Former Revenue and Rural Development Secretary D Bandyopadhyay handed over his seminal work -- a report on land reform in Bihar -- to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in July. Accepting the copy, the chief minister said in colloquial Hindi: "Mr Bandyopadhyay, if you steal Rs 5,00,000, no one will say a word to you. But if you steal another man's wife or his land, they
will be ready to murder you".
Little wonder then that the report of the Bandyopadhyay commission on land reform -- it suggests the state government
enact a new act to protect bataidars (sharecroppers), cap land ceiling and computerise land records -- which has been submitted to the government, has not yet been accepted by it. Officially, the government is studying it, so it has not yet been tabled in the state assembly.
It is not yet clear whether the report will ever be implemented, but critics of Nitish Kumar -- and their number has suddenly gone up after the coalition Janata Dal United -- Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state got a drubbing in the by-elections last month -- have latched on to the report as a post-facto alibi for the electoral losses.
By-elections were held for 18 seats: The ruling alliance got just five. This, when traditionally by-elections are won by the party in power.
So what happened? After all, the JD-U-BJP alliance had swept to power in Bihar just months ago during the Lok Sabha elections, forcing the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Ramvilas Paswan-led Lok Janashakti Party (both got four seats between them, down from 28 in the last Lok Sabha) to rethink strategy. Lalu Prasad practically begged the Congress to have an alliance with him and when the party refused, he sulked.
But the boot is on the other foot now. A radiant Lalu Prasad informed Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the Iftaar hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hours after the by-election results came out, that not only had his party won the majority of the Bihar seats, but had also bagged the Batla House Vidhan Sabha seat in Delhi of all places.
The Bihar result could be a flash in the pan but it has Nitish Kumar seriously worried. More so, because the loss represents a defeat for many of the reforms he was trying to introduce.
It is now clear that both JD-U are RJD not really political parties: They are at best political movements which can transmogrify themselves into something that looks like a party, when the need arises. Therefore, leaders have to be careful while assessing the impact that their moves can have on a relatively fickle following. In Kumar's case, he enforced the rule that no relatives would get the JD-U nomination in the by-election: He turned down the nomination of the son of one Member of Parliament and the wife of another.
This was just not acceptable. MPs, Members of Legislative Assembly and ministers all made their resentment vocal and public. JD-U leaders even worked with rivals to ensure the defeat of the official JD-U candidate.
Then there is the question of Lalu Prasad. True, his influence has been waning. But the benefit has not all gone to the JD-U - a part of the upper-caste social base of the JD-U-BJP combine has returned to the Congress which had been written off earlier. In the past, the logic of the upper castes was: To defeat Lalu Prasad, ally with his strongest opponent, lately, Nitish Kumar. But Lalu Prasad has ceased to be a threat and his return to Bihar, the upper castes, and especially Bhumihars feel, is now well nigh impossible. So now they feel they can vote both with their head and their heart. Why vote for a party that promises land reform?
Drought management -- or the lack of it -- has also played its part in the defeat. In times of floods, Nitish Kumar turned adversity into an advantage: It was also easier to manage because it was geographically controllable. But the drought is widespread and organising relief is not so easy. It was Ramzaan so the Muslims -- who continue to be well-disposed
towards the JD-U -- stayed away. Polling was only around 41 per cent. So everyone was lulled into complacency.
And the fact is, after the Lok Sabha drubbing Lalu Prasad got, some Yadavs have returned to him. And Nitish Kumar and his supporters were so confident that governance would yield dividends that they took the opportunity to allow anyone and everyone to come into the JD-U.
This included well-known Kishanganj leader Taslimuddin who was in the RJD and is likely to join the JD-U shortly. Sanjay Singh, Shyam Rajak and Ramai Ram, all discredited RJD leaders, have already joined.
In all, the claxons in Kumar's early warning system are now screaming to be heard. With assembly elections in Bihar scheduled for 2011, he needs to hear them now.