Bihar, Telegraph Calcutta

Lalu Prasad: Autumn of the Patriarch

The mercurial Lalu Prasad has finally been pushed off stage and an epoch is whimpering to demise

Zero. It has never been this bad; it cannot get any worse.

Or it probably still can.

It is one thing for Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to have drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha this summer; it is quite another for him to have nobody around to take that blank and build on it. The party, as it used to be under Lalu’s helmsmanship, is over. Bihar’s once fabled and formidable House of Yadu has become the shape of a pack of cards tumbled upon itself.

Here’s what fragments of a clan in collapse can look like up close. The confetti of serial abuse of power and public office floating about the defeated air; there are bills to be paid yet, and someone will come knocking. The unseemly rites of a turbulent son’s ruptured marriage playing out on the doorstep. Spewing from within, grim tales of competing grouses and internecine family feuding — son versus son, daughter versus mother, sister versus brother; in the absence of the arraigned father, there’s nothing to quell the quarrelling over what may remain. The man he left behind in charge having also skipped station. There’s nobody around to pick up the pieces.

The Bihar Assembly came into session this Friday. Tejashwi, who leads the Opposition benches, wasn’t there. There were rumours he’d turn up, but they turned out to be rumours. Tejashwi Yadav has been gone from the scene a long and inexplicable while. So long and so inexplicable that his own ranks have begun to wonder if he’s interested in his bequeathed job. So long and so inexplicable that Lalu no longer bothers with worrying, what would be the point? He is 71 and ill. He is incarcerated on a medley of corruption convictions and charges in Jharkhand. The circumstances of his coiled labyrinth allow him to do so much and no more. Tejashwi has stopped to heed his command. Where is Tejashwi? In Delhi. Probably. But he will come. Oh look, he has already tweeted a long distance hello to “My dear Bihar!” on the plea of orthopaedic treatment that nobody hitherto knew of. Bihar should rest assured.

Lalu wanted Tejashwi to stay on the deck and take the storm, like he himself had often done in the past. Tejashwi was in such a rush to get away, he did not wait to cast his vote this election. Tejashwi was not drawn to the hollering tragedy of 130-odd children snuffed out by encephalitis in Muzaffarpur. Tejashwi did not arrive to lead his flock in an Assembly that faces re-election just next year. Tejashwi has been gone from Patna a whole month. Tejashwi is Lalu’s chosen mantle-bearer. Such as that mantle is; it has zero freshly inscribed on it.

Political obituaries can turn treacherous on their authors. When they are about someone like Lalu, feisty and defiant through his roller-coaster life, they can turn and sting too.

This is not a political obituary. This is a Doctrine of Lapse notification. Lalu has a legacy, but those he entrusted it to have bungled it. The entity central to Bihar’s politics for three decades is tearing out like a meteor in tailspin.

This is the first election of his political career that Lalu stood barred from turning up to campaign; this is not the first time he has lost, but this is the first time the RJD can hear what death-rattle sounds like.

Consider this: Based on the Lok Sabha results — a stunning 39 out of 40 for the NDA — the RJD managed to win a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. Tej Pratap, Lalu’s elder and maverick son, lost the Mahua seat by more than 10,000 votes.

Tejashwi held on to Raghopur by its membranes, barely 200-odd votes. Misa, the eldest of Lalu’s children, lost the Yadav borough of Patliputra a second time running, bested once again by Ram Kripal Yadav, once Lalu’s trusted protégé.

