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

2014, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

A Sibling Swing At Succession: The Picture That Tells Many A Tale

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Patna: But for the man absent from the frame, this picture would have belonged strictly in family albums, not in newspaper pages. But for him, this would have been a very different picture, or, actually, a picture few would have bothered taking.

The people in it may have come across as far more meagre of circumstance, the backdrop would have been far humbler, if not lowly, a backdrop that belongs in a coarse daguerreotype. It would decidedly not have been this. These are the back lawns of 10 Deshratna Marg, among the grander ministerial acreages of West Patna. And this is the family of RJD chief, Laloo Yadav, the man not in the picture, the artist of this portrait, the sole master of this arrangement — the setting, the swing, the shade, the smiles, the language of bodies that belongs in a throne which hasn’t been available to adorn in a while. But for Laloo Yadav and his astonishing journey from buffalo-boy in the Gopalgunj boondocks to extended suzerainty over Bihar, none of this would exist.

That journey hit a trough when Lalu was cast out of power in 2005 and travelled further south when, in 2009, he did so poorly in the Lok Sabha that he lost his UPA cabinet perch in New Delhi. This coming election, Laloo believes, could be his hour of revival, an opportunity to sneak through the bitterly sundered alliance between the JDU and the BJP who collaborated to unseat him a decade ago. With Nitish and Narendra Modi at war, Laloo is waving an altered calculus whose arithmetic he boasts to dominate: “No stopping this time, look at the voteshares, simpul, simpul, faarmula is simpul, do the plus-minus. Kyon pade ho chakkar mein, koi nahin hai takkar mein… Don’t be at all confused, the competition is all defused.”

Even when desperately downbeat, Laloo was never one to give up his derring-do countenance; the newly divided field in Bihar has added a decibel to his daring. When Laloo cries out loud, he gathers crowds. The forecourt of 10 Deshratna Marg is humming with notes of new possibility. At the back of it, a rivalry has begun to eddy that Laloo often doesn’t want to countenance and wishes he could put down with the brandishing of a patriarchal baton.

You may not get to see a swing seat so voluptuous with political ambition. Look closely at the picture and you’ll find it already too crammed; Misa has wedged herself in, but only just. To her right is the older of her two brothers, Tej Pratap; to her left is her mother Rabri Devi and then, ensconsed in the far corner, her little brother Tejaswi. There’s one former Bihar chief minister here and, should you individually enquire, three aspiring ones, Misa, Tej Pratap, Tejaswi, in descending order of age, though not necessarily in quantum of appetite.

The irony that runs across this image and its characters is that the one man who brought them this far is and the only one who could promise to take them any further from here stands barred from contesting elections and, therefore, from public office. He is the man not in the picture, Laloo Yadav.

Laloo and Rabri Devi have nine children, seven daughters and two sons, of whom Misa is the eldest. Six of the daughters have been given away in marriage; among them Misa is the only one who refused to go away. She was able to persuade her IIM-trained husband, Sailesh, to come live in the Lalu household, instead. The youngest and yet unmarried daughter lives mostly at the family’s camp residence in Delhi and spends much of her time looking after the affairs of Misa’s two school-going daughters.

Misa’s determination to stay on has often been ascribed to her will to become anointed RJD heiress, a desire whetted no end when as a 20-something girl she saw her father pull her mother out of the kitchen and install her as chief minister of Bihar. Misa, far better educated — a trained doctor of medicine, in fact, and well spoken — quickly divined a future opportunity for herself. She might think of herself as best qualified to succeed her father. Among all the Laloo-Rabri children, Misa is the one who alone has a memory of their days of adversity and struggle ; she was 15 when her father became chief minister and the family stepped out of the low income housing they shared with cousins on the Patna Veterinary College campus, into I Aney Marg, the chief ministerial bungalow. Life would never be the same again.

Through her late teens and early adulthood, Misa apprenticed actively in the backroom machinations of power while the younger ones were at play. On occasion, following the fodder scam and Laloo’s removal from power, she would enact obdurate public defence of her parents and the party.

But she was soon to discover competitors at home: her two brothers Tej Pratap and Tejaswi. The apparent good cheer on the swing seat, mind you, is not faked or pretended for the camera. There exists among the siblings a fair bonhomie that comes from having lived out an open-house childhood around Laloo’s court. But there also exists, inevitably, politics between them; very often, sibling rivalry can turn adult and begin to imitate the machinations of a medieval court where succession is up for grabs.

