At the headquarters of the Janata Dal (United) in Patna’s Birchand Patel Marg, it was always a question of when, not who. This is why the timing of a recent announcement during the party’s national executive meet in the state capital still had an element of surprise.
The announcement in question — that Rajya Sabha MP Ram Chandra Prasad Singh, better known as RCP, would be the party’s new president — was greeted with the bursting of crackers and sweets being exchanged by party workers.
While chief minister Nitish Kumar’s three-year term as party president ends in 2022, his decision to leave the post ahead of time for his close confidante’s elevation had many political observers reading between the lines.There were few takers for Nitish’s apparent rationale of the need to cut short the practice of “one party, two posts” in the JDU.
In some ways, the rise of RCP Singh in the JDU mirrors the evolution of the party itself in the last decade and a half, cast in the image of Nitish Kumar after the latter led a major segment of the Samata Party to remerge with the JDU in late 2003. After Uttar Pradesh socialist leader Beni Prasad Verma introduced Nitish to RCP, the latter’s administrative acumen impressed Nitish enough to arrange for his deputation to the Centre in the late 1990s, when Nitish held the portfolios of railways and agriculture at different points of time in the Vajpayee government.
Apart from belonging to the same Kurmi caste and Nalanda district in Bihar, RCP shared Nitish’s style of low-profile but focused governance. As a minister-secretary duo, for instance, they were able to execute some key railway projects in Bihar. When Nitish eventually became chief minister in 2005, RCP moved to Patna in the capacity of Nitish’s new principal secretary.
For a chief minister known to rely on a trusted team of bureaucrats to achieve his governance and development goals, RCP was a major force in implementing Nitish’s agenda as well as in fine-tuning decisions on bureaucratic appointments and transfers. Many began to believe that besides being a second-rung power centre in matters of administration, Nitish was making him privy to political decision-making too. No wonder that in addition to being the most sought-after babu in Patna, even JDU leaders began courting him.
In 2010, nothing was left to speculation as RCP resigned from the IAS and entered the Rajya Sabha as a JDU MP. Since then, he was reelected to the Rajya Sabha in 2016 and given the additional role of being the party leader in the upper house.
Even though RCP seems devoid of mass leader appeal, his administrative skills have stood him in good stead in performing organisational work for the party. Moreover, his role as a troubleshooter in times of crisis, such as the Jitan Ram Manjhi fallout of 2015, has been useful for Nitish. However, it was a small turf war within the JDU that he had to win to consolidate his position as number two in the party.
While veterans like Vashishtha Narayan Singh and general secretary KC Tyagi could be ruled out due to their advanced age, RCP’s rivalry with party stalwarts like Lalan Singh was obvious. However, it was the lateral entry of poll strategist Prashant Kishor as the party vice-president that was set to reorder the party’s chain of command, especially as Nitish was seen as grooming Kishor for a leadership role. But Kishor’s disconnect with the rank and file of the party, as well as his lack of popular appeal and organisational naïveté, ensured that .
Kishor’s containment and subsequent departure benefited RCP on another front too. Lalan Singh, alias Rajesh Ranjan Singh, is a close Nitish aide and an MP from Munger. He was once as influential as RCP and there existed a rivalry between the two, until Kishor became their unlikely common opponent. Observers believe that both made peace to somehow sideline Kishor, and their combined effort played a role in cutting Kishore down to size in the JDU’s pecking order.
Interesting, a 2019 crackdown led by Lipi Singh, RCP’s daughter and a Bihar cadre IPS officer, on Lalan Singh’s political rival Anant Singh — a Barh-Mokama strongman who, like Lalan, belongs to the Bhumihar caste — is seen as a sign of this rapprochement. More recently, Lipi Singh, as the Munger superintendent of police, courted controversy for a police firing on alleged troublemakers during an idol immersion procession. The incident led to the Election Commission ordering her transfer during the recent Bihar Assembly poll.
Moreover, RCP’s rising stock in the JDU ran parallel to the marginalisation of Kishor for an entirely different reason too. RCP is considered to have a good rapport with the leadership of the BJP, the JDU’s NDA ally and partner in the Nitish-led coalition government in Bihar. RCP was credited with clinching the 17-17-9 seat-sharing formula for the JDU in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, and the 122-121 quota in the recent Assembly poll.
As the numerical strength in the current Assembly means that the JDU is precariously positioned as number two in the current NDA government in Bihar, despite Nitish leading it, the astute handling of the party's alliance with BJP now gains added importance. RCP’s reputation as a deft negotiator and communicator with the BJP is something Nitish might have considered, especially when the chief minister doesn’t have the cushion of his former deputy chief minister, Sushil Modi, or central leader Arun Jaitley as his preferred line of communication with the BJP. The recent episode of the BJP in Arunachal Pradesh has also not gone down well with the party’s efforts to settle into an easy relationship with the BJP.
Besides steering the JDU through a delicate phase of alliance with an assertive BJP, RCP will also have to grapple with the larger challenge of addressing the below par performance of the JDU in the recent Assembly poll, which saw it reduced to a tally of 43. Along with the plausible reasoning of the LJP damaging its prospects in a few seats, the party also needs to work on regaining the social base that Nitish and, if possible, extending it.
One of the remarkable aspects of the recent change in the JDU’s presidency is that it’s one of the few rare instances of an important regional party thinking beyond political dynasties in charting the course of its future leadership. While that’s a deservedly significant achievement, the new president faces the immediate challenge of navigating the pulls and pressures of alliance politics, and the seminal challenge of retaining and extending the party's social base and honouring its mandate.
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