Everything suggests a daylight heist on the Yadav vote which once kept Lalu securely banked in power. 2014 was probably the first sign Narendra Modi had disrupted traditional voter behaviour and snatched away a section of Yadav loyalty from Lalu. 2019 is resounding confirmation of not merely a drift away from Lalu but of a new polarisation behind the BJP and its Bihar allies. Nearly 40 per cent of the Yadav vote has shifted base; there is little to suggest on the ground that number will not mount. The RJD has been turfed out across its traditional Yadav strongholds — from Madhepura and Saharsa, from Saran and Siwan and Sonepur, from Maharajganj and Gopalgunj, from Danapur and Maner which, for decades was quite literally the family’s personal backyard. “Laluji ke bina ab kya raha?” asks Jitender Singh, an avowed Lalu loyalist and apologist, “Kuchh bhi kahiye, Laluji neta thhe, ab kaun raha?” (What’s left after Lalu? Say what you will, Lalu was a leader, who’s left?) We are at a tea shack in Maner, about 30 kilometres west of Patna. Jitender can’t stop ruing what’s happened and what’s to come. “I feel for Laluji, I am committed, but look at his children. Why did Misa have to contest the Lok Sabha when she is already in the Rajya Sabha. She is laalchi, greedy. Tej Pratap is a vagrant, nobody knows what he is up to. Tejashwi makes no effort at communicating, spending time with people. They control the party, but nobody has a clue what they are doing or what they have in mind. Kya future hoga?” The anger and the unease is palpable. It can no longer be called a crack in the RJD voter base, it is more akin to a sundering. “Lalu’s party minus Lalu looks like a wipeout,” a senior RJD leader and Lalu’s contemporary says, “Tejashwi and his ranks have failed to deliver, the party is nervous, its faith lies shattered, we are in a mess.”

He wouldn’t go on the record yet with his fears and misgivings, but he believes that time is near. “People in the party will speak out, they will have to. If for nothing else, for sheer survival; Assembly elections stare us in the face and we have just taken our severest blow. What do these results tell the aspiring RJD contestants? That they should be very nervous. What does the response of the party leadership tell them? That they should seek answers and correction.”

Failed Four: Tej Pratap, Misa, Rabri and Tejashwi. Photograph by Sankarshan Thakur

Some of the murmur is already bubbling up in anger. RJD elder and spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari turned blunt at a recent party meeting. “We should take a hard look at how the party is being run,” he is reported to have said, “Laluji’s absence has been a big jolt to us, but we have to figure ways of dealing with that, and if we don’t do that it is over… yeh hamare astitva ka sawal hai… this is a question of our survival.”

Tejashwi has made himself deserving of an in-house chargesheet; it cannot be that the clamour hasn’t reached him, even in his removed camp addresses.

— He ignores his father’s counsel

— He doesn’t consult or respect party elders; he did not allow them to campaign when they were eager to

— He is opaque and often unapproachable; he is also tight-fisted with resources

— He did not take allies on board during the campaign for fear that he would have to share the accolades

— He has made little effort to build a connect with his constituency

— He took whimsical off-days during the heat of the campaign

— He has neither energy nor gut for a fight

— He has no blueprint hereon, none that anybody knows of

— He appears not accountable for the debacle he has presided over

— He is swiftly scattering his inheritance away, at the cost of the party.

“Does Tejashwi know how to win elections, even his own?” That’s a close confidant of Lalu for decades asking. It is probably the most damning question the leader of a political party can be asked. But that question is being asked of Tejashwi by those in the boat who still reckon it can be saved from sinking. “Through the campaign, Tejashwi and his camp kept telling us we were doing well. It turns out we never did as badly. He was either bluffing or was deluded, in both circumstances, his leadership needs to be questioned.”

The worry and scurry in the RJD ranks is not merely on account of the Assembly polls next year. It is not merely because MLAs have begun to individually and collectively wonder if the RJD is a good ticket to ride on, or should the opportunity to jump be taken. It is equally because of the overt manoeuvres they see the adversary making.

