Will Rabri take centre stage again?

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PATNA:   In 1997, when Lalu Prasad was arrested in the fodder scam case, he had to resign as Chief Minister. He made his wife Rabri Devi Chief Minister, effectively controlling the reins of power in Bihar.

The RJD is now in a similar situation after he has been convicted of corruption in the fodder scam, but the party is no longer in power for Mr. Prasad to make his political moves. All eyes are on Ms. Rabri Devi, the three-time former Chief Minister, who has again been thrust into the political arena by circumstances. However, she is cautious.

Asked whether she would take on the mantle of leadership, Ms. Rabri Devi told The Hindu: “Forget about it. That is something that will be decided later.”

However, with the RJD supremo back in jail, the party is staring at a leadership crisis, made more acute in light of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A decision on future leadership is the most pressing matter before the 16-year-old party.

“The RJD will face a great leadership crisis. I am apprehensive that the party will disintegrate,” Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, a Patna University professor and political commentator, told The Hindu.

While senior RJD leaders unanimously backed Bihar’s first woman Chief Minister as their natural leader, their emphasis on a “collective leadership” points to lack of consensus among them. “We have a collective leadership. There is no need for a single individual to be a leader. Our leader is Laluji, whether in jail or outside,” RJD MLA Ram Laxman Ram Raman told The Hindu.

Playing down the scare, member of Parliament Jagdanand Singh told The Hindu: “Our leader has gone to jail, not our leadership. Our leadership is intact. So is our party. Ours is not a young party. What happened in 2000 will happen again.” In the February 2000 Assembly elections, the RJD emerged as the single largest party and Ms. Rabri came back to power for the third time.

As party chief and charismatic leader, Mr. Prasad is the face of the RJD. Bereft of it, the party may have to field Ms. Rabri Devi to avoid a bitter power struggle, which it can’t afford with the general election being so close, say observers.

“We need an undisputed leader. Rabri Devi is our leader. If she is willing to accept the responsibility, we will welcome her leadership. Somebody has to pick up the mantle. I have been talking to the junior leadership and the sentiment among it is in her favour,” MLA Chandrashekhar said. Senior leaders Ram Kripal Yadav, Samrat Choudhary and Gulam Ghaus also hold similar views.

“There is no doubt that Rabri Devi is our leader. She has faced an adverse situation and managed party affairs when Mr. Prasad was in jail. The RJD went through rocky times even when it was in power. Nothing has been decided yet. We have to sit and discuss,” Mr. Ghaus said.

Mr. Prasad launched his sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap at his parivartan rally in Patna this May. They have taken up the mantle of youth leadership, but party leaders say they are less likely to be projected as the face of the RJD, given their inexperience. “Tejaswi is very young. Plus, he is unwilling to take up the party reins at the moment,” Mr. Chandrashekhar points out.

However, Prof. Chaudhary has dismissed the backing for Ms. Rabri Devi as a facade. “In private talks, RJD leaders have themselves said it is time for Mr. Lalu and Ms. Rabri Devi to go. They are not going to accept Ms. Rabri Devi or anyone from the family as a leader. Furthermore, the people will not accept her. Bihar has moved on. If the RJD put up Mr. Prasad’s family member there will be a rebellion in the party.”

This possibility cannot be ruled out as Mr. Prasad’s projection of his sons did not go down well with a section of leaders.

As of now, the party’s fate and that of its chief are hanging in the balance.

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