Before Shahabuddin, after Shahabuddin: Bihar politics takes a nasty turn
After 11 years, former MP and RJD leader Mohammad Shahabuddin - also known as the dreaded strongman of Siwan - walked out of prison on bail last week.
But little did Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar know the extent of the damage this would cause. As the chief guest at a programme held for the annual Karam festival in Jharkhand on 9 September, he tried to raise the political temperature by demanding for the inclusion of the Kudmi caste in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category.
However, a political storm surround Shahabuddin in Kumar's own turf took the air out of this move.
The Kurmi issue may not have much significance in Bihar, but in Ranchi, his speech was bound to create political ripples.
The influential Kurmi caste of UP and Bihar is known as Kudmi in Jharkhand and they are believed to be the original inhabitants of the state. The Bihar CM belongs to the same caste.
Thanks to the support of the Kurmis, Sudesh Mahato, a young leader in Jharkhand, managed to successfully expand his All Jharkhand Students' Union and even become the Deputy CM of the state. His party is still a part of the BJP-led ruling alliance.
Nitish Kumar seeks to replicate Mahato's success to make inroads into the Jharkhand's power corridors and the demand raised by him was a part of the same strategy.
Shahabuddin controversy takes over
It's likely that Nitish Kumar couldn't have imagined that the release of Shahabuddin would snowball into such a major controversy.
The issue of according Scheduled Tribe status to the Kurmis has now been completely overshadowed while the chief minister busy firefighting the consequences of Shahabuddin's release.
As soon as he stepped out of jail, the Siwan strongman launched a tirade against Nitish Kumar. While Lalu Yadav maintained a studied silence, he found a tacit support in senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who stated that he did not agree with the decision to make Nitish Kumar Bihar CM.
The chief minister is known for his measured responses to criticism. But this time, he was vocal in his defence and retorted that the people of Bihar knew whom they've given their support and mandate to.
What's more, Kumar is reportedly preparing to send Shahabuddin back to jail by booking him under the Crime Control Act (CCA). According to media reports, he has discussed the idea in his cabinet as well as with the senior legal experts.
It still remains to be seen whether Kumar will also take action against his own MLA Girdhari Yadav, who had gone to welcome Shahabuddin after his release.
A shaky alliance?
Notwithstanding the claim made by the Bihar Deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav's that all was well within the government, there is speculation across Bihar whether JD(U)-RJD ties are strong enough to withstand the aftershocks of Shahabuddin's release. The ongoing verbal duel between the two parties has only fuelled the rumours and Lalu's silence has not helped either.
However, a closer look at the political equations in the state makes it clear that the arrangement between the two parties is not going to change anytime soon. It is highly unlikely unless Nitish Kumar makes up his mind to make peace with the BJP, which does not look like a possibility in the current scenario.
But there are whispers in Patna's political corridors that the RJD is trying to break the JD(U) to form a government of its own.
But the fact that Nitish Kumar kept the post of the Vidhan Sabha Speaker within his own party may pay off now, even though he had to concede several other plum portfolios to the RJD in the bargain.
Most analysts believe any attempt on Lalu's part to engineer a divide in JD(U) would be scuttled by the speaker, who is loyal to the chief minister.
A brewing situation
But even before the Shahabuddin episode, almost every town and village was already talking about the widening rift between the two parties.
Months after the formation of the government, RJD MP Taslimuddin had taken a swipe at the chief minister, claiming that Kumar had failed to control the crime situation in Bihar. More so, he said that Kumar's promise of good governance was a complete sham. The controversial MP from Araria has repeated such remarks on many occasions since then.
Then a photograph of a senior state minister and RJD leader Abdul Gafur meeting Shahabuddin in jail went viral. At the time, an embarrassed Nitish Kumar was forced to swallow his pride and stayed quiet despite severe criticism from the opposition. Lalu Prasad and other senior RJD leaders also condoned Gafur's action.
Even former union minister and RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh has taken up the habit of speaking against the grand alliance almost every month. He has repeatedly spoken against the liquor prohibition terming it as a 'black law'. Claiming that the Gopalganj hooch tragedy was a direct fallout of this law, Singh alleged that even JD(U) MLAs were against prohibition.
Now Raghuvansh Prasad has fired the latest salvo at the government by stating that he was against the coalition's decision to appoint Nitish Kumar as chief minister and his party had the first right to lead the government.
The widening schism
This consistent onslaught of RJD leaders on their own coalition government cannot be a coincidence, particularly because Lalu Prasad has not asked his leaders to pipe down. Many analysts believe it is actually a part of Lalu's strategy to keep Nitish Kumar under pressure.
The RJD supremo's reticence on important issues like liquor prohibition has also come as a surprise. According to political observers, he is waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
There are reasons for the schism between the two parties. While RJD and JD (U) are running the government together, differences between their ground workers remain intact.
The lack of a common political programme or campaign is one of the reasons for this incoherence. The tussle for the place of pre-eminence in the state politics is also causing friction between the two parties.
National ambitions at play
But, at the heart of the problem lies the clashing ambitions of Lalu and Nitish Kumar. While announcing Nitish Kumar as the chief minister, the RJD supremo had declared his intentions to wage a campaign against BJP at the national level. However, Nitish Kumar has not given this space to him. Instead, the chief minister has ventured himself to project his image as an alternative to Modi on the national stage.
By coining slogans like 'Sharab mukt Bharat, Sangh mukt Bharat', Nitish Kumar is now eyeing a role for himself on a larger scale and RJD finds no place in this plan.
As the grapevine has it, JD(U) is now also getting quite close to the Congress in Uttar Pradesh now that poll campaigning is underway. The latter's poll manager Prashant Kishor had played a pivotal role in the victory of the grand alliance in 2015.
Now Nitish Kumar is looking to woo the sizeable Kurmi voters in India's largest state - UP - to weaken the chances of the Samajwadi Party as well as the BJP. The Chief Minister hopes to ally with the Congress to expand his party's base in UP.
Lalu has been watching these developments closely. His strategy seems to be targeting the Congress as was evident when he termed Rahul Gandhi's cot rallies as a gimmick.
Shahabuddin has only acted as a catalyst to bring RJD-JD (U) rivalry to the surface. But it doesn't look like the grand alliance will manage to control the damage anytime soon.
While neither party is in a position to walk out from the alliance, the break-up of the coalition would unleash major changes in the politics of Bihar. The ramifications of such an eventuality are likely to be felt at the ground level.
The BJP is still grappling with bickering in its own house. The party has failed to appoint even a capable spokesperson in the state and Sushil Modi shoulders almost all major responsibilities. Even so, several Dalit leaders in the NDA camp like Ram Vilas Paswan, Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi are waiting eagerly for the grand alliance to fail.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu