Tejashwi Yadav, Leader of Opposition – Bihar Assembly, feels Bengal polls showed that people believe in secularism, says it is up to Chirag Paswan to come clear on his ideology for any alliance, calls Modi govt reshuffle a bid to cover up failings, and elaborates on why Lalu remains relevant. The session was moderated by Special Correspondent Dipankar Ghose
DIPANKAR GHOSE: You helmed a very intense campaign during the Bihar elections last year. After the polls, you emerged as the single largest party but couldn’t form the government. In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
It was a very important election and for the first time my father (Lalu Prasad) was not physically present with us. The entire responsibility was on my shoulders. We were competing against ‘the world’s largest party’ (the BJP). Many smaller alliances were created to cut into our votes. All the Central ministers landed in Bihar, apart from members of the Bihar government, Nitish Kumar… Central agencies such as the CBI, ED, Income Tax department were also unleashed. So our fight was very important.
A year before the elections, we decided to raise the issue of unemployment because Bihar has turned into a centre of unemployment. The state has a large young population, many of whom migrate out of the state. We even started an unemployment yatra, but then the pandemic struck and we had to cancel everything. Also, it was the first election being held in the pandemic. We were clueless about how things would unfold. We told the Election Commission that if the situation is bad, they can delay the polls as well. So while we contested the polls, we didn’t get much time to prepare.
We have often seen that the BJP tries to communalise the atmosphere during elections; they create divisions. Bihar was one election where we forced them to speak on issues. We got a lot of support in our rallies, and our vote share also shows that. If you raise ground issues, people support you. The Chief Minister would mock us and say how will we give 10 lakh jobs, and then his own ally promised 19 lakh jobs.
In terms of resources, we fell short in front of the BJP. If we had one helicopter, they had 30. Since the elections were happening in only one state then, they had put their entire might into it. The mandate of the people was with the Mahagathbandhan, but you can say that the decision of the EC was in favour of the NDA… This also shows that we are not just a ‘M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) party’, as is often believed, but that we are an ‘A-Z party’.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: After the results, you said you would go to court. Why did you decide against it later?
About 12 of our candidates have gone to the high court with evidence. For example, in Munger, when the voting ended, the EC announced the total number of votes cast. But then on the day of the results, more votes were counted. How is that possible? In Hilsa constituency, our candidate Shakti Singh called me up at 5.30 pm and said that he had won the seat with 550 votes. At midnight he was told he had lost by 12 votes. All this evidence will be placed in court.
MANOJ C G: Was giving the Congress 70 seats a mistake?
When the Mahagathbandhan was made, our national president had said that like-minded parties need to come together. That is how Nitish Kumar also joined us in 2015… The Congress has been our oldest ally, whether it is at the Centre or state. We are like-minded parties. This time we also worked on bringing the Left parties on board. We wanted to build a broader alliance and give people an option.
Every party wants to fight on more seats. When you are fighting as part of an alliance, whether it is the Congress or RJD, it is all one. People voted for our agenda. Our effort was to focus on winnability. If a party is strong in an area, it should fight from that seat. If you have to keep the alliance intact, you have to make some small sacrifices, and being the largest party in Bihar, we did that and brought everyone together.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: When you say that you are an ‘A-Z party’, is there a conscious attempt to break away from the politics of caste?
You have to see the reality… In the ’90s, there was a need for social justice. People wouldn’t even go to polling booths. Booths were looted and votes were cast. The effort was to bring the oppressed sections, the back-benchers of society into the mainstream. There was a need to ensure equality. That was the reality then. Laluji also said this on our foundation day.
Now, we need economic justice. Today there are many platforms for people to raise their demands and be heard. Poverty, inflation are big problems. In Bihar, in 27 districts, the price of petrol has crossed Rs 100. Bihar grows a lot of maize, sugarcane, bananas, but there are no food processing units for this produce. There are not enough factories and industries in the state which can create jobs. No work has been done for it by the government. The condition of farmers is worse than labourers. Nitish Kumar had dissolved the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis in 2006. This increased migration. Even now, Bihar has to deal with both floods and droughts and the government has not found any solutions. That is why economic justice is very important now and so we are raising it.
… I can also say that Nitish Kumar is very casteist. The party whip, the national president of the party, they are all from his caste. So people can run their propaganda… But we are seeing the reality and raising issues.
SANTOSH SINGH: How do you see Chirag Paswan’s role in Bihar politics in the future?
I have always wanted to see more youth participation in policy-making and decision-making. We have always had good relations with Chirag Paswan, and even my father had good relations with the late Ram Vilas Paswan. They worked together in UPA-1. Through the media also we have always said that Chirag Paswan needs to be more clear in his ideology. He has to decide (on any possible alliance in the future).