From the time of his first foray into Bihar as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, Narendra Modi revealed a focused intent to woo Yadavs away from their chief and loved patron. “Yaduvanshi bhaiyon!” he called out to them; he flagged the mythology of Krishna and Dwarka to kindle a kinship. He kept at it, as a work in progress. It wouldn’t be easy to wean Yadavs away from their anointed benefactor, but he has worked with time and with ways. “Don’t forget Yadavs are the most privileged among the backwards castes and they have become used to the stakes and fruits of power,” says a Lalu-era bureaucrat who likes sailing close along the power corridors, “But for a brief spell, Lalu has been out of power nearly 15 years now and his successors hold out no hope they might deliver it any time soon. Lalu may yet enjoy their unshaken sympathy, but that is translating less and less into votes. That’s one key takeaway from this election. The Yadavs will want to stay close to power.”

Narendra Modi may only be too keen to demonstrate to them how. One clue might be the elevation of Nityanand Rai, a Yadav MP from Ujiarpur in north Bihar, as central minister of state for home affairs. Another could well be Bihar’s verdict on the RJD itself: Zero.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/lalu-prasad-autumn-of-the-patriarch/cid/1693429

2018, Bihar, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished

The thing about Lalu Prasad is that he is a man of more parts than most others on display possess. One of those parts has been convicted and may well be ordered to prison, the part that got greedy and fell to fodder felony. Some of the other parts remain more happily located – as preponderant colour on the floor of the Bihar assembly; as irreplaceable boss of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the state’s largest single banker of votes; as essential exhibit in the gallery of the most compelling and durable of our public entities. Nobody is taking Lalu out of there in a long time; popular imagination is a sovereignty membered by the unlikeliest heroes.

Bihar has never been at a loss for those who set out to make something of it. In the narrow firmament of Bihar’s consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, samaritans and messiahs. Sri Krishna Sinha, Anugrah Narain Singh, Krishna Ballabh Sahay. Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur. Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and annually enacted rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or survive as disregarded busts routinely s**t upon by birds in chaotic town squares. For all the retrospective repute they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.

Eighty per cent of Biharis still have no access to toilets, partly also because those meant to be making those toilets have been busier making money over them. What passes in the name of education is nothing short of scandalous; Bihar’s premier university cannot fill out basic criteria for an upgrade. Its most reputed medical facilities often lack for rudiments – a saline drip, a sterilized bandage, a functional X-ray device, an urgently required LSD. No more than 20 and few decimal per cent receive regular electricity at home. A mere seven per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty five per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided Bihar’s lurch towards development has been. You could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only ten per cent had bank accounts and 80 per cent used hand-held telephones.

For the last quarter of a century, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have presided over those spoils, briefly in league but for the better part at loggerheads. Bihar is still out adorned in its badge of deficits, brandishing that begging bowl for special category status. Nobody has bothered looking in the direction of that bowl. Meantime, careers have flourished and reputations built, foundation stone by derelict foundation stone. Some years ago, the state government sponsored a listing of Bihar’s leading lights and luminaries, such as they are. Bihar Vibhuti, the compendium was christened, and last heard, it had run into two volumes, each thick as a brick. There is fair evidence to suggest that the collective achievement of Bihar’s countless vibhutis has been that they came to drop; Bihar is a bonfire of those vanities.

Continue reading “Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished”

2015, Bihar, Patna

Inside story: Why Nitish Kumar fell out with Narendra Modi

TheBrothersBihari

This is an excerpt from my book, The Brothers Bihari.

Narendra Modi was up to something, and Nitish did not like the thought of it. But it still did not bother him as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.

The NDA, pushing for L.K. Advani as prime minister, had scheduled one of its biggest shows of strength in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign at Ludhiana on that date. Invitations had gone out to prominent leaders of all constituent parties and NDA chief ministers. K  Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This had brought new buoyancy to NDA ranks.

Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse as he was to sharing a stage with Narendra Modi. He had requested JDU president Sharad Yadav to go. Two days before the rally, Jaitley called Nitish to say Advani was very keen he came, he had made a personal request. Nitish did not commit himself immediately. Jaitley then put Sanjay Jha on the job, and Jha was eventually able to convince Nitish that they’d go by chartered flight, attend the rally and return the same evening. Short and clinical. It would make Advaniji happy. Continue reading “Inside story: Why Nitish Kumar fell out with Narendra Modi”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta, UP

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 14/Bihar-UP: Along Buddha’s Last Walk, The Vibrant Myth Of Messiah NaMo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gautam Buddha’s last walk has become a Narendra Modi inroad. It must have been along these banks somewhere that Buddha crossed the Gandak bed and carried on to his mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar in 483 BC or thereabouts.

