From his elder brother’s peons’ quarters at the Bihar Veterinary College to an upper divisional cell in Birsa Munda Central Jail at Hotwar in Ranchi, it has been quite a journey indeed, considering Lalu, as railway minister, always travelled in salons. “I work so much,” he reasoned to a hack, “If I don’t get all the comforts, I will go mad.”
Sparrow had pedigree and a legendary pirate for a father; Lalu, on the other hand, was born to just another poor Yadav; his father’s name never really mattered. But, within half a lifetime, he made ‘Yadav’ the biggest identity of strength and pride in Bihar. For a cavalier buffoon, he almost singlehandedly changed, in a matter of five years, the political demography of his state. For good.
The tiny upper-caste minority — Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars — had ruled Bihar with impunity for four long decades. By the end of his first term as chief minister, Lalu ensured that no government would ever be formed in the state without the sanction of the OBCs. And the Muslims. It took the same cavalier buffoon to stop LK Advani’s Ram rath in its riotous track and arrest him in Bihar.
Not the least unmindful of these remarkable feats, Lalu often boasted that, if not swarg(heaven), he had given the disempowered swar(voice). Until, they found that very voice to say ‘no’ to him in 2005. It was a hard way to learn that dignity is no substitute for development. But befittingly, his own defeat bore the imprint of his transformational politics. Had Lalu not empowered Bihar’s masses, the successor admitted, they could have never chosen Nitish Kumar.
But social justice did not come easy, or even by the book. Early in his first term as chief minister, Lalu achieved the impossible by engineering splits in both Right and Left camps. Altogether, he got 20-odd MLAs from the BJP and the Indian People’s Front (that would become CPI-ML) to come to the rescue of his minority government. It was easier to get the Yadavs to leave the Bhumihar-led CPI and support him.
But in Chanakya’s land, no politician is ever blamed for his or her wiliness. Ironically, what betrayed Lalu is a much more acceptable Indian virtue. He turned out to be too much of a family man. Before any of his nine children were old enough to make political demands, Lalu succumbed to his two brothers-in-law who grew up before his eyes. All the gains from his first term were rapidly squandered as Bihar descended into its infamous jungle raj. Abduction cases were soon being sorted out at the chief minister’s 1 Anne Marg residence in Patna.
If the extended family was not damaging enough, the sycophants enjoyed a free run and the spoils of power. Brahmadeo Anand Paswan, for example, earned a stint in Rajya Sabha for penning a few eulogistic doggerels — Lalu Chalisa — only to join the Congress when denied a second term. In this decadence, lost were the friends and comrades of the social justice movement — Nitish Kumar, Sushil Modi and Sharad Yadav — who could have helped Lalu make a difference on the governance front.
Unsurprisingly, charges of corruption and disproportionate assets surfaced early in his second term. In a brazen gamble that could have been right out of Sparrow’s book, he stepped down and installed wife Rabri Devi as chief minister. He spent the next five months in prison and the hide-and-seek with law has been going on since. Those who wrote a premature epitaph, though, saw Lalu emerging stronger in Bihar by winning the third Assembly polls and Rabri Devi gradually finding a voice in public.
Eventually, he might have grown tired of proxy-ruling the state. In 2004, an anti-BJPwave gave him enough MPs and bargaining power to become the railways minister in the first UPA Cabinet. The next year, Lalu lost Bihar after 15 years, well short of the record of Jyoti Basu, one of his political heroes. The slide would continue as the RJD’s strength would be slashed to just four in Parliament and 22 in the Bihar Assembly.
But the corruption charges or his diminishing clout did not seem to cram Lalu’s style. He reinvented himself as a CEO who turned the monolith of Indian Railways around, lectured top management students, played a cameo in a film named after him and fought the women’s reservation Bill tooth and nail — all the while trying to dodge the law creeping up on him.
Always a fighter, Lalu did not give up on his dream of recapturing Bihar and the Maharajganj bypoll verdict this June brought hope of a RJD resurgence. But once the Supreme Court tightened the screws on him — by rejecting the plea to transfer the trial court judge and setting a 20-day deadline for trial — the big plans were on hold. The apex court ruling on immediate disqualification of convicted lawmakers drove in the last nail. Lalu banked on Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to reward his unflinching loyalty over the years. She perhaps would have but for her son’s dramatic intervention.