Misa is the domineering one who Laloo often does not venture to counter, for love or for latent fear, or probably both. Tej Pratap is an oddball character and therefore more intractable. He turned a self-styled “Krishnavataar” a few years ago. He donned saffron robes and made it convenient for Laloo to keep at arm’s length — a godman, not a man of this world, easy to keep off politics.

But came a time a few years ago, when he waddled into the family theatre, probably nudged along by Misa who was looking for an ally to counter Tejaswi, who is said to have Laloo’s favour. Laloo tried keeping Tej Pratap distracted, awarding him an automobile dealership near Aurangabad that the son dutifully and charmingly christened with an amalgam of his parents first names: Lara Automobiles, he called it. But he soon lost interest, or was made to, delegated responsibilities and returned to 10 Deshratna Marg. The saffron robes of Tej Pratap are long gone, he has donned khadi, the signature fabric of political intent. He now prowls the 10 Deshratna yard with his own clutch of loyalists and has posted a huge vinyl emboss of his on a side wall. Each of the three has a coterie, each spies on the others activities, each schemes about behind Laloo while he attempts an uphill comeback.

The RJD boss still appears intent on Tejaswi, though. He eased him onto to the 2010 campaign stage and since then, a murmur has prevailed that he is the chosen one. Tejaswi spent a couple of IPL seasons warming the bench in the Delhi Daredevils dugout, then retired hurt to the political stage. He began to figure on RJD posters beside his parents, he was made to tail his father, sit on meetings, recruit a bunch of his own loyalists. He was also given access to Laloo’s room at the RJD headquarters, if only as a sign others were meant to heed.

All of which was quickly noticed; very soon counter manoeuvres began to ripple on the family table. Misa landed one afternoon at the RJD offices and ordered her father’s room opened when neither he nor Tejaswi was in town. She sat in her father’s chair and ordered people around for a bit, if only to underline succession wasn’t a sealed affair. Then she laid claim to her disqualified father’s Lok Sabha seat, and secured it. This, even at the cost of Lalu losing staunch loyalist Ram Kripal Yadav, now the BJP rival to Misa from Patliputra. The battle is now for her to win and prove herself worthy. Tej Pratap, court whisper will tell you, is her ally. Tejaswi, not yet the age he can contest, can afford a smile because he has time, and probably his father, on his side. Often, because they believe it to be a long-awaited season of favourable wind for the RJD, they all can. Like on the swing seat.

2014, Bihar, News, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

Laloo’s Emergency Daughter Misa Turns To Claim Her Place In Politics

With Misa at the Lalu Yadav residence in Patna
With Misa at the Lalu Yadav residence in Patna

Patna, March 12: The eye of the home-minted storm whirling about Bihar’s best known political family has a twinkle in it. It belongs to a pigtailed six-year-old called Gauri who has pranced in on pink crocs from nowhere and deposited her frail frame in the lap of her mother, the storm herself. This storm is a young woman called Misa Bharti, daughter to the RJD boss Lalu Prasad, mother to Gauri, source of an untimely pre-poll revolt whose face is her party veteran “chacha“, Ram Kripal Yadav.

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“My miracle child,” Misa calls the bundle that has cavorted in to demand mom’s cuddles, “The absolute delight of my life.” Gauri was born with killer intestinal cysts and went under the knife four times before she was a week old; at the time, unbeknownst, Gauri wrote herself into the annals of paediatric surgery in India merely by surviving. She has turned out a frisky pet giggling about a compound abuzz with furrow-browed adults. Gauri’s abandon and gaiety belie the somber mood that looms over west Patna’s 10 Deshratna Marg estate.

All’s not well in the RJD’s first household, less still with its pater familias, the redoubtable Lalu Prasad himself. Part of the masonry of his legislature party crumbled away recently. An ally packed up its goods and crossed over to the BJP. Another has just about been persuaded to agreeable terms of seat sharing. And as if he hadn’t been caused enough gripe between the desertion of Ram Vilas Paswan and the overblown demands of the Congress, a blister of revolt has erupted where he expected a smooth romp. His endorsement of daughter Misa as RJD pick for the prestigious Patliputra Lok Sabha contest has meant losing one of his oldest, and considerably influential, loyalists, Ram Kripal. A trusted friend has overnight turned into formidable foe flying the NaMo banner.

