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

India Today - - BIG STORY | LALU - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava

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.

Jail­house Rocker

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

PTI

Fam­ily line Lalu with wife Rabri and sons Tej Pratap and Te­jashwi

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