On the eve of the judgment, Lalu turned to his cows for comfort, heading to his air-conditioned khatal (cowshed) at Danapur before boarding the flight to Ranchi. “Chara chor aur kahan jaayega (where else will the fodder thief go),” jibed an uncharitable former aide. The master of political survival could not have been worried about honour. “Remember, he who fights and runs away, lives to run away again!” But, for now, there was nowhere to run.
Destiny’s child would be a lazy description. Lalu belonged to the generation of midnight’s children though. Born to Kundan Rai and Marachhiya Devi in Phulwaria village of Bihar’s Gopalganj district in 1948, Lalu was the second of six sons. He attended a local middle school and accompanied his mother to sell milk in the neighbourhood. Until his elder brother got a lowly job in Patna and he arrived in tow in the big city.
When Lalu became the general secretary of the Patna Students’ Union in 1970, Bihar was already restive. In 1974, Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan launched his Total Revolution movement with students. With his street-smart ways and sway over the jobless, lumpen youth, Lalu quickly became one of JP’s key aides. His detractors, however, claim that JP was aware of Lalu passing on information to the Congress camp and never included him in core group meetings.
Be that as it may, Lalu’s talent as a crowd manager and natural orator earned him a Lok Sabha ticket when the Emergency was revoked. In 1977, the Janata Party swept the polls in Bihar and he became an MP from Chhapra; at 29, one of the youngest ever to sit in Parliament. The brief experiment of the Janata government at the Centre was a failure and, like most of his colleagues, he lost the Lok Sabha election in 1980.
But Lalu had a headstart over other student leaders of his generation — Nitish Kumar, Sushil Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad. JP preferred Lalu over Nitish, an engineering student, for the former’s inventiveness and apparent lack of scruples. Also, Nitish’s Kurmi caste had a negligible 3 percent vote share compared to 14 percent of Lalu’s Yadavs in Bihar, and the former was dominant only in the Nalanda region and anyway considered politically less assertive. But Lalu and Nitish remained close — friend, philosopher and guide to each other.
As a member of the Bihar Assembly in the 1980s, Lalu positioned himself in the Opposition hierarchy as one of the second- rung leaders under two-time chief minister Karpuri Thakur. This was the phase when the state Congress went into a self-destruction mode to keep Jagannath Mishra away from the CM’s post by flying in outsiders such as Bhagwat Jha Azad and Satyendra Nath Sinha. After the death of Thakur in 1988, the dominance of student politics in the run-up to the Mandal agitation pitchforked Lalu to leader of the Opposition.
Mishra was made chief minister months before the Assembly election but it was beyond anyone to defend a rotting state Congress against the anti-Bofors wave. As the Janata Dal was poised to form the government, the race for chief ministership began in Patna. Former CM Ram Sundar Das, a Dalit and a veteran freedom fighter, was VP Singh’s choice. But Chandrashekhar backed Raghunath Jha, who was close to his friend Surajdeo Singh, the coal mafia don from Dhanbad.
Indrajit Singh, then with wire agency UNI, was the only journalist who followed the proceedings through a skylight as Janata Dal heavyweights bargained at Brijkishore Memorial Hall near the state Congress headquarters. Earlier in the day, recalls Singh, his boss prepared two telex tickers on Sundar Das and Raghunath Jha to flash the news of the CM-elect.
The bargains between the candidates of two heavyweights, however, hit a deadlock and Devi Lal, who had generously funded and mentored Lalu during the election, propped up his protégé as a dark horse. Singh had kept a third ticker ready at office and now called his boss to flash the news.
Singh had more than a hunch. A few days before this party meet, when it was getting clear that the Janata Dal would get a shot at forming the government, Singh met Lalu at Patna airport and prodded him for a lead on who the party would pick as the chief minister. Apparently nowhere in the race, Lalu assured him with a cryptic smile that he himself would be the man. He did not keep it a secret from anyone who cared to ask and a Hindi daily also predicted his selection on the morning of the party meet.
Once elected chief minister, Lalu knew what his core constituency expected of him. He kept an open house for janata durbar and met people in his vest, surrounded by cattle. He played to the gallery by threatening to demolish the cricket stadium and the golf course to free land for economic housing. If a crisis of funds did not allow him to revive the state’s medical system, he took his children to a sarkari dispensary and stood in queue.
