Lalu and Rabri wanted to retain the bungalow not only because they had stayed there for fifteen years but also because they considered it very blessed, bountiful and prolific for them. From a life of poverty, low social respect and anonymity, the couple had come to be raja and rani of Bihar: it was nothing short of a miracle. It could not have been possible without the creative energy and fecundity of the earth of 1 Anne Marg.
They went on delaying their departure. It was a stratagem to try out Nitish’s patience: if they stayed on for long Nitish would be forced to give up 1 Anne Marg and move into another bungalow. Having known Nitish for many years, Lalu betted on his estranged chhota bhai’s aversion to coarse methods and vulgar assaults, ruling out any forcible evacuation.
Lalu and Rabri had lived in the two adjacent government bungalows, 1 Anne Marg and 5 Deshratna Marg, arbitrarily joined by a pathway. In the twenty acres over which the two bungalows were spread they had created a gwala (pastoral) estate, with khatal (pens for cows and buffaloes), murgi ghar (enclosures for poultry), bhusa ghar (fodder store) and gobar than (cow dung yard). There was also a small pool for the devout Rabri to take an exclusive dip in before offering prayers to the Sun God during the festival of Chhath.
Nitish insisted he would have no other bungalow but 1 Anne Marg as his official residence. He did not ask officers to evacuate Lalu and Rabri, but he also did not give up his claim on the bungalow. The Lalu–Nitish patience game provided a ready topic to the media day after day. People lightened their after-work hours with jocular speculations on what Lalu or Nitish would do next.
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The building constructions department served a notice to Lalu and Rabri to vacate the two bungalows by 21 December 2005. Media persons with cameras swarmed outside 1 Anne Marg from early on that day. For hours they found no trucks coming out of the bungalow. Lalu, they surmised, had decided not to comply with the notice. They expected an official squad, accompanied by the police, to arrive with trucks to haul up Lalu’s things and unload them at 10 Circular Road. They were disappointed.
Nitish was faced with a dilemma. He had won with a promise to the people that he would restore rules, regulations and procedures in the government. Here was Lalu openly flouting the rules. What should he do? If it were someone else, he would have asked officers to evict him. But Lalu’s was no ordinary case: Nitish had to weigh in several factors. Lalu would most likely gain from forced evacuation. Television media would focus on his plight, bringing back something of the public sympathy to him so soon after he had lost it, and project a negative image of Nitish. Secondly, Nitish had been friendly with Lalu for long and addressed Rabri as bhabhi (sister-in-law); he couldn’t bring himself to use forcible ways against them.
At Nitish’s instance, his building constructions minister Monazir Hasan told the media that the government was in no hurry to get 1 Anne Marg vacated. ‘We will go by the rules and expect everyone to obey them,’ Hasan said. When the media caught up with Nitish on the issue, he said: ‘They can shift whenever they wish to. Please do not ask me about the house any more.’ However, Nitish left no one in doubt, least of all Lalu and Rabri, that he would have no other bungalow but 1 Anne Marg as his official residence.
After he took oath, Nitish began to use the State Guest House, located north across the street from 1 Anne Marg, to conduct his official business. While being extremely careful about not hurting the couple’s feelings, Nitish insisted on moving into 1 Anne Marg because he knew its tremendous symbolic significance. Lalu–Rabri’s removal from there and his occupation of it would symbolize the departure of the bad and the arrival of the good, the jettisoning of the horrific past and the promise of a buoyant future.
One Anne Marg had been seen as the seat of power for fifteen years, as the ‘palace’ where the democratically elected ‘shah’ sat on the throne and passed orders. It had taken Nitish over a decade to realize his dream of becoming chief minister. He could have moved into any bungalow as chief minister, but 1 Anne Marg had a special place in his heart. That was where he had, before he broke away from Lalu, so often sat with him and Rabri upstairs in their private quarters, talking about political issues and personal affairs. When Lalu started showing indifference to serious issues, Nitish wondered at times why he should not be in his place, in that bungalow, to take the government on the course he had wanted his negligent, frivolous friend to do.
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Actually, the tussle over 1 Anne Marg represented a conflict of two characters: one brazen, superstitious, acquisitive, intimidating and scheming, the other law-abiding, rationalist, well-mannered, shrewd and perseverant. Lalu went on giving one excuse after another to stay on: first, for several weeks it was because the building constructions department had ‘not fully done up 10 Circular Road’ allotted to them; then it was kharmaas—an inauspicious month according to the Hindu calendar—during which Biharis do not solemnize weddings or move into a new house.
The tug of war went on for nearly four months before Nitish won the patience game and Lalu and Rabri moved out. For nearly a week before they moved out no visitors were allowed into 1 Anne Marg. An apocryphal story had it that Lalu used the time to hide the piles of cash from the Fodder Scam somewhere on the premises. The reality became known only after Nitish moved in: Lalu and Rabri had dug up about one foot of earth from the fields where they used to grow vegetables and carted away the earth to spread it over the soil in their new bungalow. They believed that with the fecundity of the hallowed earth they would flourish again.
After Nitish moved in, his agricultural officers discovered to their horror that nothing could be grown in the fields in the compound as the stolen one foot of the topsoil contained all the natural nutrients. Truckloads of earth were brought to fill in the large pit. But, as the vehicles carted soil from many places, the fillings did not match the original character of the fields; the staff had to do vermiculture to generate nutrients in the soil.
As for the story of Lalu having hidden away his illicit crores somewhere, the staff was tipped by the grapevine that he was most likely to have concealed it in the swimming pool, underneath its floor tiles and behind its side walls. Pickaxes were brought and tiles were removed by labourers in many places below and on the sides, especially where they appeared to be not as immaculately fixed. After a good deal of digging they gave up, wondering where the lord of the poor had buried his treasure.
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Nitish’s aides who went round the premises after Lalu and Rabri left discovered things that could be seen as signs of occult practice, which they presumed to have been undertaken to harm Nitish. The walls in many rooms had palm impressions in red clay with traces of materials; the vermillion plant at the edge of a lawn had been cut away and it seemed to have been done so that Nitish’s political life was cut short. There were also painted stones buried in the earth under some plants. ‘It was quite an elaborate work of sorcery to cast an evil eye on Nitish, so that the couple were able to return to the bungalow soon, helped by the fecund soil they had carted away,’ one of the aides observed. ‘As young socialist youth activists, we all started out as anti-Brahmanists under Lohia’s influence, totally contemptuous of the cultural regime of idolatory, customs and rituals the Brahmans had established to hold sway over society over the centuries,’ said Nitish when asked about it. ‘But somewhere in the middle of his reign Lalu began to feel extremely insecure about his continuance in power and perhaps gave in to age-old superstitions and started appeasing the gods by performing primitive rituals.’
The four months Nitish waited for Lalu and Rabri to vacate 1 Anne Marg were also the most problematic months for his government and the most expectant months for the public who wanted to see change. Although he had promised the people the moon during the elections he knew next to nothing of the problems in the state government and the intricacies of resolving them. The bureaucracy of Lalu’s legacy was too timid, indolent, dilatory, divided and venal to fulfill even its routine duties, what to speak of displaying imagination and taking initiative. Was it possible to deliver promises to the people with the help of a body of shrunken, apprehensive and diffident civil servants?
This excerpt from The Battle of Bihar: Nitish Kumar and the Theatre of Power by Arun Sinha has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.