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Bihar By-poll: Tejashwi Emerges as Symbol of Opposition to RSS-BJP

Nalin Verma |
The run-up to the by-elections in two Assembly constituencies of Bihar today has highlighted the growing acceptance of Tejaswhi Yadav in the state.
Bihar: Tejashwi Yadav Blames ‘Bhitarghat’ for RJD’s Narrow Defeat in Assembly Polls

Image Courtesy: National Herald

Gopalganj: Thave in north Bihar’s district of Gopalganj houses the historical temple of Goddess Kali. The locals and visitors to the region—the birthplace of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav and borders Uttar Pradesh—visit the shrine to seek the goddess’s blessings.

The Assembly constituency of Gopalganj, where a by-election is being held today along with Mokama in south Bihar, has become a rendezvous for hundreds of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers drawn from their headquarters in Nagpur and from Uttar Pradesh where a BJP government is in power. Apart from 40 BJP MLAs and three central ministers, the Hindutva party has deployed many cadres from Ayodhya and Varanasi, epicentres of saffron power, to retain Gopalganj. This is a seat the BJP’s Subhas Singh retained for four consecutive elections. His death is the reason for the by-poll here.

“The facility at the Thave shrine has improved with Prime Minister Narendra Modi focussing on the temples. Look at how Modi Ji took special care of Kedarnath, Ujjain Mahakal Lok corridor, Kashi Vishwanath temple at Varanasi and the Ayodhya,” a visitor told his companions at Thave.

“But it’s not the PM’s duty to move from temple to temple doing puja wearing different outfits and costumes and getting photographed for publicity. It would be better if he does something to check the spiralling prices of essential goods, staggering unemployment and slide in our economic health,” says Awadhesh Kumar, a local youth and journalist, intervening in the discourse. “The PM should focus on what he has been elected for,” Awadhesh says.

The visitor’s remarks and the intervention by Awadhesh reflect the division in people’s opinions concerning Modi’s preferential treatment of Hindu places of worship and his regime’s neglect or persecution of minorities.

At a tea shop at Uchkagaon—a local mart—some unemployed youths ridiculed how the “policemen massaged the limbs of kawariyas (Hindu pilgrims who travel on foot to mark a festival of the god Shiva) and helicopters showering flower petals on them during their religious yatra. Tejaswhi and Nitish Kumar are better than Adityanath Yogi—they talk about unemployment and livelihood. They don’t engage policemen in massaging the kawarias’ limbs”. At the same time, there were some elderly villagers present who said Adityanath and Modi had “fixed” the Muslims.

Over a month-long campaign in Gopalganj has birthed two discernible phenomena—the deputy chief minister Tejaswhi Yadav has emerged as the most potent symbol of opposition to the RSS-BJP in this part of the state, and he is now seen as a leader in his own right.

The identity of opposition to the Sangh world-view is something Tejaswhi has inherited from his father without any amendments. Since he became chief minister in 1990, Lalu emerged as the vocal opponent and critic of the RSS-BJP and did not hesitate before arresting senior BJP leader LK Advani during his Hindu-nationalist rath yatra. Lalu also halted Ashok Singhal, Praveen Togadia and many other RSS operatives from visiting Bihar and cracked down on those involved in the campaign to demolish the Babri mosque. Lalu became a household name, particularly for ridiculing what the RSS-BJP and its leaders stand for. Often, Lalu’s words were strong, as when he described the BJP as “Bharat Jalaao Party (burn India party), dangaiyon ki party (party of rioters), shadyantra-kariyon ki party (party of conspirators), kayar (coward) etc.”.

Tejaswhi: Like Father Like Son

Tejaswhi has largely adopted the lingo of his father in attacking the RSS-BJP. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal are vying to replace the BJP as a more aggressive champion of Hindutva. He has called for pictures of Hindu deities on currency notes, funding Hindus’ pilgrimages and removing Mahatma Gandhi’s photographs from government offices. Meanwhile, Tejaswhi has ferociously attacked every template the RSS-BJP have built to appease Hindutva forces.

Some observers believe the founder of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the late Mulayam Singh Yadav, unlike Lalu, was occasionally ambiguous about the BJP. They cite the example of Mulayam “wishing for the return of Modi to power” during his speech in the Lok Sabha on the eve of the 2019 General Election. Some say his son, Akhilesh Yadav, is not “as clear and direct” as Tejaswhi in countering the RSS-BJP narrative. They cite Akhilesh paying obeisance to Hindutva outfits, pampering sadhus at the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in 2020, and adopting Hindu religious mannerisms and customs in his public conduct as apparent bids “not to look too pro-Muslim and too anti-Hindu”.

Locals at Gopalganj say Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, who maintains clout among a section of Dalits in Gopalganj, also helped the BJP in the January 2022 Assembly election. They say she did this by putting up Muslim candidates to cut into the votes of the Samajwadi Party. And some are more direct in their criticism when they call Kejriwal and Mayawati the “B Team” of the BJP.

However, for Gopalganj residents and the people of Bihar generally, Tejashwi is a clear-cut anti-RSS-BJP leader. This perception exists among his supporters and opponents alike, who also feel he is building himself to be a leader who can fit into his father’s shoes in the future.

However, Tejashwi has made certain strategic amendments to expand the base and acceptability of his party among a wider section of people. Because of his forceful championing of the Mandal Commission report and no-holds-barred attacks on elite castes, Lalu could command a significant following among the marginalised and weaker sections. Tejaswhi, on the other hand, has tried to soften his approach towards the youths of all social sections.

Tejaswhi describes his RJD as the “Party of A to Z,” meaning all sections. And he focuses on kamai, padhai, dawai, sichai, sunwai, karrwai (employment, education, health, irrigation, attention (to people’s grievances) and action. He has created a space among the unemployed youth of all sections and the people at large, who have been braving the heat of price rise and dwindling sources of livelihood in the rural hinterlands.

Clarity on Nitish’s Part

Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) has been a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance for over 22 years, but the Bihar Chief Minister has been diligent enough to ensure his party is identified with socialism rather than militant Hindutva. He got a bill against the National Register for Citizens (NRC) passed in the state Assembly, announced he would not implement the NRC in Bihar, fenced some 800 Muslim graveyards, cleared pensions for 1989 Bhagalpur riot victim families, got a branch of the Aligarh Muslim University opened in Kishanganj and improved madrasas and Islamic seminaries in the state, even when he was allied with the BJP.

It is not that the state did not have disturbances, and the finger of blame for these incidents was regularly pointed at Hindutva operatives. There were instances of attack on the Muslims in the name of cow protection in the Muzaffarpur and Champaran regions, but Nitish stayed alert, and the police identified and acted against trouble-makers. The government machinery largely kept away from conducting rituals in temples—be it with the kawarias or Durga Puja, which was celebrated in September.

Nitish was always uncomfortable with the BJP on the issue of communalism. Tejaswhi is entirely in sync with him on this issue and many other people-related issues that the BJP glosses over.

The results of the Gopalganj and Mokama assembly constituencies going to the polls today will be announced on 6 November, but these by-elections have had people raise questions about the Narendra Modi brand of politics. Under the circumstances, the increasing acceptance of Tejaswhi is a natural outcome.

The author is a senior journalist and media educator. The views are personal.

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