SANTOSH SINGH: Your alliance with the CPI (M-L) helped you reach out to Dalit voters. Are you looking at broadening your vote base further by bringing in other parties into the Grand Alliance?
If an alliance gets broader, you get more votes. If you compare the 2019 general election vote share to the state polls last year, there was a big difference. By allying with parties that are in touch with ground realities, we have benefited, and we have also benefited them. The CPI (M-L) won 12 seats this time, compared to three last time. Alliance is not just about votes and coming to power, we have to ally with like-minded parties, whose ideology matches ours. The RJD is the only party that has never compromised on its ideology, on its commitments, despite what Laluji had to face. Many parties joined the NDA, BJP at some stage, but not the RJD. We have always fought against communal forces who want to sell the country…
SANTOSH SINGH: What if Nitish Kumar becomes like-minded tomorrow?
You cannot trust him. We gave him one chance, and he did what he is known for. During the Union Cabinet expansion, he again did a U-turn. His words hold no value. We don’t have a machine to detect that if he joins us, he will not do a U-turn again.
SANTOSH SINGH: You are criticised for not hitting the streets as often as your father did…
You see my yatras, I have covered 18,000 km by road. Now, for the past year-and-a-half, we have been facing the pandemic. We asked for permission to visit families of affected people, but didn’t get it. You must have seen pictures of Laluji and I sitting with villagers, talking to farmers… Show me a recent picture of the CM doing any such thing or talking to the youth. He gets lathicharge done on them. The walls of the CM’s residence are getting higher, his security is increasing. During his yatras, he just gets off the helicopter, sees the project and returns. I meet common people every day. The CM only meets bureaucrats for analysis meetings. And what is the result of that? Healthcare, education, everything is in a shambles in Patna. We have been raising issues. This is the first time that people in power are looking to find out what the Opposition leader is doing.
If we had not raised our voice, migrant workers would not have been allowed to return to Bihar (during the first phase of the pandemic), trains would not have run, and lakhs of people would have died on the streets. It is because of us that Nitish Kumar has come down to 43 seats. Bihar has a strong Opposition. When I hit the streets to demand the 19 lakh jobs they promised to the youth, I was charged under Section 307, attempt to murder! I face at least 25 such cases… As CM, if you are trying to find me, then why are you sitting on that chair, make me sit on it. I will do your work.
RAVISH TIWARI: The political scenario now is highly polarised. As a young politician, how do you intend to tackle it in the future?
This politics of polarisation has increased a lot since 2014. If anyone speaks against the ruling party, they face heat from the CBI, ED and Income Tax departments. And those who compromise and join the BJP, all their sins are washed. I remember the time my mother was chief minister, Atal Bihar Vajpayee would call her and inform her that I am making so and so the governor… There were etiquettes in politics. Then too there were different parties with opposing views, but you also had to honour the post that you held. Earlier, people from different parties could meet, discuss issues. But now even if you are seen with someone (who opposes the ruling party) you may face an inquiry. If you write too much in a newspaper, you will lose your job. So why is this fear being created? If you look at news channels, one can easily figure out the political leanings of the news anchors. This is very dangerous. That is why Laluji had said in 2014, that we need to decide on whether the country will stay together or fall apart.
Look at the constitutional institutions… If you look at the design of the RSS and the communal forces, even when they go out of power, the hatred that they have created in the society will take a long time to dissipate. That’s a bigger concern.
But they are being slowly exposed. They harped on achche din, and now look at the prices of petrol, diesel, onion… They only work on creating distractions, and not on working for the country. Whether it is LIC, BSNL, Air India, Railways, SAIL, what is left? You are making black laws for the farmers, but you don’t have time to meet them. You can meet Priyanka Chopra and other celebrities, but you can’t meet farmers. We have never seen such a thing… It’s the same for the CM here. There is a dictatorial attitude, everything is centralised. We have to come together for the country.
RAVISH TIWARI: Have you tried to figure out what works in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
People need an option… The Congress is a pan-India party. The Opposition cannot come together without the Congress. The Congress has to become the foundation of any such Opposition. Also, it is quite late now and we should start making a strategy on how we will reach out to the people. There is no dearth of issues, people are facing problems and they want this government to fall. People are admitting that they voted for the wrong party. So it is our responsibility to present an alternative to the country. Everyone has to come together, keep aside their egos and differences to save the country. If you remove the regional parties, there are at least 200 seats where the Congress and BJP are in a direct contest. But in areas where the regional parties are strong, they should be put in the driving seat. The time has come for this… Now, what steps are taken, that remains to be seen.
ANANT GOENKA: Based on the Cabinet reshuffle, do you think the Prime Minister is giving any signals to Nitish Kumar about the alliance in Bihar?
