Excerpt Four from my book is a swivelling snapshot of what power and its sudden loss can do. Here’s Laloo Yadav at the height of his reign, and after losing it
It was a private coronation with a public message. Sometime in mid-1995, twenty-two years and nine children into their marriage, Rabri Devi decided to change her manner of referring to Laloo Yadav. She began calling him Saheb. All these years she had done with a common enough pronoun: eeh, the untranslatable third person singular Bihari wives are wont to use for their husbands. When they had got married in 1973, Rabri Devi had neither sense nor cause to call her husband Saheb. She was a village girl of fourteen and probably unaware of the weight of words. And Laloo Yadav was no saheb. He was, in fact, serving time at the other end of the social order, among those the sahebs lord over. He was a lowly employee of Patna Veterinary College, a clerk who brought tea to tables and carried files from officer to officer. Eeh sufficed.
Through several lightning leaps up the ladder of rank and fame, Rabri Devi had found no reason to alter Laloo Yadav’s domestic description.
Then, quite suddenly, after the assembly elections of 1995, she went on an urgent hunt for alternatives. Her husband had won a remarkable victory in the face of heavy odds, not least of which was the messianic Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, out with rockjawed determination to grab glory by enforcing a blemishless election in Bihar, the graveyard of free and fair polls. Seshan had choked the state with paramilitary forces. He had postponed elections four times. He made daily threats of countermanding the process altogether at the sight of the slightest misdemeanour. The campaign had become a duel between the chief election commissioner and the Bihar chief minister. Laloo Yadav had been relatively unbothered by the Opposition but Seshan had worried him. This scourge is meant to ensure people vote but he is going on postponing their opportunities to vote,” he would complain aloud at his daily morning durbar, issuing colourful threats that sent his audiences in raptures. “Seshan pagla saand jaise kar raha hai, maaloome nahin hai ki hum rassa baandh ke khataal mein band kar sakte hain” (Seshan is behaving like a raging bull, he does not know that I can tame him and tie him up and lock him among the cows in my shed). The night Seshan had faxed his fourth postponement order to the chief minister’s office from Delhi, Laloo Yadav had been a bit of a raging bull himself. He had called up the state’s chief electoral officer, a copybook bureaucrat called R.J.M. Pillai, and blasted him as only Laloo Yadav could. “Ei ji Pillai, hum tumra chief minister hain aur tum hamra afsar, ee Seshanwa kahan se beech mein tapakta rahta hai?” (Pillai, I am your chief minister and you are my officer, where does Seshan keep dropping in from?). Before Pillai could begin to stutter at the other end, the chief minister had let loose the second burst of fire. “Aur fax message bhejta hai! Ee amir log ka khilaona le kar ke tum log garib log ke khilaaf conspiracy karte ho? Sab fax-foox uda denge, election ho jaane do” (And he has the temerity to inform me on fax! You people are using expensive toys to conspire against the poor? I’ll send all your fax machines packing, let the elections be over).
The verdict on Seshan’s effectiveness in Bihar remains disputed but Laloo Yadav emerged a runaway winner in that election. His apprenticeship was over; the hectic spring of 1995 was to be the season of his confirmation as potentate. The victory was nothing short of a phenomenal feat. Laloo Yadav had become the only Bihar chief minister other than Dr Srikrishna Sinha — the legendary Siribabu who ruled the state unchanged from Independence to 1961 — to run a full term in office and retain power. It wouldn’t do to refer to him as eeh anymore. Laloo Yadav, re-elected chief minister of Bihar, deserved a greater title at home; eeh had to be dumped. So Laloo Yadav became Saheb to Rabri Devi and was henceforth to be known to the world as such. Saheb. Master.
Nothing would change that. Saheb would remain Saheb even when he was Saheb no more.
Laloo Yadav’s politics was an angry revolt against sahebdom, against the age-old order appointed by the upper caste haves of Bihar. But in time he became the biggest Saheb of them all. He was like no other chief minister Bihar, or even the country, had seen before. Nobody ruled with such overweening authority or left such a deep impress in so short a period. In the first ten years that he held sway over Bihar from 1990 — as chief minister and then as self-appointed almighty regent — Laloo Yadav changed the rules of politics so drastically to suit himself that he seemed invincible.There had been politicians before him who espoused the cause of the have-nots, but Laloo Yadav was able to merchandise the dream of subaltern empowerment with a ferocity and brilliance that left his peers paling and his competition stunned. His tactics tore society and created violent estrangements but they secured him a constituency whose arithmetic was infallible and whose loyalty was fierce. That was part of Laloo Yadav’s genius — his incisive knowledge of the nature of caste antipathies and his brutal exploitation of these, his determination to craft an exclusive platform for himself, even if it meant merciless social surgery.
Empowered by those he promised to empower — a new, never-before socio-political combination of backwards, Harijans and Muslims who together made up nearly 70 per cent of Bihar’s electorate — Laloo Yadav set about establishing his cult. He was a tormenting alchemy of political cunning and personal charm, both of which he used to cast a spell Bihar hadn’t reckoned with. He dwarfed the Opposition with the energy of his populism and his ability to manipulate people and events. He subjugated Bihar’s bureaucracy through sheer browbeating. He turned his own party into a private limited concern by sheer force of personality and political indispensability — nobody could swing Laloo Yadav’s constituency like he could, nobody could replace him or hope to inherit his votebank. He brooked no resistance and, for the most part, met little. So much so that when the law forced Laloo Yadav to resign office, he was able to instal his wife in power with enviable ease. It was an act of astounding audacity — pulling Rabri Devi out of the kitchen and making her chief minister only so his hold on power remained secure. He appointed Rabri Devi successor as kings appoint heirs. Command flowed from him and was followed. It wasn’t a coup he had trouble pulling off. It was a coronation — a public one with a very public message: Laloo Yadav was being ousted from chief ministership but he remained master of the situation. Master of the party, master of the government, master of the state and lord and master of the new chief minister.
