Lalu Yadav: A rustic buffoon who understood coalition politics

Lalu Prasad Yadav has risen from being a virtual non-entity, even in his native Bihar, to arguably one of the best known political leaders in India even if he has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. True, Lalu had been a member of the Lok Sabha as early as 1977, when the Janata Party made a clean sweep of all 54 seats in Bihar riding a wave of popular anger against the Emergency which had ended barely three months before the elections were held. Yet, hardly anybody outside his constituency had heard of Lalu in this period. In fact, he had not even been a member of the Bihar Assembly prior to contesting the Lok Sabha elections that year.

For decades, he came to symbolise the essence of Bihar for most Indians like few ever did. Lalu’s beginning in politics was in the movement led by Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan in the mid-1970s. He was at that time, in 1973-74, the President of the Patna University Students’ Union. There’s a story about a specific incident during those days that could well be apocryphal. The story goes that on the day of a much-publicised rally to be addressed by JP in Patna, the police cracked down with tear-gas and lathi charges to ensure that many of those who wanted to participate in the rally would not be able to do so. That evening, Lalu himself called up newspaper offices to announce grandly that ‘Lalu Yadav has been arrested’.

Many of the journalists contacted were puzzled by this piece of information and wanted to know who Lalu Yadav was. At which point Lalu is said to have expressed shock at their ignorance of such an important student leader. The story may well be untrue, but if it sounds plausible it is because Lalu remains to this day a man who knows how to stay in the news and hog the headlines, whether for the right reasons or for the wrong ones.

Despite his carefully cultivated image of being a rustic buffoon, Lalu has certainly been one of the most media-savvy politicians in India. He has rarely ducked questions or refused a request from a journalist for an interview, no matter how big or small the publication or organisation the journalist represents. His clever one-liners not merely spawned a series of jokes but have also been the delight of television journalists looking for a sound byte and a godsend for headline writers.

For example, on the day the Rashtriya Janata Dal was formed in July 1997, Lalu had appeared on a TV news programme where the anchor patronisingly remarked that his party could at best hope to be described as a regional party. Pat came the reply without batting an eyelid: ‘Regional party? RJD is the original party’. Of course, this was not a just a play on words. In his characteristic style, Lalu had used humour to drive home the message that his party would be the one to matter in Bihar, not the parent Janata Dal.

Humour has been an important weapon in Lalu’s armoury. He has used it to disarm aggressive critics—whether inside a TV studio or on the floor of the Bihar Assembly or in Parliament. His penchant for referring to the Chief Secretary of Bihar as bade babu—a term more commonly used to describe a head clerk—was another instance of his deliberate use of ridicule. It certainly wasn’t considered offensive or rude behaviour by millions of people who did not think too highly of a bureaucracy that they perceived as an institution that only harassed them. At the same time, it also served to tell the Chief Secretary—and hence the rest of the bureaucracy—who the real boss was.

The choice of language and idiom is decidedly rustic, but undoubtedly deliberately so. Lalu realised only too well that the more he was berated by the English media for being a boor, the easier it would be for him to project himself as a man of the people, one who didn’t mind talking bluntly. Unlike many others, who might prefer to play down their humble beginnings, Lalu went out of his way to keep reinforcing the fact that he is from a family of cowherds and had lived for many years in the quarters given to his brother as a government peon.

On Sunday (29 September), the day before he was to be present at the CBI court in Ranchi, the RJD chief reportedly stopped by at an 'air-conditioned' khatal (cowshed) on his way to catch a flight. His supporters claimed their leader had sought to "find peace" in the midst of his 72 Jersey cows and 42 calves.

While other politicians from northern India spend Holi paying visits to other bigwigs or receiving guests at home and exchanging sweets, Lalu would be drenched in coloured water and playing the dholak with gay abandon. It was not uncommon to find TV footage of Lalu talking to journalists wearing a sleeveless ganji and dhoti. Most other politicians would dread the thought of appearing in public dressed so informally, but for Lalu it was just one more opportunity to tell his supporters that he was one of them.

Lalu also knew, better than many Indian politicians, the public relations value of being able to laugh at oneself. Thus, when asked about the incongruity of his government preaching the virtues of small families when he himself is a father of nine children—two sons and seven daughters—Lalu just chuckled. Similarly, when asked whether Rabri Devi was merely a de jure Chief Minister of Bihar and he was the man who really called the shots, Lalu would grin and say that Rabri is a good Indian wife and like all good Indian wives takes her husband’s word as her command. His whacky sense of humour was also evident from the fact that he named one of his daughters Misa—the acronym for Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) that was misused by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency—because she was born while he was imprisoned under that Act. Another of Lalu’s daughters is named Jalebi.

But Lalu was no simpleton when it came to high stake political battles. The ease with which he has managed to engineer defections from other parties—those friendly to him as well as those hostile to him—to keep his and Rabri Devi’s governments afloat even when they were in a minority in the Assembly was testimony to his consummate skills in the murky numbers game that has come to dominate many of India’s legislatures.

