With elections barely three months away, the high-profile Bihar Chief Minister was perhaps the party's best bet to turn its fortunes around. Laloo has his job cut out. He not only has to sort out internal bickerings in the party but also has to consolidate the fragmented third force in order to take on the Congress and the BJP.
It is a task that will test the new JD president's political acumen. But he seems equal to the job and has adopted a realistic approach to the problems at hand. According to him, corruption or hawala may not be important enough to decide the outcome of the next elections. "
Ke achhuta hai (Which party has not been tainted by the hawala scandal)?" he quips when asked if the hawala scam will be a major poll issue. Instead of making moral values an election plank, like the BJP, he intends to build on the social justice factor which he hopes will bind the backwards, Dalits, minorities and economically weaker sections of the upper castes.
But first the new JD president needs to iron out the many trouble areas in the National Front. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leadership view each other as untouchables. In Andhra Pradesh, the two factions of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)—one led by NTR's widow Lakshmi Parvathi and the other by his son-in-law, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu—are at loggerheads. The Left Front, particularly the CPI(M), is exerting pressure on the Janata Dal to stick by Mulayam Singh Yadav's SPand also sort out the Andhra crisis on a priority basis.
As far as relations with the CPI(M) go, Laloo has been on a good wicket with party leader Jyoti Basu ever since he arrested L.K. Advani during his Rath Yatra in 1990. But on the other hand, the party is not quite happy with Laloo's pro Kanshi Ram stance which could jeopardise a possible alliance with the SPin Uttar Pradesh. To the CPI(M), the induction of the SPinto the National Front or at least a seat adjustment is essential if it is to take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh which sends 85 members to the Lok Sabha. Under the circumstances, Laloo may well have to change his earlier stance that Mulayam Singh can be ignored by the National Front.
For the new JD president, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh will be the litmus test. "I will be happy if both factions of the Telugu Desam unite and Mulayam and Kanshi Ram join the National Front,'' he says hopefully. But he admits that this is easier said than done. While camps seem unwilling to reach a compromise for the moment, sharing of seats has already cropped up as a problem area in Uttar Pradesh.
In informal talks, both the JD leadership and Mulayam Singh are believed to have insisted on contesting at least 50 seats each. The SPhas made it clear that it will have nothing to do with the National Front if it ties up with the BSP. In Karnataka and Orissa, the new president will have to go by what state leaders H.D. Deve Gowda and Biju Patnaik have to say.
But Laloo enjoys considerable goodwill and support in his party—he pipped senior leaders Biju Patnaik and Ram Bilas Paswan to the top post. JD leaders from Karnataka welcome his induction and feel that Bommai's exit will do a lot of good for the party. In fact, at the party executive in Delhi, Bommai, who hails from Karnataka, was pressured by the large contingent of JDleaders from the state to step down. Also, some leaders feel Laloo has already proved his political skill by returning to power in the assembly elections in March 1995. Laloo is the first chief minister of Bihar in 35 years to retain power for two consecutive terms.
Says a Political Affairs Committee (PAC) member of the JDl: "Laloo's takeover will revitalise the party and make the National Front, in alliance with the Left Front, a rad-ically anti-Congress and anti-BJP force."
Laloo has already made it clear that he is above cow-belt parochialism. In the first formal meeting of the PAC after he took over, he asked members from the south to speak in English if they were uncomfortable with Hindi.
Most party members clearly feel Laloo is their best choice. Despite 25 Harijan MLAs from the Bihar JD complaining of ill-treatment by Laloo and a growing Naxalite prob-lem in the state—about 1,000 people were killed in Naxalite clashes last year—Laloo has succeeded in maintaining communal harmony. But will he be able to repeat his Bihar success at the national level too? If Laloo does manage to rally the party together and build on its strong presence in states like Orissa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, the JD, along with the Left, could be a strong contender for power.