Having preached his last sermon at Vaishali, where part of his remains were later brought; having persuaded weeping Lichchhavi disciples to give up their pursuit at Kesaria, where a denuded stupa stands, a massive red-brick rotunda islanded in flat farmland; having brushed off his last pursuers with the gift of his begging bowl near Khajooria. Thereafter, he walked mostly alone and incognito until he crossed the river and came to rest in Kushinagar.

All along this 200-odd-kilometre run from Vaishali in north Bihar to the jagged fringes of east UP, we came upon again and again the Buddha legend in repose and a Modi newly rampant.

Irrespective of who wins these contests that closed on May 12 — all of these are gridlock battles, mind you, meshed in complex caste-creed loyalties — the spectre looming over the field is Narendra Modi’s.

He has come to acquire exclusive cross-country command of the discourse in a way neither national adversaries nor local competition can match. Few people even mention Rahul or Sonia Gandhi; Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad figure often, but only as counterpoints to Modi, where they can match him, where they’ll get rubbed.

Continue reading “Poll Recall: Telegraph May 14/Bihar-UP: Along Buddha’s Last Walk, The Vibrant Myth Of Messiah NaMo”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections

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Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.

All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.

Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Laloo Yadav after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”. Continue reading “Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim

Between one Akhtarul and one Anisur could lie the scrambled clues to the confounded run of the Muslim voter in Bihar.

The former junked his JD(U) ticket from Kishanganj on Tuesday in the name of preventing a split in the Muslim vote. The latter sits a little shaken if the move will leave the minority voter confounded mid-election. Anisur sounds not terribly pleased with what Akhtarul has done. “We have prospered under Nitish Kumar as has the whole state, such decisions spread confusion, this is not the time to be confused.”

As general secretary of the Imarat-e-Sharia, a pre-Independence charitable body with a jurisdiction spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and parts of Bengal, Maulana Anisur Rahman believes he has commitments to the community that transcend the exigencies of an election.

“We must be able to think ahead,” he sagely counsels no one in particular. “This is an important election, probably the most important we have seen in recent times, this is a time for united approach, not confusion. What Akhtarul has done creates khalbali(confusion), I find it hard to approve.” Continue reading “Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

In The Backseat Of Misa’s SUV, A Swinger At Moodyji

Maner (Pataliputra), April 15: The heat is such, it is burning up the standing stalks of wheat. The air conditioning in Misa Bharti’s road-ragged SUV is turned to “high cold” but she’s sweating in the front seat. Cooling doesn’t work when the windows have to be kept rolled down; rolling them up doesn’t work when you’re trying to catch each extended hand, smile at each approaching face, wear each garland flung at you.

The campaign is lurching to a close in Pataliputra’s rural outback, there isn’t much more Misa can do on her final spin than sweat a little more in her seat, bat away a few more flies, swig a few more draughts of a home concoction.

“There isn’t even time to eat today,” Misa mutters to herself, “sab kuchh gaadi mein hi karna hoga… Everything will have to be done in the car.” She isn’t getting down, she tells her driver, as a cluster of supporters appears down the road. “Chalte rahiye… keep going.”

The driver turns to her and nods but tells her he doesn’t know where to go. “Someone said Punpun, someone said Maner, someone said Phulwari, the road forks ahead, so which way?” Misa doesn’t know either. “Chalte rahiye,” she says again. She sticks her head out of the window, cranes her neck into more garlands, grins widely and urges the driver on. Continue reading “In The Backseat Of Misa’s SUV, A Swinger At Moodyji”