Extremely ill and in jail, Lalu Prasad Yadav still scares his opponents.
Lalu Prasad Yadav is terminally ill and serving a 27-year sentence in jail. But the 70-year old leader is showing no signs of moving away from the political discourse. What explains this phenomenon?
Even before Lalu Prasad Yadav became the chief minister, Bihar was one of the most underdeveloped states in the country in terms of GDP growth, health, education and infrastructure. Lalu came to power in 1990 and his party continued to run the state till early 2005.
Today, Bihar is ruled by a set of politicians who claim to have heralded an era of development and good governance or sushasan. But after more than 13 years of sushasan, Bihar is still one of the poorest, underdeveloped, uneducated and un-industrialised states of India.
Lalu Prasad can be criticised on many counts. But he is not responsible for why Bihar is underdeveloped. Bihar has seen the rule of many chief ministers, some of them were hailed for their statesmanship, progressive outlook and wisdom, but they all failed Bihar in terms of industrialisation, creation of infrastructure and investment in health and education.
We do not blame chief ministers like Sri Krishna Sinha, Binodanand Jha, Mahamaya Sinha, K.B. Sahay, Kedar Pandey, Bindeshwari Dubey, Bhagwat Jha Azad, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Jagannath Mishra and Nitish Kumar for the mess. It is unfair and illogical to single out Lalu Prasad. The story of Lalu is not one of development. He failed on this count, just like others.
These days, Lalu Prasad is in Birsa Munda jail of Ranchi, serving the sentence for different fodder scam cases. The CBI continuously opposes his bail Verma told the Central Vigilance Commission that there was allegedly some collusion between his deputy Rakesh Asthana, an official in the PMO, and the deputy chief minister of Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, to book Lalu Prasad in the IRCTC scam.
If these allegations are true, then it proves the hypothesis that detractors of Lalu Prasad are trying to bury him deeper.
Lalu, the survivor
But the pertinent question is how did Lalu survive all the onslaughts of adversaries? The social composition of media in Patna and Delhi is such that they do not like Lalu Prasad’s vehement support for reservation policies benefitting deprived sections of society. He is routinely demonised and ridiculed in newspapers and TV channels. He did not get support from the upper caste-dominated bureaucracy or the legal fraternity.
The Congress party holds a grudge against him because he decimated the grand old party’s dominance in Bihar. He was challenged many a times by his own fellow socialist Lohiaite brethren. Former prime minister H. D. Deve Gowda allegedly let loose the CBI against him during his tenure, at a time when Lalu Prasad was one of the tallest leaders at the Centre. The present BJP dispensation in Delhi and the BJP-JD(U) alliance in Patna are hell-bent on destroying him politically. Many of his comrades have left him and are now in the opposition camp.
Despite all these odds, Lalu refuses to wither away.
Lalu Prasad still heads the single-largest party in Bihar Vidhan Sabha. His son Tejashwi Yadav is the leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly. In the house of 243, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has 81 MLAs. They won amid a raging Modi wave and Amit Shah’s invincible election machinery. The BJP got only 53 seats and was relegated to the third position. This miracle was orchestrated by none other than Lalu Prasad.
Lalu is still a dominant factor in the political discourse in Bihar. He may be loved or hated, but nobody can ignore his presence. Whenever he comes to Delhi for medical reasons, opposition leaders flock to visit him. When his party organised a public meeting earlier this year against sexual harassment cases in Bihar shelter home, almost all opposition political parties deputed their senior-most leaders to speak at the event – Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal spoke from the platform.
Now, Lalu Prasad is ill and is suffering serious cardio-vascular and kidney-related ailments. He has undergone cardiac surgeries. He has hypertension and diabetes. Legal and health matters keep him busy.
Politics of assertion
Who is afraid of Lalu Prasad Yadav and why?
As the leader of a large caste group, Yadavs, he is a permanent fixture in Bihar’s politics. But one caste, however large and powerful, cannot single-handedly ensure victory of a candidate or a party. Like other caste groups, Yadav votes also get fragmented.
The real story of the sustained leadership and survival of Lalu Prasad may lie in a political process that started in the 1960s. It was a process of assertion by lower and middle castes in Indian politics. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot termed it a silent revolution – a “new assertiveness of the lower castes, the silent majority, that comprise more than two-thirds of the population”. In Bihar, Karpoori Thakur, who became chief mister twice and implemented 26 per cent reservation for backward classes in the state, led this political process and the baton was transferred to Lalu Prasad later.
With his rustic style, Lalu Prasad challenged hegemonic feudal lords in Bihar and the lower caste audience cheered the unprecedented confrontation. They knew, as everyone else, that the condition of Bihar, particularly their own economic condition, is not going to change, but here was leader giving it back to the upper caste bosses in their own language.
Nobody was giving the subalterns of Bihar a seat in heaven, but there is a person called Lalu, who is now giving them a voice.
Lalu Prasad started an unusual scheme to educate the children of cattle grazers in their own surroundings. This scheme subsequently failed, but it must be underlined that for the first time someone thought about educating them. Such ideas may sound absurd to upper caste intelligentsia, but these are the things that built his persona. He even sent fire tenders to the slums so that their pipes could be used for bathing poor children.
These are symbolic gestures, but Lalu captured the imagination of the times. He did the unthinkable by fielding a Mushahar (the lowest group in the caste hierarchy) woman Bhagwati Devi in the parliamentary election. Lalu Prasad compelled the upper caste-dominated bureaucracy to implement reservation policy in jobs and education. He won over Dalits and the OBCs but alienated the upper castes. Their anger against him continues to this day.
Stand on communalism
One important factor that shapes the phenomenon called Lalu Prasad is his uncompromising stand on communalism. The administration in Bihar is not known to be efficient, but Lalu largely managed to contain communal violence in Bihar for 15 years. This is no small achievement. Before Lalu, the communal temperature in Bihar was soaring with frequent riots, the worst being the communal massacre in Bhagalpur, killing nearly 2,000 people. He boldly arrested BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani in Bihar during the Rath Yatra to Ayodhya. Lalu Prasad said that he will not let communal violence kill anyone because life of a commoner is as precious as that of a Prime Minister.
During 2015 state elections, Lalu Prasad turned the table on the BJP by making reservation a poll issue. He challenged RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion that reservation policy should be reviewed. He said: “Mai ka doodh piya hai to khatam karke dikhao (If you have guts, end the reservation policy).”
This single sentence sums up the enigma called Lalu Prasad Yadav.
The author is a senior journalist.