talk down to the voter — it relied on brand Modi, talked of Central schemes, Hindutva, hypernationalism and terrorism. And so naked was the party’s ambition to swamp regional politics in its pursuit of a “one party rule” that it even undercut its chief ministerial nominee and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar by planting enough vote-splitters against him. It would be naïve to assume that Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Chirag Paswan wasn’t deployed to hurt Nitish’s image and reduce the JD(U)’s seat count. As the BJP got busy with strategic arithmetic, it was left to Tejashwi to get aggressive about local issues, joblessness and Bihar’s dismal development curve. He coalesced the collective will of Biharis to release themselves from the silos of caste and identity. Soon after the combine’s victory, Modi may have talked about the State choosing development but that certainly wasn’t the tenor of his pre-election speeches. Tejashwi, by holding him to account on promises he didn’t deliver while grandstanding on the same in 2015, has forced a change in the BJP’s post-poll rhetoric. Once considered a paratrooper from Delhi, Tejashwi now seems to have emerged as the RJD’s saviour. His job has been tougher considering that the BJP wasn’t as well-oiled back then as it is now and Nitish had not betrayed Lalu. And though he is blessed with legacy, he is also aware of the costly burden of Lalu’s corruption. That’s why he smartly played down the social justice card, acutely aware that those it empowered, namely the Muslims and Yadavs, would stand by him, too. And he tried to dissociate himself from the taint of “jungle raj” by promising economic justice to the jobless youth, promising 10 lakh jobs. In fact, he described his “economic justice” plank as a version 2.0 of “social justice,” at once disconnecting himself from his father’s legacy while staying connected to the movement he espoused. He swung the youth along, putting his face to their angst. He tried a rainbow umbrella, bringing in upper caste candidates and even naming a Rajput, Jagdanand Singh, as State party chief. He made common cause with the Left parties, transplanting “caste” with “class,” hoping to make a Robinhood-like breakthrough among the dispossessed. And though politically and ideologically divergent, he backed Chirag for pointing out Nitish’s flaws, cleverly not antagonising himself among the Paswans, the dominant Dalits. But in a rare display of political maturity — something that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi can take a lesson from — he didn’t victimise Modi as a divider or indulge in any kind of shaming. In fact, for all the latter’s vitriol on “jungle raj”, he countered by saying as a man of stature, Modi was entitled to his opinions. But he was unsparing where it mattered, on specifics.

So what should Tejashwi work on now, considering he made a 100 metre dash and a marathon needs sustainable energy? Though he tried to broaden his constituency that’s more contextual than historic, he has not managed to calm fears of a “Yadavisation” of power and the return of Lalu years. That explains why the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and Mahadalits stuck to Nitish despite his lustreless performance. The upper castes were confused and voted in a divided manner. For his social re-engineering formula to succeed, he needs a more involved outreach that goes beyond the tokenism of distributing tickets. He has to rework his strategy on Muslims as a votebank and address their real concerns. He needs to develop youth voters, some of whom were too young to vote but did show up at his rallies. They are about 24 per cent of the electorate and with a wisened BJP, Tejashwi has to recruit them as his primary stakeholders. This generation has little or no memory of RJD as a scam-tainted party and he can repackage himself as someone who was starting afresh like them without harking back to the past. He needs to be seen as beginning on a clean slate. And that struggle must appear sincere to be valued.

Source: The Pioneer