In 2019, immediately after a humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha election, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) members found they couldn’t get in touch with leader Tejashwi Yadav at all. For over a month, as the clamour for him to take responsibility grew and senior leaders tried to hide their embarrassment, Tejashwi, reportedly stationed in New Delhi, remained completely inaccessible.
Even when he finally surfaced in Patna, the leader of the opposition didn’t make it to key debates in the Bihar assembly, allowing the Nitish Kumar-led government a walkover in crucial issues such as the deaths of 180 children due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome.
More than a year down the line, things seem to have improved a little—Tejashwi is now visible during assembly sessions, he took out a “Berojgari Hatao” (eradicate unemployment) yatra throughout the state, and his unpredictable brother Tej Pratap Yadav has declared that he will support the RJD leader’s decisions—for now.
But as RJD prepares for its first assembly elections without Lalu Prasad Yadav at the helm, party leaders are watching to see how Tejashwi will manage the arguments that will likely crop up once candidates are announced, as well as the large-scale defections from RJD to the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U).
“Blunders and debacles will go on but RJD or even the Mahagathbandhan has no choice but to accept his (Tejashwi’s) leadership. Things are better now. He is traveling around the state. Just look at the crowd at his rallies everywhere. People are turning up to see and listen to him. There may be some mistakes in the past but it gets overshadowed when he works on the field,” a senior RJD leader told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
At first glance, it seems like the opposition has a lot on its side—a BJP internal survey claims its ally and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar faces heavy anti-incumbency sentiment; the state’s Covid-19 case tally has crossed 1.6 lakh; and like every year, floods have devastated millions of livelihoods this year.
Yet, the opposition Grand Alliance—which includes RJD, Congress, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, Vikassheel Insaan Party and some Left parties—led by Tejashwi has been unable to build a compelling narrative against Kumar’s 15-year-long rule. Some of this, party leaders say, is down to Tejashwi’s unwillingness to involve senior leaders in discussions.
“Tejashwi has age on his side. This will probably be Nitish’s last assembly election. Even if we presume that RJD will lose this election, Tejaswhi has far more time to establish himself than any other politician in the grand alliance. Tejashwi is doing better now but it is also true that he could do better if he listens to seniors like us. Very few leaders inside the party have Tejashwi’s mobile number. He is surrounded by people who are still evolving and learning things. This is really not the way a leader is made,” said the senior leader cited above.
A Congress MLA expressed similar helplessness.
“What choice do we have apart from him? You tell me,” this leader, from the Seemanchal region of the state, told HuffPost India.
The ‘who-else-but-Tejashwi’ despair expressed by these leaders are a far cry from the enthusiasm and confidence with which the Congress and RJD fought the last assembly election, in 2015. In alliance with the JD(U), the Grand Alliance won 178 out of 243 seats in the state. The RJD had emerged as the single-largest party, winning 80 seats. But with Nitish jumping camps to the BJP and Lalu in jail, political observers say the party is unlikely to win back many of these seats.
A senior journalist based in Patna who has reported on Bihar for years says Tejaswhi has his own share of troubles, beginning with his own family.
“His elder brother is close to (mother) Rabri Devi and his sister Misa Bharti is close to her father. At times, he finds himself isolated and alone,” the journalist added.
While Tej Pratap is quiet right now, the RJD may have to deal with another round of his outbursts if his loyalists are not given tickets. During the Lok Sabha elections, Tej Pratap had openly rebelled against the RJD by putting up candidates and canvassing for them.
But Tej Pratap has one more complication to deal with in this election. There is speculation that his estranged wife Aishwarya Rai could contest against him this time, especially since his father-in-law Chandrika Rai left RJD to join JD(U) a few months ago. While there have been conversations in the RJD about Tej Pratap potentially changing his assembly seat Mahua this time, a final decision has not been taken yet, HuffPost India has learnt.
Another major issue plaguing the RJD is the defection of legislators, including some senior leaders close to Lalu. Thirteen MLAs and MLCs have defected from RJD to JD(U) in the past three months, including Bhola Rai, a hardcore Lalu loyalist who had vacated his assembly segment Raghopur for the leader in 1990. Since then Raghaopur had become a Lalu family seat—in 2015, Tejashwi won from here by over 22,000 votes. But the moment Bhola Rai joined JDU, he declared that this time Tejashwi would lose the election from this seat.
“Mahagathbandhan is doomed now. There is more selfishness there than work. Tejashwi Yadav will lose from Raghaopur this time. He has not done any work in this constituency. He was getting elected because of me and my supporters,” Bhola Rai told reporters in Patna after joining JD(U) in the presence of senior JDU leader Lallan Singh.
The grand alliance’s Dalit face, former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, has also joined the JD(U)-led NDA in Bihar.
But the biggest shock to RJD came from senior RJD leader and one of the party founders Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who died last week.
Three days before his death, Raghuvansh Prasad had written a letter to Lalu from the hospital, informing him of his decision to resign.
There was speculation that Raghuvansh Prasad, who was the rural development minister in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, was leaning towards the JD(U) when he wrote to Nitish Kumar for some assistance in development work in his constituency.
In another handwritten letter, Raghuvansh Prasad accused Lalu of practicing dynastic politics and of deviating from the principles on which the RJD was founded.
“Photos of five family members have replaced those of Ambedkar, Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Karpoori Thakur and Lohia in the RJD,” Raghuvansh allegedly wrote in the letter, taking a dig at the fact that Lalu, his wife, two sons and daughter are in politics.
As the letter went public, a controversy brewed inside and outside the RJD that senior leaders, including those close to Lalu, were not being treated with respect by the new leadership.
Tej Pratap’s comments terming Raghuvansh Prasad “only a mug of water in the grand ocean of the party” deteriorated the situation.
While Raghuvansh Prasad’s dissent and death have come as a blow to RJD, the party has questioned the authenticity of his letters.
“Lalu Prasad Yadav’s sons have been at the helm for quite some time now but he did not make any complaint then. He had been regularly attending the party functions along with Tejashwi. He was in ICU and on a ventilator and then his letters appeared and he died after that. It is all very mysterious. It is difficult to say exactly what happened but everything looks quite mysterious,” RJD vice-president Shivanand Tiwari told HuffPost India.