A FLICKERING LANTERN
WITH NITISH LEAVING HIM IN THE LURCH, LALU WILL HAVE TO FIGHT TIME AND THE CBI TO STAY AFLOAT AND ESTABLISH HIS CHILDREN AS HIS POLITICAL HEIRS. BUT THE RJD CHIEF COULD STILL HAVE A FEW ACES UP HIS SLEEVE
LALU’S INSTINCT TOLD HIM something was amiss. West Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi was reaching Patna on July 25, the same day as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who was returning after attending President Ram Nath Kovind’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi. Earlier, Nitish had dissuaded Lalu from using his photos for a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rally on August 27.
It was Governor Tripathi’s first visit to Bihar after taking over additional charge of the state on June 22. “Pata karo kaahe aa rahe hain Governor sahab (find out why he is coming),” Lalu ordered an aide. He didn’t take much time getting back, to tell Lalu that the governor was in town to meet university officials. Lalu wasn’t convinced but he let it be for the moment. There were more pressing matters to attend to. Like holding a meeting of party legislators and making them once again oppose the resignation of Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, his younger son and till then Bihar’s deputy chief minister.
The RJD meeting endorsed what Lalu wanted. But the sense of unease remained. Enough for him to skip the 3.30 IndiGo flight to Ranchi on July 26—the last from Patna to the Jharkhand capital—where he had to appear in a CBI court the next morning for a trial on one of the fodder scam cases. The Supreme Court had in May ruled that the RJD chief would have to stand trial separately in all four fodder scam cases in which the Jharkhand High Court had dropped the conspiracy charges against him two-and-a-half years ago. Lalu would travel 340 km by road that night to Ranchi. Until then, he wanted to stay put in Patna to know the outcome of the Janata Dal (United) meeting Nitish had called after the RJD meeting the same day.
His worst fears came true that evening as ‘Chhota Bhai’ Nitish called him up after the JD(U) meeting to say he was resigning. It was to be the longest night the RJD supremo would spend on the road to Ranchi.
Challenges before Lalu
Cut to November 2015. It was after a decade-long marginalisation that Lalu’s RJD was back in the reckoning in Bihar. Not only has Nitish’s desertion left the RJD in the cold but, unlike in the past, he now does not have anyone in the family to fall back on for his old ploy of ruling by proxy. Already embroiled in the fodder scam, he is ineligible to contest himself, wife Rabri Devi is in semi-retirement, and three of his nine children—Tej Pratap, Tejashwi and eldest daughter Misa Bharti, with Tejashwi the clear heir apparent—now have cases against them from the CBI, income tax department and Enforcement Directorate (ED). Lalu finds himself fighting the hardest battle of his long political career, having to protect his children from legal entanglement as well as staying afloat politically.
But the old warhorse that Lalu is, he isn’t going anywhere without a fight. With 80 members in the 243-strong Bihar assembly, he is still the
With Rabri in semi-retirement, his children embroiled in cases, Lalu has no one left to rule via proxy
leader of the single-largest party in the state. Backed by 27 MLAs of the Congress, the minor gathbandhan remains potent enough for 2019. Lalu remains the most popular mass leader in Bihar. With every crisis, his voters, particularly the Yadavs and Muslims, all consolidate behind him.
Even when the RJD was decimated in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, down to four seats from 22, Lalu polled 4.7 million votes, a little over 19.3 per cent of the valid votes in Bihar. Then, in the 2010 assembly polls, when the RJD slumped to its lowest tally of 22 seats, he managed to raise his own tally to 5.5 million. In 2014, Lalu added nearly 180,000 votes to his kitty, finishing with 7.2 million, though the party won only four seats. Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav combination has always been a substantial vote bank but not a winning one on its own. Lalu needs more castes to climb on to his bandwagon.