An equally telling indicator of his political acumen was the manner in which he transformed Jagannath Mishra, a former Congress Chief Minister of Bihar, from one of the biggest leaders in the state to someone who was seen as Lalu’s lackey even by his own party colleagues.

Lalu also had a good appreciation of the compulsions of coalition politics, especially the dictum that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. When the RJD was formed in 1997, he was ostracised by many of his own former colleagues in the erstwhile Janata Dal, as well as erstwhile allies in the United Front. In such a situation, many politicians would have become bitter and borne a grudge, but not Lalu, who has displayed a spirit of magnanimity.

At the same time, Lalu also suffered from a weakness common to many Indian politicians. He has been unable to resist the temptation of flaunting his riches and his power. Thus, his daughter Misa’s wedding was celebrated with much pomp and splendour that stood out starkly in an economically backward state. It was reported that his cohorts coerced car dealers to part with their brand-new vehicles for a short period to ensure that the wedding guests could travel in style.

Lalu was also quite brazen about the manner in which he patronised criminals and goons. For example, Mohammad Shahabuddin, the RJD MP from Siwan in northern Bihar, acquired notoriety in the area as a ‘don’ and was accused of engineering the murder of several people including Chandrashekhar, a former President of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, for daring to organise political opposition to him as part of a Naxalite group.

Lalu’s own brothers-in-law, Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav, were considered a law unto themselves in the state when the RJD was in power and, as in the case of Shahabuddin, the local administration and the police hesitated in taking action against their strong arm tactics.

The erstwhile Samata Party (led by George Fernandes and current Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar) first referred to the RJD’s reign as ‘jungle raj’, an accusation that was subsequently echoed by many others, including the BJP, the Congress and the CPI, not to mention the media. Lalu once attempted to laugh this away by quoting from a hit Hindi film song of the 1970s—chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe, kahne do ji kahta rahe, hum pyaar ke toofanon mein ghire hain, hum pyaar karen (loosely translated, ‘I don’t care if anybody calls me a savage, I’m caught up in a whirlwind of love, I just continue to love’).

However, when India Today magazine organised a conclave in New Delhi and disclosed the results of a survey that ranked Bihar at the bottom of the list of all Indian states in terms of various socio-economic criteria, Lalu got Rabri Devi to walk out of the conclave in protest. Lalu himself stayed on, since he was one of the speakers. In his speech, he argued that Bihar’s economic backwardness was due to the discriminatory attitude that New Delhi had adopted towards Bihar since it was ruled by a party hostile to the BJP.

Yet Lalu did not seriously respond to the charge that economic development in Bihar was a casualty under the RJD. For instance, there is this story—once again perhaps apocryphal—about a villager complaining to Lalu that the road passing through the village had been potholed for years without anybody bothering to repair it. Lalu is said to have replied that smooth roads would only help those with fancy cars and would actually be a threat to the children and cattle in the village, who might be run over by speeding vehicles. He did, of course, subsequently claim he would make Bihar's roads as smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks.

After a largely successful political career, Lalu had to face an embarrassing defeat in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. In the elections, Lalu contested from Madhepura, considered a stronghold of the Yadavs and hence of the RJD supremo. The contest was particularly important for Lalu because the man opposing him as the NDA’s candidate was his erstwhile colleague in the Janata Dal, Sharad Yadav. Lalu boasted that he would prove Sharad Yadav a mere paper tiger and a person without a mass base. Sharad Yadav, on the other hand, asserted that he would prove he was a taller leader of the Yadavs in Bihar than Lalu.

As the campaign progressed, it was evident that the contest would be closer than initially expected. Nevertheless, few people expected Lalu to lose. So much so, that immediately after the polling was over, Sharad Yadav demanded a re poll alleging massive rigging by RJD supporters. When the Election Commission refused to yield to the demand, Sharad Yadav alleged bias and announced that he would fast unto death unless a re poll was ordered. The EC went ahead with the counting and Sharad Yadav was ultimately left facing the comic situation of wildly cheering supporters informing him that he could break his fast, since he had won in an election that he had earlier insisted had been rigged!

The second time Lalu had to eat humble pie was when his party lost the assembly elections in October 2005 after the UPA fell apart. Exhibiting the resilience and political acumen for which he has always been known, Lalu quickly reinvented himself on the national scene. A man who has thus far been seen more as a populist and a bit of a buffoon by the urban middle classes was being feted by the media as a minister who had turned around the Indian Railways.

The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, one of India’s leading business schools, invited him to lecture its students on how the turnaround had happened and several media opinion polls at that time indicated that he had higher approval ratings than even finance minister P. Chidambaram, who has for long been a darling of the middle and upper classes. Experts did question the extent to which Lalu contributed to the turnaround of the Railways, arguing that all he did was to allow his professional managers to have their way. To be fair to him, however, it is not very often that a politician as big as Lalu will let bureaucrats run the show without interfering too much.

In recent months, Lalu seemed was far less forthcoming. He appeared to have read the writing on the wall and anticipated his current denouement. Today Lalu Prasad Yadav faces the biggest challenge in his political career. Will he still remain relevant in Bihar politics? Or have the sins of the past finally caught up with him, chucking him ignominiously into the dustbin of history?

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