Lalu is lapsed on a sofa seat under a corrugated vinyl gazebo on the lawns, running a distracted eye on the latest caste data from parliamentary constituencies. The airport is next door and he awaits an all-set from the chopper pilot who will fly him to Bettiah this day. Meantime, he seeks to speak to a Congress bigwig in Delhi, now to a candidate he may have in mind, now again to an officer who may have information he urgently requires. “Lagao, lagao ji phonwaa,” he hectors Bhola Yadav, his long time major domo, “Aur kya bola pilotwa…and what did the pilot say?” He turns to us, momentarily, and says a little weary of tone: “Din bhar kabaddi karte hain, raat bhar planning and thinking. Bahut critical chunav hai, desh par khatra hai, khali Bihar ka ladaai nai hai, mulk ka maamla hai…I run around all day, and all night and plan and think. This is a critical election, a danger looms over the nation. This is not only about Bihar, this is about the whole country.”

For the moment, though, the “khatra” (danger) hovers low on his own prospects; Ram Kripal’s angry departure is the last thing he required mid-battle. “Ladai hai, ladenge, Lalu dara hai kisise? …It’s a battle and I shall fight it, has Lalu ever been afraid of anyone?” So saying in assurance to himself, he hauls himself out the sofa and saunters off to a waiting SUV that will deposit him to the helipad. Misa, meantime, is still not done administeriing Gauri her periodic dose of attention.

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Rabri Devi, former chief minister of the state, is seated on a deck chair not far from the gazebo, a hubbub of young party workers hived around her. Among them are her two sons, Tej Pratap and Tejaswi, ardent close-door competitors for the RJD mantle. Tejaswi has all of Patna plastered with posters proclaiming him the mascot of “the promise of youth”; Tej Pratap, the elder but more introverted of the two, has hit back by monopolizing all of the side wall of the Deshratna Marg mansion: Yuva Shakti, Yuva Neta, The Pratap! a 70mm banner proclaims him to be. For the moment, though, neither Tej Pratap nor Tejaswi can yet go where Misa has already gone, they haven’t made the qualifying age to contest elections. They huddle around the mother importantly as they bide time.

It is elder sis Misa — fondly referred to as “Miss” by her soft-toned IIM-trained husband Sailesh — whose time it is to exude entitlement as only a to-the-manor-born can. “I have been waiting for this (contesting Patluputra) for a long time and after Laluji was disqualified, I had the first and natural claim, isn’t it?” A question? Or an assertion? Misa’s cleverly intoned reply leaves you wondering. “And if chacha (Ram Kripal Yadav) wanted to contest, he should have told us. He never did, I was ready to give up, but when the party supremo has decided, he has decided, that is the way it is to be.”

For the longest time, Ram Kripal was allowed to believe he was natural successor to the party boss, especially on the Patliputra election, which conviction has made out of bounds for Lalu. But he erred in reading the
unwritten laws of political inheritance. Misa is the second political child this season to render radical twists to family politics. Chirag turned father Ram Vilas Paswan back to the BJP not long ago. Misa has now opened a challenge within Lalu will probably struggle to surmount. “But why blame me?” she protests, “It was always clear to everyone I will head into politics, and now, with a legal bar on my father, is the best time.”

But her claim does rest in being Lalu’s daughter, not much else, isn’t it? “But of course,” Misa retorts, as if to mean her raison is as right as mother’s milk. “I am Laluji’s daughter, that’s a huge qualification. To be born in this family, to be born during the Emergency, to have breathed politics all my life. All of that is qualification, don’t you think? Politicians’ children do have political rights, don’t they? Shouldn’t they? They have home advantage too, I do not deny. I, on the other hand, would draw advantage from that advantage, I have a head-start, being Laluji’s daughter gets me interviews with people like yourself, after all, doesn’t it?” She’s giving her conditioned hair a casual back-flip, she’s savouring what she might think a smart reply. Her convent-bred diction floats about, delicate and crystalline on a compound thick with Bhojpuri. “I could have gone the backdoor route,” she presses on, as if to say she is deserving of commendation, not criticism, “I could have gone straight into the Rajya Sabha. But I have chosen the tough route, the direct route through people. I will do my best to win, but I am ready to face loss. And nobody thinks it is a courageous thing to do!”

It should require courage to be out there seeking votes as daughter of a convicted politician, though. It must be tough, being Lalu Yadav’s daughter in public. “No, of course not. And yes. I’ll be frank. I know what I will be confronted with, a lot of nonsense about my father and my mother. But there is a reason why Laluji remains a big leader with a huge following, he must have done something right. Look at his record as rail minister. Look at what he symbolizes for the underprivileged, and for minorities, don’t forget that. My father is a great man, and he will get justice from the courts one day, I am convinced. It is tough being his daughter, but whoever said I am not a tough girl?” Little Gauri, frolicking about in the nearby flowerbed, probably got the genes to survive her severe early ailment from her mother.