Lalu Prasad Yadav must be an unhappy and anxious man these days. He is the only leader who could stop L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra to Ayodhya on its tracks. And even today, he is the only one with the ability to bring all secular forces together on a single platform. But in his absence, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah-led BJP is having a field day, unchallenged by any opposition to their bhoomi pujan plan on 5 August for a gigantic Ram Mandir in the middle of a raging coronavirus pandemic that is infecting nearly 50,000 people daily. But the opposition is directionless and failing to move people with its ideas.
Sitting in a ward of Ranchi’s Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Lalu Yadav must be aware of what is happening in Ayodhya and Delhi. According to the jail manual, he is allowed to meet a limited number of acquaintances every week, and he must be keeping himself updated about the Modi government’s plan of organising a grand bhoomi pujan.
The opposition parties are more or less mum on the temple issue, perhaps fearful that opposing the BJP’s move may boomerang and alienate their Hindu voters. But Lalu Yadav stopped the Ram Rath Yatra in 1990, had L.K. Advani arrested, and still went on to win the next election in Bihar, a state with more than 80 per cent Hindus. Later, when Lalu Yadav was asked why he stopped the Rath Yatra, he said, “Simply, to save the country. To protect the nation and defend the Constitution of India.”
But this time, the BJP must be relieved because the person who can throw a spanner in its wheel will not be around.
When Lalu Yadav ordered the Bihar Police to arrest Advani in Samastipur, he changed the course of Indian politics. He defined the new face of secularism, interwoven with the idea of social justice as a counterforce to the communal politics of the BJP. The implication of this is still felt in Bihar, the only state in the entire Hindi heartland that has not seen a BJP chief minister yet.
A Lalu wave
Meanwhile, Bihar is getting ready for the assembly polls in the winter and the Election Commission and political parties are busy with their preparations. For the first time in three decades, Lalu Prasad Yadav will not be there to campaign for his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the Bihar assembly election. Although he saw a mixed fortune in the elections, the RJD emerged a winner in 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2015, and lost in 2005 and 2010. But Lalu always remained at the centre of the discourse in Bihar. It has been either a Lalu wave or an anti-Lalu wave. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is in the running — despite all his failures on development, law and order and administrative fronts — because he has been the only leader to stop Lalu Yadav from winning.
In the last three decades, Lalu and his party have been in power for more than 22 years: the RJD ruled Bihar continuously for 15 years, and in 2004, Lalu became the Union rail minister for five years. The RJD was also part of the ruling coalition in Bihar during 2015-17 and Lalu’s son, Tejashwi Yadav, was the Deputy Chief Minister. But Lalu’s multiple scams caught up to him. He was convicted in 2017 in the fodder scam and jailed.
Lalu Yadav’s success in politics is more resounding because he comes from a humble background and faced a long list of adversaries, including hostile media and unforgiving investigative agencies.
Stopping the rath
Despite his ill health, it’s unlikely that Lalu will be allowed to come out of jail on parole or furlough in the near future. Even if he applies for relief, especially considering the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will certainly oppose such an application. Otherwise, it would have been interesting to watch Lalu strategising to counter the BJP’s Mandir move during the upcoming election.
We don’t know what impact he would have made on the election results if he was free, but we do know for sure that in such a scenario, the BJP and the RSS leaders would have been spending sleepless nights thinking about the next move of this wily politician. He would have added colour to the election campaign. Lalu Yadav is known to act unconventionally and surprise his opponents and detractors. The BJP can’t forget what he had done to its then supreme leader in 1990. At that time, Lalu was a novice and he had been the chief minister of Bihar for hardly six months.
Exactly three decades back, a younger Lalu found himself at the centre of events related to the Ram Mandir movement. The BJP president at the time, L.K. Advani was roaming India riding a rath or chariot (a makeshift truck laden with religious motifs and a big portrait of Rama) seeking support for demolishing the Babri Masjid and making a Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya. He started his journey from Somnath temple in Gujarat and after crisscrossing north and central India, he reached Bihar and was heading towards Ayodhya. His Rath Yatra had already left behind a trail of communal violence.
Although Advani crossed many states, no chief minister dared to stop him. It was Lalu Yadav who decided that the Ram Rath can’t be allowed to move any further.
Even during the Modi wave, the BJP failed to overcome the Lalu factor. In 2015, during the assembly election in Bihar, the BJP tried to form its own government, but Lalu Yadav forged a formidable alliance with Nitish Kumar and the Congress — and latched onto a statement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who had suggested that the reservation system should be reviewed.
Lalu made this the central theme of the election campaign and painted the BJP as an anti-social justice party. He outwitted the BJP in all spheres despite having fewer resources. The BJP was able to win only 53 seats out of 243. With 82 MLAs, the RJD emerged as the single largest party. Honouring the pre-poll promise, Lalu agreed to make Nitish Kumar the chief minister, despite the Janata Dal (United) winning fewer seats. The coalition failed to run the full course and it came to an abrupt end in 2017, when Nitish decided to side with the BJP to form the government in Bihar and in the process, he kicked RJD out of the coalition.
Although the secular coalition crumbled, the BJP couldn’t have forgotten the humiliation meted out to it by Lalu Yadav. Apart from the Delhi assembly elections in 2015 and 2020, the Bihar election has been the most humiliating defeat for the BJP after the advent of Narendra Modi at the Centre. So, the party is leaving nothing to chance to win the battle in Bihar now.
We can’t fathom what is going on in the mind of Lalu Prasad, but he is the eternal fighter. It is hard to imagine that he may not have a trick or two up his sleeve for the forthcoming election, which he may whisper to son Tejashwi Yadav when he visits him in the hospital. After all, in north India, he has been the only politician who knows how to tame the Mandir politics of the BJP.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.