Bhujangi Bhaijaan


In political calculus, the Laloo Yadav brand has also withered

Anything as witty as an Amul butter advertising campaign must be taken seriously, despite its use of that rhetorical nuisance called a pun. The admen who spin Amul’s lines have an accurate pulse count of public opinion. That’s why it works so well.

So when they joined the applause for Bajrangee Bhaijaan, a movie that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over the deepest political divide, it was easy to infer that popular sentiment in both India and Pakistan still prefers reconciliation to conflict, despite acknowledged difficulties. This does not mean it will happen; this merely indicates that hope is not lost.

Here is a suggestion for the next Amul ad: Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar garlands his long-time nemesis but current ‘elder brother’ Laloo Prasad Yadav with the sobriquet Bhujangi Bhaijan. For those who are not aware, bhujang is Sanskrit for snake, while bhaijaan is Urdu for elder brother. A little background might nevertheless be helpful.

A few forgotten weeks ago, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav did a minor pantomime and announced a merger of their hostile parties in order to confront the BJP in the coming Bihar Assembly elections. This was explicit admission that they had no chance alone, but even such compulsion could not prevent an abortion of marriage plans even before celebratory drums had ebbed. They agreed, instead, to live together.

Laloo Yadav explained the arrangement to his supporters by suggesting that someone had to drink poison for the greater good. Nitish Kumar said nothing then, but clearly the remark rankled. Last week, when asked about alliance difficulties, he repeated a familiar saying: “Chandan vish vyapat naahi, liptat rahat bhujang.”

Translation: the fragrance of a sandalwood tree does not diminish because snakes wrap themselves around its branches. Message: Laloo Yadav might be hanging around me, but my aroma remains perfume. Consequence, initial: uproar in Laloo camp. Consequence, subsequent: ‘I was misunderstood’ statement by Nitish Kumar, and a late night meeting with Laloo Yadav on 23 July which ended with Kumar describing Yadav as his elder brother. This is bhujang brotherhood.

In public life what you say is important, but what people believe is decisive. The tongue is tricky. Sometimes it obeys the mind, sometimes the heart, and sometimes the gut. The mind is measured. The heart is emotional. The gut is repository of truths that the mind has persuaded you not to express, a storehouse of raw feelings. The relationship between Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav has been poisoned over the years by a range of factors: personal ambition, alternative poles in support base, statecraft, style and purpose. They hate each other’s guts.

True, you do not have to be besotted in order to shape a political alliance. But there is enough angst here to ensure that any partnership between the two formidable antagonists will never be stable. The Bihar voter understands that stability is essential for development, and this Assembly election will hinge on the promise of development. Confirmation came in the first exchanges, when on 25 July Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar shared more than one platform at the inauguration of various projects. Kumar, who was railways minister in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Cabinet, pointed out that a scheme being switched on now would have become reality if the Vajpayee government had lasted another six months in 2004. The Prime Minister agreed very readily, and then asked a simple question. Who sabotaged this project during the decade of Congress rule? The answer is Laloo Yadav, who became railways minister in the Cabinet of Dr Manmohan Singh and leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

So what is Nitish Kumar doing in the company of a man who denied Bihar development?

You can make a safe bet that this will a major talking point during the Bihar campaign season. Nitish Kumar’s remarks do not fall into the deniable category because there was nothing oblique about them, and they were made before a large immediate gathering and a huge television audience. This was evidence of bhujang on sandalwood. The man who repeatedly characterised Laloo Yadav as Chief Minister of a “Jungle Raj” was after all Nitish Kumar. I doubt if either has forgotten this fact. Their internal tussle for supremacy will begin with seat distribution, when the two try and ensure that they get more winnable seats than the other.

In political calculus, the Laloo Yadav brand has also withered. From a leader of the state, he has slipped to champion of a particular caste. Traditional vote banks are also offering diminishing returns, as static forms of investment turn barren. Economic growth has taken precedence over caste or ethnic loyalty, as the rewards of this loyalty programme are gathered by a limited elite. Bihar wants a change of rhetoric and direction, and will go with the party that offers hope encouraged by visible delivery. The brotherhood of enemies is passé.