Lalu Prasad Yadav - The real winner in Bihar
An 'understated' Lalu Prasad Yadav has now emerged as a real winner and the kingmaker in Bihar
Patna: If it was a do-or-die battle for Nitish Kumar, it was also a matter of existence for Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, who had been at the centre of attack over the alleged 'Jungle Raj' during his previous tenure as the Chief Minister since the day electioneering began in Bihar.
Inarguably, Lalu was the most 'understated' politician before the assembly elections were announced in Bihar, and his joining hands with arch-rival Nitish Kumar was further seen as a deliberate attempt by him to make himself still relevant in the state's politics.
However, with the 'Mahagathbandhan' comprising JD(U), Congress and his Rashtriya Janata Dal winning a massive mandate in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, the veteran politician not only bounced back but also emerged as a real winner and the kingmaker.
For a party, which at one point of time appeared to be fighting for its existence, emerging as the single largest party in the bitterly fought assembly elections is a no mean achievement, and thus, there remains no doubt that Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has made a stunning comeback on Bihar's political landscape, is still a major political force there.
The man, who once lorded over Bihar, was pushed to the margins after the 2010 assembly elections when the NDA under incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar won an astounding four fifth majority in the 243-member assembly, winning 206 seats and restricting RJD to a paltry 22, its worst-ever tally.
The once seemingly invincible RJD, with its massive Muslim-OBC votebank, was not even eligible for the Leader of Opposition's post. If the 2005 polls marked the exit of the Lalu-Rabri duo from the hot seat, 2010 defeat further exacerbated the process of RJD's marginalisation in state politics.
Lalu's conviction in a fodder scam case in 2013 came as a personal blow to him as it led to his immediate disqualification from the Lok Sabha and a ban from contesting an election at least for six years.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election was a crucial test for the backward class leader which he led as a non-playing captain for the first time. The results came as another jolt to RJD and Lalu, with the party managing to win only four of the state's 40 seats.
The successive defeats, however, sowed seeds for a future reunion with friend-turned-foe Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) was also humiliated in the 2014 election, managing to win just two seats after parting ways with 17-year-old ally BJP in June 2013 over Narendra Modi's anointment as the party's campaign spearhead for last year's Lok Sabha polls.
Acutely aware of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's personal charisma, Lalu - the wily practitioner of real politik - after initial reluctance, agreed to accept Nitish Kumar as the grand alliance's chief ministerial candidate, in a bid to contain a 'communal' BJP.
With a ban of contesting elections, his wife Rabri Devi's reluctance to return to the hurly-burly of politics, and sons - Tejaswi and Tej Pratap - being too young to handle the pressure that comes with the hot seat, Lalu made a major move and declared that Nitish Kumar will be the Chief Minister even if RJD won more seat than JD(U).
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's flagged suggestions on 'reviewing the reservation policy' added a fresh twist to the electoral battle in Bihar, which saw Lalu, one of the most enduring mascots of post-Mandal politics, quickly pouncing on it and raising an alarm about a possibility of Narendra Modi government scrapping quotas.
The veteran politician repeated the charge in over 200 election rallies he addressed in Bihar which made PM Modi's counter-offensive about the Grand Alliance favouring a dilution of quotas for dalits, tribals and OBCs to give five percent reservation to Muslims failing to make any impact on the electorate.
Lalu promptly declared the poll as 'Mandal Raj Part II' and a fight between the 'backwards and forwards', ensuring a rapid polarisation along caste lines, something which had kept RJD in power for 15 years in the politically volatile state.
While there has been an apparent consolidation of backward class and Muslim voters in favour of the Grand Alliance, the controversial beef remarks made by the leaders of the NDA, particularly BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, failed to bring about a consolidation of Hindu votes in the favour of the Centre's ruling alliance.
Unlike the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which his daughter Misa Bharti lost to his former protege Ram Kripal Yadav of BJP, his two sons - Tejaswi and Tej Pratap - won comfortably from Raghopur and Mahua in the Vaishali district and now look set to carry forward their father's political legacy.
Though at the moment, Lalu and his party RJD seem to be standing firmly with Nitish Kumar, it would be interesting to see how long will the bonhomie between the once bitter rivals-turned-friends will prevail and will Bihar herald in a new era from here.