A game of poaching on the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) legislators has begun to destabilise the Nitish Kumar government with a wafer-thin majority barely 10 days after its formation in Bihar.
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad, who has a record of effecting splits in different political parties, unsuccessfully tried to lure first-term BJP MLA Lalan Paswan and former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who heads the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) with four MLAs in the 243-member state assembly.
Offering ministerial berths, Prasad called them up from behind bars in Ranchi and asked them to abstain from the inaugural session of the newly constituted state assembly so that the NDA government fell during election of the Speaker of the state assembly.
The gambit, however, could not succeed and the legislators of the BJP and HAM remained solidly behind the official nominee for the post of the Speaker. The NDA managed to get the support of 126 MLAs against 114 of the opposition led by RJD, Congress and Left parties and supported by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
Lalu Prasad’s poaching ploy was exposed when the recorded version of the conversation between Lalan Paswan and him was made public by former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi. An FIR has already been lodged with the state vigilance, seeking appropriate action against Lalu Prasad under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
Prasad even tried to lure Sushil Modi by offering him to join the RJD. “You have been dumped by the BJP. Why don’t you join us,” he reportedly told Modi. After the audio-tape expose, Manjhi also revealed that he too had received a call with a similar request.
A situation favourable for horse-trading of legislators has been created by the wafer-thin majority with which the NDA government has been formed in Bihar. At present, the NDA has the strength of 125 MLAs while the opposition parties together have 110 MLAs besides five MLAs of the (AIMIM) and one each from the BSP, LJP and Independent.
It provides an opening for political hunters like Prasad, who is known for his precision to slice the rival political parties vertically. Prasad was on the prowl to turn the tables to his side as the opposition led by RJD is looking for a majority by poaching legislators since it is 12 short of the majority mark in the 243-member Bihar assembly.
Ever since he became the chief minister in 1990, Prasad was gripped with the fear of losing political power and saving his minority government. Therefore, he carried out several surgical operations on rival political parties, split them vertically and assimilated their legislators into his party in the name of consolidating the unity of the backwards and extremely backward castes.
In the beginning of 1991, he got the BJP split under the leadership of Inder Singh Namdhari, who was a towering leader of the party in south Bihar (now Jharkhand). The BJP then had 39 MLAs and the support of 13 legislators – one-third according to the then anti-defection law - was needed to split the party. Though Prasad had managed the support of 12 BJP legislators, he had allegedly forged the signature of Sasaram MLA Jawahar Prasad to achieve the required number of 13 legislators.
The crisis in the BJP then was triggered by the suspension of state BJP president Namdhari along with trade union leader Samaresh Singh for indulging in anti-party activities. Prasad lured them to his side by promising to extend support for the separate ‘Vananchal state’ comprising 13 districts of Chhotanagpur and Santhal Pargana in south Bihar.
Adept in engineering splits in the rival camp, Lalu also divided the CPI-ML (Liberation) with six legislators in 1993. Four of them had turned rebels and joined Prasad. He later caused a split in the CPI to muster enough support to command a majority in the Bihar assembly.
Prasad also broke away from the Janata Dal in 1997 when he was charge-sheeted in the multi-crore rupee fodder scam. With 17 MPs in the Lok Sabha and seven in the Rajya Sabha besides Bihar legislators, Prasad floated the RJD and installed his wife Rabri Devi as the chief minister.
In 2000, after the fall of the seven-day government led by Nitish Kumar, the RJD chief won over five Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) legislators in support of the then Rabri Devi government.
When Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) supremo Shibu Soren and senior leader Suraj Mandal began exploiting their position and started running parallel government in south Bihar districts, which later formed Jharkhand, Prasad played his favourite game of political brinkmanship and split the party with a section of its MLAs and MPs pledging support to his government.
The Machiavellian Prasad, however, had to bear the brunt of an attempt by Nitish Kumar to cause a split in the RJD legislature party for the first time in 2014. Kumar had lured 13 out of 22 MLAs of the RJD, who announced severing ties with the party. However, nine of the rebel MLAs returned to the RJD fold while four of them were recognised as a separate group in the state assembly.
An irate Prasad took to the streets against the Speaker’s decision and cried hoarse about Kumar’s alleged attempt to forge a split in his party. Eventually, the rebels claimed that their signatures were forged.
In the present case, the RJD leaders dismissed the allegations that they were poaching on the BJP legislators. It was the responsibility of the saffron party to keep its house in order, they said.
But the Congress with 19 legislators is trying hard to keep its legislature party intact as they fear a poaching attempt from the NDA constituents. The legislators are being continuously watched by senior leaders like Randeep Singh Surjewala, who is responsible for coordination with the MLAs and other allies of the Mahagathbandhan.
As poaching attempts may intensify in months to come, political parties with less number of MLAs are vulnerable. For them, wisdom lies in not allowing the opponents to launch an attack on the weak links.
The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.