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Lalu Yadav and the Shahabuddin game

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There is much more to the recent controversy related to Siwan leader Mohammad Shahabuddin than meets the eye. He is merely a player in the political script written by Lalu Prasad to preserve his own legacy 

Mantosh Sharma

Politics, especially if it is related to Bihar and Lalu Yadav, quintessentially involves behind-the-scene games. What is visible on the surface and in mainstream media may not give the complete picture.

Take the case of criminal-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin. Out on bail following the order of the Patna High Court after languishing in prison for more than a decade, the former RJD MP’s (from Siwan) release has created a public furore. The bail was given to him in a case related to the murder of a witness in the killing of two brothers in Siwan, way back in 2004.

The release of Bihar’s “Bahubali” has caused acute embarrassment to the Nitish Kumar government. After all, Shahabuddin typifies the lawlessness and goonda raj that had become synonymous with the government led by Lalu Prasad before it paved way for the Nitish dispensation in 2005. And the promise to rid the people of Bihar from the scourge of lawlessness and jungle raj was one of the principle promises of JD (U)’s Nitish Kumar before he was voted to power.

Although the state government is likely to support a petition in the Supreme Court opposing the bail of Shahabuddin, the disparaging remarks made by the “don” against the chief minister itself is alarming and perplexing. After receiving an overwhelming welcome when he came out of Bhagalpur jail, Shahabuddin claimed that only Lalu Prasad was his leader and Nitish was only a “CM of circumstances”. His controversial remark was supported by another senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.

Shahabuddin’s recent political rehabilitation is significant in this context. He was drafted into the RJD’s new national executive in April this year. The move was widely criticized by political parties opposed to RJD and JD (U).

Coming back to the backroom machinations, conflicting questions emerge out of the situation. First, the timing of Shahabuddin’s outburst against Kumar. Why did he make such an outrageous statement when he is still a convict? In fact, he had almost faded into oblivion during his long stay in prison and had evaded media attention. Even during Nitish’s first stint as CM, he was not in the news.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar

Shahabuddin’s recent political rehabilitation is significant in this context. He was drafted into the RJD’s new national executive in April this year. The move was widely criticized by political parties opposed to RJD and JD (U). They blamed the RJD of still being in cahoots with criminals despite the stand taken by Nitish Kumar (when he forged the Grand Alliance for the 2015 Bihar assembly elections) that he will bring in sushashan. Lalu may be brushing aside the controversy as a media creation, but there is much that needs to be read between the lines. Why did he not ask his senior colleague to maintain silence and not shoot from the hip? Why did he allow the crisis to gain further momentum?           

To understand the background, we need to dig into the political background of both Lalu Prasad and Shahabuddin and their rise as leaders of relevance.

Lalu may be brushing aside the controversy as a media creation, but there is much that needs to be read between the lines. Why did he not ask his senior colleague to maintain silence and not shoot from the hip? Why did he allow the crisis to gain further momentum? 

Shahabuddin was a small time goon in the 1980s. In 1989, when the Mandal movement was at its peak, he secured a ticket from the Janata Dal and won from the Ziradei assembly constituency in the Siwan district of Bihar. The victory though by a slender margin heralded his political career.

Later, Shahabudin positioned himself as a crusader of the upper caste, fighting the ultra-leftist party IPF/CPI-ML in the Siwan district. The upper castes who were the target of the CPI-ML rallied behind Shahabuddin and sought his protection. This enabled him to become a “Robinhood” for those who felt threatened by CPI-ML. Chandrasheker, the then JNU president and AISA leader was allegedly murdered in Siwan by Shahabuddin in 1997 and this suited the changed political landscape of the region. The killing made Shahabuddin popular and he gained legitimacy for his actions with the support of influential upper castes. Contrary to what is being touted, it is the upper caste landlords who helped Shahabuddin to establish himself politically, and not Lalu Prasad.

However, all this placed him on the wrong side of the local leadership of the Janata Dal. Two prominent Janata Dal ministers, Awadh Bihari Chaudhari and Shanker Yadav (both Yadavs) in the then Lalu dispensation did not support him. Many Yadavs were murdered in the region which saw a fierce tussle between the Muslims and Yadavs and this fight for supremacy between Shahabuddin and the local Yadav leadership continues even today.

Shahabuddin had a love-hate relationship with Lalu Prasad. The latter extended support and guarded him in his fight with the local Janata Dal leadership. But on occasions, Shahabuddin was even shown his place during Lalu’s regime, again belying the impression that the ex-MP receives blind support from Lalu. 

Moreover, Lalu is fiercely protective of the Muslim-Yadav vote bank and he would have in no way allowed Shahabuddin to gain in stature as a leader of the Muslims, eclipsing him. Therefore, Shahabuddin’s rise does not mean that he had become the Muslim face in Bihar with the backing of Lalu Yadav.

In an interview to DK Singh of Hindustan Times published on July 19, 2015, Lalu had said “it’s a fight between Mandal and Kamandal”. He was broadening his anticipated political support base from the Yadavs to the backwards. Already the BJP was giving tickets to Yadavs with an aim to wean away the community from Lalu and build its own Yadav leadership. In fact, Hukum Deo Narayan Yadav, Nityanand Rai, Union minister Ramkripal Yadav, MP from Siwan Om Prakash Yadav, Nand Kishore Yadav, Ramsurat Rai were all visible BJP’s Yadav faces in Bihar. This had threatened Lalu and he was trying to broaden his Mandal base before the Bihar assembly elections.

However, the Yadav fallout didn’t happen as expected by Lalu. Had the BJP fought the Bihar elections under the local Yadav leadership, the Yadav consolidation wouldn’t have taken place under Lalu and the election results would have been quite different. Having said that, Lalu knows that the Yadav consolidation under him will not last forever.

Secondly, since 1989, the urban population in Bihar has gone up to 30 percent. The new-age educated middle-class Yadavs shun lawlessness and hooliganism. They don’t support acts of Rajballav Yadav, JD MLA, who is going through rape charges or others who resort to extortion and crime. Lalu is facing difficulties endearing himself to this new breed of Yadavs with his old-style politics.

The criticism from BJP and other opposition parties in Bihar suits Lalu Prasad perfectly. He is letting it go to discredit the Nitish government. Shahabuddin, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and others are only small pawns in Lalu’s scheme of things. In fact Lalu is happy, when BJP makes loud noises on the “jungle raj” issue.     

The RJD supremo is desperate to carve his own legacy and establish his children in politics. Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the deputy CM also belongs to the new breed of Yadavs, is virtually a rookie in politics and engulfed by the charisma of a tall leader like Nitish Kumar. Lalu wants Tejaswi to come out of the shadows of Nitish.     

Therefore, the criticism from BJP and other opposition parties in Bihar on the Shahabuddin issue suits Lalu Prasad perfectly. He is letting it go to discredit the Nitish government. Shahabuddin, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and others are only small pawns in Lalu’s scheme of things. In fact Lalu is happy, when BJP makes loud noises on the “jungle raj” issue.

Shahabuddin is and will be always a political tool for Lalu’s ambitions. In all this media hoopla, he will only end up at the receiving end. All the brouhaha has created enough political capital for the central government, the Nitish government and the civil society (represented by Prashant Bhushan) to take the case to its logical legal conclusion. Shahabuddin may end up getting prosecuted in more cases and spend the rest of the life behind bars.

Lead pictures: (L-R) Mohammad Shahabuddin along with his supporters after his release from Bhagalpur jail; RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav. Photos: UNI

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