Rumpelstiltskin has finally been dragged away by an iron manacle for all the gold he spun off animal fodder; en route to jail, he may be leaving behind a bank rich in votes up for grabs.
The conviction of Laloo Yadav today in one of the nation’s more ingenuous and fabled embezzlement scams marks more than just a historic first in how the judicial guillotine will come to apply on the legislative careers of offending politicians; it opens a future in Bihar, indeed national, politics loaded with speculative possibilities. Laloo’s physical absence from the public stage in the run-up to 2014 will not merely create a leadership deficit at the top of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), it may well trigger new political and social alignments that could impact the shape of the next Lok Sabha.
This is Laloo’s sixth jail term owing to culpability in the fodder misappropriation scam. The first, in 1997, cost him his chief ministership, a job he never regained, though he continued ruling Bihar through the proxy of his wife, Rabri Devi.
Today’s return behind bars may well mean he must give up all hope of regaining power for the finality of a conviction is pasted on it. The Birsa Munda Jail in Ranchi has an ironic connection to the misdemeanours that have sent Laloo and several others there — it was built on the premises of what used to be the Hotwar Farm, a pre-Jharkhand era facility for dairy and other livestock raised by animal husbandry department of the Bihar. Laloo will be housed in a relatively more commodious part of the newly constructed jail quarters. He will have access to a private toilet, to a newspaper each day and a television set that beams but one channel called Doordarshan.
Laloo’s most enthusiastic spokesperson, Manoj Jha, stuck doggedly to the hope that his leader’s conviction will be overturned by higher courts and that Laloo will return to lead his party again. “We do not treat this as a final verdict,” Jha said, “There is the recourse to appeals. In any case, whether in jail or outside, Lalooji remains our tallest leader and guide and he shall continue to lead the party from wherever he is.” Others in the RJD, though, were dimmer of expectation. “This is a blow,” admitted a senior RJD functionary from Patna, not wanting to be named, “A conviction is a conviction and it will be hard to fight the perception in the public that we have a leader the court has held guilty.”
It is no coincidence that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JDU and his estranged allies in the BJP are exulting alike in the verdict as a promise of bonus. The JDU is now likely to intensify efforts to carve away most, if not all, of the RJD’s substiantial support among Bihar’s 15-odd percent Muslims and sections of the backward vote. The BJP, astride the re-fuelled wings of Narendra Modi, is eyeing the equally influential Yadav constituency, sections of which it believes to be amenable attaching itself to a leader other than Lalu.
This conviction has made 2013 a more momentous year for Bihar than it already was. In mid-June a 17-year old alliance broke and rendered old friends bitter foes — Nitish Kumar threw out the BJP on the Narendra Modi issue and cast a dare whose first test will come in the ensuing general elections. Now, a 17-year old scandal has been capped with a verdict that has turned the dice anew in the electoral stakes. “The future trajectory of Bihar politics will depend on several factors,” Saibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Research Development Institute (ADRI) told The Telegraph, “But of course, this is going to impact politics hugely. For one thing, the subaltern brand of Laloo Yadav had become dissipated as he had gone into the lap of antediluvian forces.”
Among the factors Gupta enumerated were the period of Laloo’s sentence, the question of succession in the RJD and the future course of the Congress, which has been seen in Bihar as aligned to Laloo’s tainted image.
The quantum of sentence, to be spelt out on October 3, will probably be critical, but more to Laloo’s personal future as an active politician. Should he be sentenced to more than three years or thereabouts, a return to the electoral arena will prove tough for the 65-year-old RJD boss. But even if he gets away with a slighter sentence the political damage to his image already stands done. In the prevailing national mood, few political parties are likely see in Lalu anything but the burden of a liability.
The Congress, whose vice president dramatically torpedoed any hopes of a reprieve Laloo may have entertained, has not gone beyond cryptic comment on the verdict itself but it is unlikely the party will hover anywhere near the shadow of its current ally and supporter in the Lok Sabha. As one senior Congressman said, “The signal emerging from Rahul Gandhi’s intervention on the controversial ordinance is very clear and everybody should be able to read the meaning of it, especially in the context of Bihar. There is no formal decision but the writing is on the wall, no alliance with Laloo.”
Would that mean it is looking to ally with Nitish Kumar? Would Nitish Kumar himself want such an alliance? That remains a story of ifs and buts, although come-hither noises have been made by both sides in recent months. The UPA government has been generous to administrative demands Nitish has made; Nitish, in turn, announced issue-based support to the UPA soon after parting ways with the BJP and backed, among other things, the food security bill. Nitish has even gone to the extent of saying publicly that should the UPA government grant special category status to Bihar, “we will show how grateful we are”. A specially constituted committee is currently looking into re-defining the criteria for special category states and hope floats in JDU circles that Bihar will be granted concessions before the country heads for polls.
Laloo’s attentions, though, will be focused a the moment on how he keeps his flock together from behind bars. Several of his partymen, including a few senior legislators, are restive and could be looking to explore other options. Who he picks to run the day to day affairs of the RJD in his absence will be of critical importance in how united the party remains hereon. Laloo has been pushing his son and preferred successor, Tejaswi, to the political foreground but with limited success. Tejaswi has displayed none of his father’s famed charisma on stage; backstage he has proved a poor political manager. He has failed to either inspire the party ranks or bring senior leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad, Abdul Bari Siddiqui and Jagatanand Singh on board. “Many of these leaders may not be prepared any longer to work under Tejaswi or even his mother and former chief minister Rabri Devi,” a senior RJD leader told The Telegraph, “The internal crisis in the party is real, there is a churn now that Lalooji is headed for jail.”
Who Laloo will eventually pick — the makeshift head is likely to be title “working president” while Lalu himself remains chief arbiter of RJD affairs — is mute, but should he keep the party a closely held family concern, he may have renewed dissension, perhaps even key desertions, on his hand. There was a time not so long ago in Bihar, Laloo was the master of all he surveyed, imperial of demeanour, invincible of stature. This morning, as the verdict was pronounced in Ranchi’s Special Court, all that escaped his rattled self was: “Arre, eeh kya ho gaya! Oh, what’s happened?” What had happened was only the wheels of justice slowly grinding.