He has been working in that direction. Even before Nitish dumped him, Lalu had been trying to rope in Mayawati, offering to send the Bahujan Samaj Party leader to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar, in a bid to woo Dalit voters. RJD leaders also believe that with Nitish moving to the NDA camp, the ruling coalition has become “overcrowded” and some of its caste leaders may shift to the Lalu camp. Lalu is interested in getting Union minister and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) leader Upendra Kushwaha—who is opposed to Nitish—and ex-CM Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) into his fold. Both the RLSP and HAM, NDA allies in Bihar, have got no representation in the new Nitish cabinet, which has ministers from the JD(U), BJP and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party.
Lalu in La La Land
Another stint in the Opposition would do Lalu no harm. But the legal battles against him and his children will leave him with no time to hit the streets against the Nitish-BJP nexus. “When the party needs him the most, he will be spending most of his time fighting his legal battle in Ranchi,” says a senior RJD leader. There is even a possibility that he may go to jail in one or the other fodder scam case. In fact, Lalu was attending the fodder scam trial in Ranchi when Nitish and Sushil Kumar Modi took oath in Patna as the CM and deputy CM respectively.
“In 1995, when the CBI filed a case against Lalu in the fodder scam, he had hit the streets, triggering a groundswell of public support. But Lalu no longer has a similar level of public support, nor does he have the same health and vigour to walk the extra mile,” says a senior RJD MLA. Lalu had a heart operation in 2014.
The odds are stacked heavily against Lalu. He already had a hostile central government against him. Now, with an unfriendly government in Patna, Lalu may have a fresh set of challenges. His bunch of MLAs and party workers will also be difficult to control, especially if Lalu is preoccupied with legal cases. And neither Tejashwi nor Rabri has as much influence over the RJD leaders as Lalu has. Now 69, and somewhat trumped by Nitish and uncertain of whom to trust, the RJD supremo seems worried.
If there is one bright spark for Lalu in this dismal scenario, it is that the Congress is with him on his plan to unite the opposition for 2019. The national party is important for Lalu not for electoral but for strategic reasons in Bihar. The Congress may have just two of Bihar’s total 40 seats in the Lok Sabha but as the BJP’s main rival, it has the Muslim vote.
Should it side with Lalu, the Muslim vote would stay with the combine. Otherwise, with Nitish now in the NDA and the goodwill he enjoys, the Muslim vote could well swing his way.
A few months in jail have always boosted Lalu’s career. He won his first Lok Sabha election in 1977 after spending time in jail during the Emergency. He has been to jail seven times in the fodder scam cases, beginning from his surrender in July 1997. He returned home from prison riding an elephant in 1997. In 2001, he took a convoy of 1,000 vehicles to Ranchi to surrender in a CBI court. He has used every stint in judicial custody to grandstand and consolidate his vote bank.
But the very crowds that have laughed over the years at his jokes and seethed when he was put in jail, have suddenly gone silent. Lalu may still win the sympathy vote, but he needs to consolidate it. A longer physical absence—at a time when Nitish & Co could be eyeing his men in the run-up to 2019—can render him irrelevant. The JD(U) will be working overtime to woo the Muslims, the BJP is trying hard for Yadavs, having picked their state president from the community, in the hope that the single largest caste group in Bihar switches its loyalty to them.
And though Lalu’s bluster seems undiminished, he knows he is battling both time and the CBI. His recent challenges, both legal and political, have left him with little time to establish the political careers of his children. Before he and his kin are pulled further into the legal and political quagmire, he wants Tejashwi to gain some stature. Lalu’s younger son, who won accolades for his speech in the state assembly when Nitish moved his confidence motion, will hit the road from West Champaran—the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha—against Nitish. The CM himself had kicked off the centenary year celebrations of the satyagraha two months ago with a 12 km march on foot from East Champaran’s Motihari.
Lalu’s first task is to prepare for the August 27 rally in which many Opposition leaders are likely to participate. It is essential for him that the rally is a success to establish that he is still a political force to reckon with.
Before the storm Lalu addressing a press conference after the RJD legislators’ meet
Family line Lalu with wife Rabri and sons Tej Pratap and Tejashwi