Patna: Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader and former Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav is back in the state, but his nearly three-month hibernation may have cost him his image as a serious player in local politics.
While a section of the RJD is rooting for his appointment as party chief, with Tejashwi’s father and RJD chief Lalu Prasad in jail for the fodder scam, others are not nearly as enthusiastic.
Political observers told ThePrint that, before he sets his sights on winning the 2020 assembly polls against Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and its ally BJP, Tejashwi’s immediate challenge lies in gaining absolute power over the RJD, a mandate denied to him so far by Lalu.
“The task is daunting as he has lost the tag of a serious politician due to his prolonged absence,” said an RJD MLA.
Mahagathbandhan allies of the RJD seem to echo this sentiment. “We do not consider Tejashwi Yadav the CM candidate for the 2020 assembly polls,” said MLA Shakeel Ahmad Khan of the Congress.
Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) has dubbed Tejashwi a child and refused to recognise him as CM material.
Even Lalu himself has reportedly been miffed that Tejashwi disappeared after the coalition’s near-washout in the Lok Sabha polls — where the BJP-led NDA won 39 of the state’s 40 seats — and missed the Bihar assembly’s monsoon session.
The state, meanwhile, underwent the crushing AES crisis that saw dozens of children succumb to encephalitis amid questions over Bihar’s underwhelming health infrastructure, and a spate of floods that affected nearly 77 lakh people and left over 100 dead.
As Bihar battled these challenges, Tejashwi, the leader of the opposition in the assembly, was missing in action despite multiple pleas made by his father and mother Rabri Devi, another former chief minister of the state.
Tejashwi’s departure and arrival — with a blink-and-you-miss return in June — both came amid a churn in the RJD about its leadership.
His supporters say that he wanted complete control over the party, where his “rebel” brother Tej Pratap Yadav and sister Misa Bharati don’t have a say anyway, and powers to decide the RJD’s poll candidates and allies.
During the Lok Sabha polls, Lalu overruled Tejashwi’s objections about giving away as many as 21 of the 40 seats to allies. “In frustration, he not only skipped three days of campaigning but also did not go for the filing of nomination papers of key ally Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party,” said an RJD MLA.
His ensuing absence from the state triggered calls within within the party to find an alternative.
In the first week of August, senior RJD leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said Lalu should think “beyond the family”.
RJD sources said an impatient Lalu warned Tejashwi that he would get someone else elected the leader of the opposition if he failed to come back.
Even so, the former chief minister is said to have choreographed a campaign within the RJD for Tejashwi’s appointment as chief.
That’s why, sources in the party said, Tejashwi’s return to Patna was preceded by a chorus from 10 of the RJD’s 80 MLAs to make him president.
“It will make the functioning of the party smooth,” one of the MLAs, Bhai Birendar, told ThePrint.
“Right now, the problem is that Laluji is in judicial custody in Ranchi. There is a breakdown of communication among a large number of RJD leaders and workers, and the decision-making leader,” he added. “Laluji will be our leader for life but it is Tejashwi who can fill this void.”
Amid this vacuum, another senior RJD leader said, Tejashwi may be given the post of working president of the party while Lalu remains the national president.
Missing the picture
Ever since Tejashwi returned to Patna just over a week ago, he has hit the road twice.
On 20 August, he staged an eight-hour dharna near Patna railway station against the demolition of a milk collection centre on the premises, which was carried out as part of the Nitish government’s anti-encroachment drive.
The same day, he protested against the demolition of fruit stalls located near the busy Income Tax roundabout in the capital city, where he called Nitish Kumar the “chief minister of the rich… who was out to finish the poor by taking their livelihood in the name of an anti-encroachment drive”.
He also attacked Nitish’s close confidant R.C.P. Sinha, whose daughter, IPS officer Lipi Singh, was instrumental in getting don-turned-politician Anant Singh booked under UAPA after the recovery of an AK-47 and hand grenades from his house.
But Tejashwi’s return to Bihar politics is being viewed with cynicism even within his own party.
“At Patna junction, Tejashwi was wooing his core voters — Yadavs,” said an RJD MLA. “But he seems to have missed the point that the milk collection centre was considered a den for fake milk… Residents of Patna are happy about its demolition.”
This is far from the lone voice. In RJD circles, there are talks about the opportunities Tejashwi missed.
“During his absence, the state reeled under AES deaths of children. Floods in parts of north Bihar, and we had a one-month assembly session in which Tejashwi made a two-minute appearance,” said another RJD MLA.
“These were opportunities which could have been used by an opposition leader. Instead, he is opposing the anti-encroachment drive which is being welcomed by the people of Patna.
Meanwhile, the party finds itself in disarray in the absence of a clear leader.
It’s well-known that MLAs Chandrika Rai and Maheshwar Yadav may end up in the BJP and the JD(U), respectively. “But the number of defectors may cross over 40, as most RJD MLAs feel that Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership will not be enough to see them through the 2020 assembly polls,” said a third RJD senior.
Tejashwi has, as of now, dropped the soft gloves for Nitish amid depleting hopes of his return to the mahagathbandhan.
But insiders say there’s a lot more he needs to do before he can establish himself as a leader of worth.
“The worst problem is extending our vote bank beyond Muslims and Yadavs,” said one of the RJD members contacted by ThePrint. “Tejashwi appears clueless about the problem… Tejashwi first has to establish himself as a credible leader before thinking of becoming the chief minister…”
In the 2015 assembly election, the RJD emerged as the largest party with 80 of the state’s 243 seats (it had contested 101). It assumed office with the Congress and then ally JD(U), but was forced out as Nitish returned to the BJP fold two years later.
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