For immediate political survival, he split the BJP, the CPI and the IPF. For long-term political insurance, he cultivated the Muslim-Yadav vote bank to counter the traditional Congress base of Dalit-Muslim support. It was a masterstroke. Historically, communal riots in Bihar were between Muslims and the Yadavs, who are considered the hardiest caste among the Hindus. Bringing the two together for votes had a happy spinoff in reduced communal tension.
He won the trust of Muslims by arresting Advani in 1990. It cost VP Singh his government and helped BJP play victim and whip up further support across the Hindi heartland. In the subsequent Lok Sabha election though, Lalu’s Bihar remained the only fortress in north India the saffron wave could not breach.
But Lalu’s secularism was not limited to the symbolic act of reining in Advani. Eyewitnesses recall two incidents from the communally charged months of 1992 when he slapped a Muslim RJD leader in private for fuelling tension in Samastipur and lambasted a Yadav leader for instigating violence in Sitamarhi. “Do you want me to lose my job?” he asked both. The riots stopped overnight.
But it was the Yadav vote that made the big difference to his political longevity. Biharwitnessed a spate of bloody caste killings in the second half of the 1980s as the Congress control over the lower castes eroded. Lalu stepped in to turn the tide as much with administrative prowess as with the symbolic presence of a Yadav in the CM’s chair. The rapid turnaround empowered the marginalised and changed the power equations permanently.
Never the one to care for political correctness, he infamously coined the slogan of “bhurabal saaf karo (remove brown hair)”, referring to Bhumihars, Rajputs, Bamans (Brahmins) and Lalas (Kayasths). The BJP leadership, in particular, was furious. But the masses loved it. Lalu became a messiah of sorts. From village veterans to young chaiwalas on Patna streets, every Yadav knew him as jaat bhai.
By the end of his first term as CM, Lalu was running out of ideas for Bihar. Not that he ever demonstrated any great plan or even intent to revive the state’s comatose economy, a victim of decades of misrule and exploitation. But he was now finding it difficult to charm even his pet constituencies with bravado alone. Instead, he focussed on playing a kingmaker for his Third Front colleagues aspiring for the top job in Delhi.
Already, to the list of many impossible achievements he had added the feat of winning over leaders such as Jyoti Basu and Sitaram Kesri, from across the political spectrum. When the fodder scam surfaced in 1996, his friends in New Delhi — including the then prime minister IK Gujral and home minister Indrajit Gupta — stood by him. But mounting allegations of non-governance and corruption triggered a leadership revolt in his party. Totally isolated, he formed the Rashtriya Janata Dal, stepped down as chief minister, put wife Rabri Devi in charge of Bihar and went to prison.
The advent of the BJP at the Centre in 1998 made things worse for him. Rapidly sliding out of control, Bihar became the symbol of everything that was wrong with India. In the absence of a functional economy and any semblance of development, abduction became a growth industry and millions of Biharis left the state to find a living, fuelling internal migration all over India. Shamelessly, Lalu chose to see in it a triumph of enterprise, smirking that withdrawal of the Bihari workforce can shut down agriculture in Punjab.
All but Lalu could see that people were only abandoning a sinking ship in Bihar. The healthcare system went defunct. Unpaid teachers shut down schools and blocked exams. Roads resembled moonscapes. An unprecedented power crisis plunged the state into such literal darkness that it was discernible from satellite images taken from space during the night. It was a matter of time before private militias formed on caste lines made a comeback. Those who could not leave the state started electing ‘dabang’ candidates who could deliver through extra-constitutional means.
Presiding over this mess were Lalu’s two brothers-in-law: Sadhu and Subhash Yadav. After making a mockery of law and order, the duo turned against each other in 1998 on contesting from Gopalganj. It even created a temporary rift between CM Rabri Devi and Lalu as Sadhu put pressure on his sister and Subhash pegged his hopes on saheb for a ticket. But the RJD chief would soon have bigger problems at hand. The lawlessness and a spate of caste killings would lead the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, ever willing to settle a score or two with Lalu, to impose President’s Rule.
Lalu, of course, maintained a brave face. Campaigning in 1999, he dubbed opponent Sharad Yadav an outsider, reminding his voters that “Rome Pope ka, Madhepura Gop ka” and that he was the original Yadav. Unexpectedly, he lost that election even though Sharad Yadav sat on a hunger strike demanding a repoll, only to be surprised by the margin of his victory. At this point, it appeared that Lalu’s voters had seen through his charade and rejected him for presiding over a thoroughly corrupt and ineffectual government in the name of social justice.