It doesn’t matter if he was giving a signal or not, but it showed that Modiji has failed. It was an attempt to do another image makeover and fool the people, that something will happen! Modiji has been all about distractions. At a time when petrol prices are at an all-time high, businesses are suffering and the economy is facing a slump, the reshuffle was just to show people that something is being done.
ABHISHEK ANGAD: What were your interactions like with you father when he was at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi?
We would meet him on Saturdays. He was shifted to RIMS from Birsa Munda jail and his health report was released every week. He has been a kidney and heart patient. As a son, I was quite worried because RIMS neither has facilities for kidney treatment nor for heart treatment. That is why we raised questions since it was happening under the (former) BJP government (in Jharkhand)… When I met him, I would update him about what is happening outside, the political developments… We would talk about his health, family, Bihar…
VANDITA MISHRA: What role will Lalu Prasad play in this new RJD that you are now steering forward?
Laluji has had a long political career. He ensured social justice. As railway minister, he managed a profit of `90,000 crore for the sector. In every budget, he reduced fares. He gave Bihar four factories, and even now there isn’t a fifth one. He launched the Garib Raths. From Harvard University to INSEAD, Singapore, all honoured him for his efforts to pull the Railways out of debt. He was known as a management guru. He has done a lot of work. We should not forget it. The youth of today will see how dedicated he is towards his ideology. He does what he says, we should learn from him. He never compromised on his views and ideology for gaining power. Laluji is a mass leader. The way he communicates with people… he is linked to the poor, villages. Even the agriculture minister today will not know what crops grow in the country. In fact, I would say that Laluji should have been in Parliament now. It feels empty without him.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: Has the BJP forced Opposition parties to rethink stand on communal politics? What will your strategy be for 2024?
The BJP-RSS has one agenda, they want a Hindu nation. They have a tried and tested formula of communalism. But the strategy should be based on real issues. We have to raise those issues. In Bihar polls too they tried to do it, but we stuck to issues such as unemployment. We talk about peace, and where there is peace there is prosperity. We need to talk in that direction. But there must have been some shortcomings in our communication…. The way the BJP, RSS do their publicity of religious and other issues… We have to find a solution for it…
Also, it should not be claimed that some party only talks of Muslims (referring to Sonia Gandhi’s 2018 comment that the BJP had managed to convince people that the Congress was a Muslim party). Both Hindus and Muslims can be communal… It cannot be that only Hindus are communal and Muslims aren’t.
…When L K Advaniji’s Rath Yatra was stopped (in Bihar by Lalu Prasad in 1990), the (Ram Mandir) site was disputed. After the court’s decision, things became clear. We had said that we will go with the court order… We need to seriously think of a solution… Even in the media, we don’t have discussions on economy, GDP, development. They have debates on Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid, Dawood, Pakistan. You have to bring the real issues to the forefront. But their publicity machinery is huge…. They have so much money. Their office in Delhi is worth thousands of crores. During demonetisation, they bought land in all districts of the country. The solution is only to raise people’s issues. People have seen that Modiji has done nothing for the past seven years, and he has made his ministers scapegoats after he got flak for his lack of work.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: How do you read the Bengal election results? Also, are you in touch with Opposition leaders such as Mamata Banerjee and Akhilesh Yadav?
The people of Bengal have given a good message to the country. It shows that people believe in secularism. They voted for it, and for Mamata Banerjee’s work. The BJP’s efforts failed there. Regional party leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, we meet from time-to-time. Everyone is concerned about the country. Very soon there will be a strategy in place. I have always said that we should all come together and ensure that our campaign reaches the people. We should go to every state together and tell people what promises the government has not fulfilled, what the issues are… If we have not been able to convince people so far, it means there are some mistakes, and we are not being seen as ‘one’. So we need to let go of our egos and differences, who gets what post, we must forget that. If the country survives, we will get posts. If they (the BJP) stay for some more time, there will be no country…
RAVISH TIWARI: Is the internal crisis within the Congress impeding the consolidation of the Opposition?
The Congress has to deal with it and come out stronger. They have to concentrate on those 200 seats… There is no point in delaying the problems. Now I don’t know if they (the Centre) use Covid-19 as an excuse to stop us from hitting the ground… We have to make a back-up plan for that too.
LALMANI VERMA: What is your suggestion for the Opposition in UP?
I have said what should happen. Thereafter, it is up to individual regional parties. I cannot force anyone. I cannot tie someone up. Who agrees, who comes together, who doesn’t, is their decision. But there is one thing. When in the future, history is read, people will not forgive us.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: Do you see Nitish government completing its term?
No one can predict what happens in politics. No other state has seen four governments in four years other than Bihar… Nitishji said last year that this will be his last election, but no one trusts him. People of Bihar want this government to fall. Let’s see.