Saheb willed that Rabri Devi be chief minister and Saheb’s will was done. At the wag of Laloo Yadav’s finger, his party fell to worshipping Rabri Devi, however unwillingly. The bureaucracy played handmaiden to the change of guard, the Opposition could do little but gasp in amazement and flail in outrage. Even after he was chief minister no more, even while he was in jail on corruption charges, even when he was free only on bail, Laloo Yadav reigned over Bihar as if by natural right.
Rabri Devi was right to have begun calling him Saheb.
This wintry morning in the February of 1998, Saheb had been rather late rising from bed. It was nearing ten when he came down his private quarters on the first floor of the chief minister’s mansion and began walking to the patio at the back where he liked to spend his mornings, lazily chewing a twig of neem. He had brushed his teeth with fluoride paste up in his bathroom just moments ago but chewing neem had remained a daily habit. It was good for his teeth and good for his image: an unspoilt, rustic, down-to-earth man of the people. His image Laloo Yadav had always been careful about.
There were times when covering the fifty yards to the patio, which he had had specially constructed after the victory of 1995, would take him as much as an hour. He would emerge from the house and be swallowed by throngs — desperate people, screaming, jostling, jumping over each other, like mice in the wake of the Pied Piper. His arrival would set anarchy on its feet. A tumultuous farrago would trail him as he made his way to the patio — pleaders and petitioners, wannabe netasand profiteers, fans and followers, minstrels, drumbeaters, devotees, all lunging, dancing, flinging themselves at his feet. Often things would get so out of hand, the crowds had to be beaten back by police guards. The batons would begin to fall on flesh and then Laloo Yadav would snatch the initiative, admonishing his guards for such effrontery. He would wade into the melee, shoving the policemen aside, yelling at them to stop, threatening them with dismissal. How dare they beat up the people, his people? They were meant to help the people, not hammer them. And quite suddenly the guards would pull back and disorder would morph into orchestral applause for the leader. “Laaloo Yaadav! Zindaabaad!”
It was a popular trick that Laloo Yadav employed with practised dexterity. It nearly always worked. People loved anyone who challenged authority, the edifice that had only taken and given them nothing. Politicians were hate objects. Laloo Yadav was not a politician. He was one of them, their agent trying to undo politicaldom from within. A chief minister who challenged the authority of his own state, his own policemen — people loved that. Here was the true man of the masses, ready to punish his own guards for the sake of his people. Ecstatic waves would lift him and carry him to the patio.
But this morning, as Saheb walked to the back, his vast compound lay empty save for the handful of retainers scurrying about on odd errands, and police guards out on the lawn sunning themselves. Only the fallen leaves of winter and the end of his shawl length trailed him.
The fog had lifted but it was still chilly. Saheb pulled the monkey cap more firmly down his face as he made his way thinking uncertain thoughts about what he saw on his lawns. Or what he didn’t. It was a relief not to walk into a deluge of flags and faces first thing in the morning. He had just finished three weeks of some of the most intensive electioneering and this would probably be his only day of rest before the results started coming in. He liked the peace. But something about the absence of people rankled him too. He hadn’t liked what he had seen during the campaign — thin crowds, thinner support; their ardour had waned, no matter how eloquently he waxed from the podium.
This morning was the continuation of a disturbing pattern. Saheb liked his moment of quiet but there was something terribly wrong, something ominous about the emptiness of his manor.
“Dekh to rey, kaun hai gate par,” he instructed one of his servants as he settled into the rattan chair on the patio. He wanted to know if the faithful had arrived at his gates and were being kept out by zealous guards. If they were there, he would have had the gates flung open and the people allowed all the way onto the patio. But there wasn’t anybody at the gates. And when the servant returned he did not know how to report it. “Bahut thandha hai na saheb, log deri se aayega” (It is too cold, the people will turn up late), he stuttered, as if it were his fault nobody had turned up.
Saheb grunted sardonically, flung the twig of neem into the patch of paddy behind and asked for his third cup of lemon tea. Two had been had in bed but they hadn’t helped. Saheb’s bowels had refused to move. He had gone to sleep rather late the previous night. His helicopter had developed a snag somewhere during his land-and-scurry campaign in south Bihar and he had had to motor his way back to Patna. There was a time Saheb could take the rough and tumble in his stride but now, at fifty, his body clock had begun to protest against consistent irregularity. Constipation had become routine. This one was proving particularly troublesome; even lemon tea wasn’t working. He embarked on a crash course of possible cures. Khaini (raw chewing tobacco) arrived on the palms of a minion and Saheb tucked it expertly under his lower lip. Then another anxious aide suggested a pinch of snuff and Saheb took a sniff. But it was no good. Unimpressed and a little irritated, Saheb finally resorted to giving his laggard bodyclock a winding, Laloo Yadav style. He hitched up his lungi, crossed and uncrossed his spindly legs a couple of times and tucked them under his haunches on the cane throne. “Haan,” he exclaimed, as if finally in touch with intimations of comfort, and yelled out for tea again.