Yet, Bihar gave Lalu one more chance in 2000. To many political observers, it was more of a political compulsion than generosity that made his voters stick to him. The Muslims were, perhaps, insecure about the BJPgovernment in New Delhi. The Yadavs were more often the oppressor than the oppressed in the anarchy that Bihar became. But few anticipated that things could go further downhill. In their last stint, Mr and Mrs Yadav reduced Bihar to a cruel joke, an anachronism in the new Millennium. “Patna has a claim to be the ancient heart of India. These days it is seen as the armpit,” wrote The Economist in a special report in 2004.
To be fair, Lalu was not entirely responsible for this sudden free fall. The creation of Jharkhand shattered whatever remained of Bihar’s economy as the state lost only one-fourth of its population but almost two-thirds of its revenue sources, primarily from mineral industries. But his successive governments did precious little to invest in irrigation and revive the ailing agriculture sector. Lawless, penniless and hopeless,Bihar was at the tripping point.
Lalu probably read the writing on the wall. The windfall of MPs in the 2004 Lok Sabha election helped him shift base on his own terms. Once in Delhi, he deftly played the national media to reinvent his image as an able administrator who revived the Indian Railways. Both his predecessor and successor — Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee — dismissed his tall claims but Lalu did allow the railways bureaucracy to maximise revenue even if at the cost of safety and efficiency.
The loss of Bihar in 2005 should not have surprised him. Instead, he expected to do much better in 2009. Reduced to insignificance with four MPs and less than two dozen MLAs, he would have had some time for introspection. There is no explanation why the same administration that successfully controlled every communal flare-up inBihar under him appeared defunct in fighting the mafia or even handling routine law and order situations. Or why the same man who allowed the bureaucracy to try innovative models in the railways ministry could not tap ample administrative talent in Bihar to revive its economy.
Perhaps, Lalu felt he did not have to govern Bihar as long as he could get away humouring it. Perhaps, he sought strength in the gratitude of the masses he had empowered and given voices to. Perhaps, he wanted to exploit their compulsion. Until his voters told him that they could not be taken for granted. That he was plain wrong.
It would be easier to reconcile with the phenomenon of Lalu as a political failure but for the betrayal. If a champion of social justice robbing taxpayers’ money sounds severe, try the comical side of it: a proud cowherd stealing his cow’s feed. Lalu’s was a betrayal of both ideology and identity.
It took the law 17 years to catch up with Lalu. Sukh Ram’s run lasted 15 years until he was convicted in 2011 for accepting a bribe modest by today’s standards. A day after Lalu’s conviction, Congress MP Rasheed Masood lost his Rajya Sabha seat when he was handed four years by the Supreme Court for fraudulently nominating candidates to MBBS seats as health minister back in 1990.
With a number of politicians booked under corruption charges in the past few years, these recent verdicts bring hope that the vulgar immunity of the big and powerful may just be wearing thin. Even if only just. At the same time, the withdrawal of a rogue ordinance and Bill meant to bail out convicted netas is another sign that the political class is feeling a little more vulnerable to public scrutiny.
As for Lalu, it’s certainly not curtains, yet. His party will move the high court but it is very unlikely that he will get anything less than three years. That will bar him from contesting elections for nine years. Make it a decade. While he is used to steering governments from the backseat, his party will be hamstrung without him leading the campaign. Rabri Devi now campaigns hard but her shrillness is no compensation for Lalu’s easygoing sarcasm the crowds still roll with.
Tejaswi Yadav, the cricketer son, was formally inducted two weeks ago by Lalu himself, who said he did not mind the young man serving water to his Delhi Daredevil teammates in the IPL. The party will expect Tejaswi to fill in for his father during the campaign but he has not shown any of Lalu’s earthy flair or charisma. Tej Pratap, the other son, and Misa, the eldest daughter, are also expected to chip in but their electoral appeal remains untested.
Yet, Lalu is likely to keep the control of his party within the family. While claiming her saheb was victim of a political conspiracy, Rabri Devi said that she and her son Tejaswi would run the party in “saheb’s absence as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are guiding the Congress”. While such ambition must have impressed Lalu, he also has the option, should he look beyond the family, of choosing from Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (Thakur), Shakuni Choudhary (Koeri) and Abdul Bari Siddiqui. In any case, none of these veterans are likely to feel comfortable taking orders from the family.
