When Lady Luck Leaves
Lalu Prasad Yadav today typifies a person whom luck has forsaken. He spends his time inside a jail while his party is left in a shambles outside.
The once flamboyant Lalu Prasad Yadav has fallen on bad times. He was the de jure chief minister of Bihar for seven years (from 1990 to 1997), and ruled the state for another eight years, from 1997 to 2005, through his spouse Rabri Devi whom he installed in his place after he resigned. He was also India’s railways minister for five years. In 1997 he formed a new political party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and in 2004 he was the longest serving president of any Indian political party.
Today, he is a convict. In October 2013, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court sentenced Yadav to five years of rigorous imprisonment, a fine of Rs.25 lakh and disqualification of his membership from the Lok Sabha.
Though he has company in jail – his predecessor in office, Jagannath Mishra, besides Jagdish Sharma, MP, and quite a few others who were also simultaneously sentenced to various jail terms – that would be small comfort for Yadav.
Yet, withal, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s reputation as the most colorful political leader remains intact. Like Jawharlal Nehru, he is a magnet for the multitudes. As chief minister of Bihar he would often land unannounced in some field in a village and within minutes crowds would gather around his helicopter to listen to him.
His exclusive style and mannerism is so popular that it is imitated and mimicked even by film and TV stars. He promoted the "Bihari culture" that includes the use of Bhojpuri dialect in the entertainment industry.
Yadav’s character and exploits read like a fable. Coming from the low-caste Yadav community, whose main occupation is cattle-breeding and selling milk (gwala), he graduated from Patna University. He was active in politics even during his student days and was the president of the university’s students’ union. After graduating in law and obtaining a master’s degree in political science, Yadav entered national politics and was elected a member of the Lok Sabha in 1977 as a Janata party candidate. He was only 29 then and one of the youngest members of parliament at that time.
He became a member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1980 and was re-elected for another term in 1985. Yadav was nominated as chief minister of Bihar in 1990 by the Janata Dal. By that time, he had established himself as a leader of the lower castes as the representative of the single-largest caste of the Yadavs, that made up 11.7 percent of the state population.
Disillusioned with the Congress, the Muslims also flocked to his side, especially because he had projected himself as a secular leader. He reinforced his image by taking steps such as arresting BJP stalwart Lal Krishna Advani in 1990 when he was passing through Bihar on his historic rath yatra to Ayodhya.
Yadav’s misfortunes began with his indictment in a case of massive corruption that hit the headlines as the Fodder Scam. First came his resignation as chief minister in 1997. But the final blow fell in 2005 when his RJD could manage to win only 54 seats in the state elections that year, whereas his rivals – the Janata Dal United (JDU) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – secured more seats. As a consequence, Yadav’s chapter was almost closed.
In the 2010 state elections, the RJD tally was reduced further to just 22 seats, whereas the ruling coalition claimed “a record 206 out of the 243 assembly seats”. In the Lok Sabha too, the picture was equally bleak as the RJD could win only four seats in the 2009 general elections. Against this background, the future of the RJD in the 2014 elections hangs in the balance.
Looking back at Yadav’s performance in office, there is little doubt that he was a failure as chief minister. During his tenure “every economic and social ranking of the state went to the lowest level when compared to other states of India.” Law and order broke down, kidnappings were on the rise and private armies mushroomed.
However, it was his stint as
railways minister for which he is best known at home and abroad. Through his innovative reforms, he turned around the Indian Railways from a loss-making organization to one that registered remarkable profits. In the four years under his leadership, the railways made a cumulative total profit of Rs.250 billion.
Aware that road transport, both for passengers and goods, presented stiff competition to the railways, Yadav initiated steps to attract passengers and freight towards the railways. Wisely, he did not touch passenger fares. Instead he provided comfort such as cushioned seats in the lower class. He also introduced faster goods haulage at reduced freight charges. Both measures led to a turnaround that surprised everybody and Yadav received international acclaim as a management wizard. He addressed students at Harvard and Wharton and received invitations from several other Ivy League schools in the United States for delivering lectures on his style of management.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a four-hour long documentary 'India Rising' in 2007, featuring Indians from various fields. Yadav was the only politician to be featured in the documentary, discussing the turnaround of the Indian Railways.
But it was the Fodder Scam that proved to be his Achilles’ heel. Though embezzlement had been going on since long, it was during Yadav’s term as chief minister when it was discovered that huge sums of money had been siphoned off to non-existent companies. Ironically, it was Yadav himself who initiated investigations that ultimately led to his conviction.
The Fodder Scam itself was quite an innovative method of corruption. The players chose a relatively lowkey department of animal husbandry that does not generally attract much attention. The scheme involved the fabrication of vast herds of ghost livestock, for which fodder, medicines and animal husbandry equipment was supposedly procured. In this way about Rs.9.50 billion were embezzled.
Yadav’s conviction may be startling news. But at its very best, it simply is an acid test of India’s justice system. How far it will succeed in changing the overall corruption scenario remains questionable, particularly when at least 1,460 lawmakers are reportedly facing various criminal cases.