Yesterday, more than twenty years after they last addressed a meeting together, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar shared the dais at a gathering in Hajipur, brought together by the common cause of defeating the BJP in upcoming by-elections in Bihar. Their political partnership in the Janata Dal in the early 1990s had fallen apart over Laloo’s intemperate ways, his reckless governance and his distrust of Nitish. But though Laloo sidelined Nitish in the party in the first years of the 1990s, it wasn’t until 1994 that the latter worked up the courage to formally part ways with him.
In this nailbiting scene from his Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Sankarshan Thakur recreates the day in 1994 that Nitish took the stage at an anti-Laloo rally, marking the beginning of a two-decade-long split.
Laloo’s ascent to power on a stable majority became occasion for a redistribution of political spoils—local government appointments, public sector sinecures, police and administrative posts where there was money to be made, lucrative government contracts, real estate allotments, transport and liquor licences. Most of those were cornered by influential Yadavs, among them Laloo’s brothers-in-law Sadhu and Subhash. When job reservation based on the Mandal Commission’s writ was endorsed by the Supreme Court in 1992, Laloo moved swiftly to implement it. But non-Yadavs in the coalition were almost immediately alerted to a catch in the clause: Yadavs, as the most populous, would get to skim the cream, the rest would have to scrape the bottom. Nitish protested. At a memorial function on Karpoori Thakur’s anniversary in 1993, he cautioned the Laloo government against ignoring the Bihar-specific amendments the late leader had proposed to the Mandal formula—the lesser privileged backward communities, or the extremely backward communities (EBCs) as they came to be known, must have a quota within the reservation quota, else they would continue to languish. Laloo paid no attention. On the contrary, he let flourish conspiratorial speculation that Kurmis and Koeris would be taken off the quota list. But the more he ignored and irked non-Yadav backwards, the shriller they turned on him. The lead was taken by Kurmis and Koeris, the most assertive and numerically powerful groups among non-Yadav backwards. They began to organize protests, if only as a social lobby group within the Janata Dal marquee. They were being denied their legitimate rights, they railed, and it hurt no less that a backward protagonist like Laloo Yadav was denying them: the Yadavs had become the new Brahmins, usurpers of privilege.
The anti-Laloo swirl swelled into a massive gathering at Gandhi Maidan in February 1994. It was a revolt, but still an insider revolt. The protagonists of the show hadn’t formally departed from the Janata Dal, they hadn’t raised a separate political standard, they gathered under a caste banner, the Kurmi banner. Kurmi Chetna Rally, the event called itself, a platform for Kurmi reawakening. In numbers and fervour, it far outstripped Laloo’s garib raila of a few months ago. Laloo, who sat cloistered at home with his caucus all morning, glued to intelligence reports on who had come and how many, what they were saying and demanding, must have felt a shiver. What he was most keen to learn was whether Nitish had decided to join. He was Bihar’s best-known Kurmi leader, and his rupture with Laloo had become Patna’s worst-kept secret. If Nitish decided to climb the Chetna Rally stage, the split would become formal. Days before the scheduled gathering, Laloo had had a message conveyed to Nitish that if he went to the rally, it would be treated like an act of treason. The rally was a conspiracy against his government, Laloo argued. If Nitish participated it would be tantamount to a betrayal of the cause, whatever Laloo meant by that. Part of him was certain Nitish would defy him, but he still wanted to know for sure.
A walkie-talkie crackled constantly in the hands of a plainclothes cop just behind where Laloo and company sat on the back lawns of 1 Aney Marg. Laloo knew Kurmis had gathered mammoth numbers at Gandhi Maidan. What interested him more was news of just one man: ‘Aaaya ji Nitishwa? Pata lagao kahan hai.’ ... Has Nitish arrived? Find out where he is. Nitish was in a roil of his own, huddled with a clutch of friends and followers at Vijay Krishna’s Chhaju Bagh ministerial quarters, a stone’s throw from the Gandhi Maidan. Vijay Krishna had had a dust-up with Laloo recently. He had resigned as minister and become an active dissident. The Kurmi simmer, he believed, was the moment to turn the heat on Laloo, and who could do that more effectively than Nitish. He had called Nitish home early in the morning and exhorted him, over breakfast and beyond, to assume leadership of the Gandhi Maidan protest.