It also looks increasingly unlikely that the Congress, whatever its worth in Bihar, will tie up with the RJD after the ordinance fiasco. While Rahul and Nitish Kumar have been warming to each other in recent months, JD(U) insiders claim that the Bihar CM is not a political novice to compromise his chances, and post-poll leverage, by opting for a pre-poll alliance with the Congress. As things stand, Bihar is heading for a four-cornered fight.
So where will the Yadav vote land? They never voted for Nitish whose larger scheme for Mahadalits makes the Yadavs feel that their privileged status under Lalu has been compromised. But they have been susceptible to Hindutva rhetoric in the past. This time around, a backward caste leader in Narendra Modi may hold additional appeal for them.
With Lalu out of active politics for at least three years, will the Yadavs trust the RJD to defend their interests in a dog-eat-dog state or will they shift towards the BJP to form a new power base? While it will ultimately depend on how effectively Modi pitches himself and the BJP while campaigning in Bihar, there are already early indications of a shift.
Last month, RJD leader and MLC Nawal Kishore Yadav risked a suspension by the party to praise Modi as India’s best political choice. Even Sadhu Yadav, perhaps still sulking at his sister’s “good riddance” barb, has also approached Modi. However, there is resistance from certain state BJP leaders, such as Sushil Modi, who are opposed to welcoming the criminal Yadav elements to the BJP fold.
The Muslims, on the other hand, are likely to be in two minds between Lalu and Nitish. The bypoll at Maharajganj has shown that they can still back the RJD en masse. But if they sense a shift of the Yadav vote towards Modi, they will jump the sinking ship of the RJD. Nitish, in such a scenario, will be the bulk beneficiary of the minority vote.
Whichever way the 2014 election pans out, will we ever see Lalu as a candidate again? A decade from now, he will be in his mid-70s, not past the retirement age in Indian politics. But his political longevity may depend on his ability to win a mandate for his wife or kids. With no Parliament or Assembly to crack up at his one-liners, and no government to drive from the backseat, Lalu may find the six years out of fray longer than his prison term. And that may just be the true justice.
Unless, he is that promising pirate who regrets nothing; ever.
On the morning of 27 January 1996, deputy commissioner Amit Khare stared at a deserted animal husbandry office with hundreds of bills scattered around, the officers having long fled the post. But what he and the team he led to raid the Chaibasa office following damaging CAG reports were actually staring at was a Rs 950 crore fodder scam or “chara ghotala” that, in fact, encompassed false purchases of feed, medicine and equipment at a massive scale.
Among the fantastic expenses of the department were Rs 15 lakh worth of mustard oil for polishing horns of buffaloes and pigs (yes, pigs) and several crores for transporting cattle on oil tankers, police vans, autorickshaws and scooters (yes, scooters).
In March, the CBI took over the case on high court orders. UN Biswas, the then regional director of CBI (now a minister in the West Bengal government) led the probe, filed an initial chargesheet on 27 April 1996. But Lalu Prasad Yadav was Bihar CM and the government at the Centre, led by IK Gujral, banked on his support. “I have novishwas in Biswas,” Lalu quipped.
In October, the Supreme Court warned CBI director Joginder Singh not to meddle in the probe and ticked him off for trying to replace a status report submitted by Biswas with a watered-down version. Singh has since alleged that Gujral asked him to go slow in the case.
Exactly a year after the initial chargesheet, on 27 April 1997, a Sunday, Joginder Singh said the agency had decided to prosecute Lalu. Three months on, paramilitary forces surrounded 1 Anne Marg as Biswas controversially sought the army’s help to arrest Lalu. The Supreme Court stepped in but it was clear that Lalu would have to go to jail. The wily Yadav then pulled off the masterstroke of his career: stepping down and nominating his wife as CM.
Nearly two decades and several political machinations later, the law has caught up. Of the 54 cases filed by CBI in the fodder scam, 45 have been disposed of. Charged with cheating, criminal conspiracy and under the Prevention of Corruption Act, Lalu stands convicted of withdrawing Rs 37.7 crore fraudulently from the Chaibasa treasury. It was too late for Lalu to wonder, as he did in the courtroom, “Yeh kya ho gaya ji.”