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The Last Nail

Posted on: July 15, 2013

The Supreme Court has stayed the pronouncement of a Ranchi court judgment on the Rs 950-crore fodder scam, but Lalu Prasad clearly is playing his last innings in politics. Is it time to write a requiem for a man who was once one of Bihar’s tallest leaders and a power at the Centre?

The old traits are all there — the cherubic face, the fringed hair and the white dhoti and vest. What’s missing is the toothy grin. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the eternal court jester in the realm of politics, is looking unusually grim.

The mood, in fact, is sombre at Patna’s 10, Circular Road. Politicians who have gathered there to meet the former Bihar chief minister and central minister too look worried. News has just come in that the Ranchi High Court has rejected his plea to shift one of the many cases related to Rs 950-crore fodder scam — in which he is accused of embezzling funds — to another court. But Lalu Prasad is not ready to give up. He is on his way to the Supreme Court.

“It’s a legal battle, I have to fight it,” the MP from Saran says.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court stayed the pronouncement of the Ranchi trial court judgment and granted two weeks to the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Jharkhand government to respond to Lalu Prasad’s petition. Lalu had asked for a transfer because the judge in Ranchi was related to one of his political foes. The next hearing is on July 23. A day later, the Supreme Court ruled that convicted politicians cannot fight an election for six years after the end of their jail term.

The 66-year-old politician, who was jailed in 1997 on a case that related to the fodder scam, shrugs off speculation about another stint in prison.

“Jail jaane se kya farak padega — hum tou pehle bhi jail gaye the (How does it matter if I am imprisoned — I’ve been there before),” says Lalu Prasad, who is an accused in many of the 63-odd cases relating to the embezzlement of money from a Bihar government fund meant for animal fodder.

The last time he was in jail, he had installed his wife Rabri Devi — then a simple homemaker — as the state chief minister. This time, he has been propping up his two sons, Tejashwi, 24, and Tej Pratap, 26. But the Lalu of the 1990s is vastly different from today’s Lalu Prasad. Then he was one of the tallest leaders of the state and a power at the Centre. Today, he has almost no role to play either in the state or at the Centre.

Lalu Prasad, out of power for eight years in Bihar, is fast losing his ground. The last straw was the break between the ruling Janata Dal (United) and its partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the state. The split took place in June, catapulting Nitish Kumar to centre stage, and pushing Lalu Prasad further into a corner.

Politicians in the state and in Delhi believe the Congress is looking favourably at Lalu’s bête noire, Nitish Kumar, and seems ready to leave Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for the JD(U). It may mean the end of the road for Lalu Prasad. Nitish Kumar’s break with the BJP over Narendra Modi is likely to cut into Lalu’s vote bank of Muslims and Yadavs.

“In Bihar, the key players are the BJP and the JD(U) — Lalu Prasad is just not relevant anymore,” says political researcher Manisha Priyam whose thesis is on Bihar. “Most anti-NDA votes will go to Nitish (Kumar) and anti Nitish votes to the NDA,” she says.

Indeed, Lalu Prasad’s constituency of Muslims and Yadavs has been shrinking. The two together comprise around 25 per cent of the vote base. But sections of Muslims have been gravitating towards the JD(U).

“The BJP’s communal image had kept many Muslims away from the JD(U). Now that we are not together, a large chunk of Muslims will vote for Nitish Kumar, which will affect Lalu Prasad,” says JD(U) MP Ali Anwar Ansari, who recently organised a rally for the state’s backward Muslims in Patna.

Lalu Prasad, predictably, shrugs off all these claims. “It is not easy to win over Muslims,” he says. “We have been always consistent against fascist forces such as the BJP, unlike Kumar who changed sides,” says Lalu Prasad, who stepped into the secular pantheon when he stopped L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in Bihar and had him arrested in 1990.

But it’s not just the fractured Muslim vote that should trouble Lalu Prasad. Even his vote base of Yadavs is under threat. The BJP, state politicians stress, is now aggressively playing the Yadav card with the help of its two top Yadav leaders — Hukumdev Narayan Yadav and Nand Kishore Yadav.

“Lalu Yadav is playing his last innings in politics,” says Bihar Assembly’s leader of the Opposition Nand Kishore Yadav.

For someone who once occupied the heart of politics, it’s a steep fall. Lalu Prasad, after all, has been a central figure in politics for over 20 years. He broke the backbone of the upper-caste-led Congress party and gave voice to backward classes in Bihar. Later, as minister for railways, he earned accolades for transforming it into a profit-earning one. Suddenly, Lalu Prasad was being feted worldwide.

Always outspoken, his brand of humour — rustic one-liners for every occasion — also ensured that he was the darling of the media. Over the years, however, the voice seems to have lost its timbre — he is being seen less and less on TV or in the print media. Observers hold that his last memorable speech in Parliament was during the debate on the Lokpal Bill in 2011.

His political fortunes actually started sliding in 2005 after he’d ruled Bihar for 15 years. His rule was often seen as chaotic, with a high crime rate and little development. Not surprisingly, in 2005, he could win only 54 seats, as the JD(U)-BJP alliance gathered 143 seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. In what was seen as a signal of the people’s displeasure, Rabri Devi was defeated in the two constituencies she fought from — Raghopur and Sonepur.

Five years later, his fortunes dwindled further. In the 2010 Assembly polls, the RJD could win only 22 seats. The parliamentary polls were no better. In the last election, his party won four seats in Parliament as opposed to the JD(U)-BJP’s 32.

Now, with the JD(U) parting ways with the BJP, sections of the Congress are hoping to dump him. “We plan to say a formal goodbye to him,” stresses Sanjay Nirupam, All India Congress Committee secretary formerly in charge of Bihar. “We are more than willing to join hands with the JD(U).”

But Lalu Prasad is not convinced. “I have not heard anything officially from the Congress,” he says.

For Lalu, it’s been a long journey to the centre of politics. A cowherd’s son, he made his political mark as the president of the Patna University students’ union in 1970 and gradually emerged as a popular leader who fought the Emergency. In 1977, at the age of 29, he was one of the youngest members of the Lok Sabha.

In Bihar, he soon became a formidable political force and was looked upon as the messiah of the masses. Many hold that he was the most important OBC leader in Bihar after former chief minister Karpoori Thakur. In 1990, he came to power in the state and was anointed as a grassroots leader.

Some believe the popular leader is no longer in touch with the masses. “He needs to reassure the people that he still represents them,” says Shaibal Gupta, member secretary of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute. He adds that if Lalu Prasad wants to regain the trust of his supporters, he has to “make his case stronger at the Centre. He needs to choose his candidates carefully and organise his party.”

The party, clearly, is coming apart at the seams. Many of his colleagues are worried how the party — and its leader — will fare after the verdict in the fodder scam. And the senior leaders are not happy at the way he is propping up his sons.

“Anyone is welcome to join the party but nobody should be forced upon us,” says an RJD leader. “We will not tolerate that.”

The sons, they complain, have neither their father’s charisma nor his experience. Able cricketers, they have had no role to play in politics so far. At an RJD rally in March where the two were formally launched, observers recall that they were quietly sitting at the back when their father summoned them to the front row. All they did at the rally was fold their hands and wave to the people.

Lalu Prasad doesn’t believe his sons can pose a problem. “Kids of all party workers are welcome. What’s wrong with my sons,” he asks, tossing his head.

But party leaders say that despite his protestations, Lalu Prasad is worried. He carries on as usual — after a quick stroll in the lawns every morning, he scans the newspapers and then meets party workers — but is looking at ways to overhaul the party. He is now seeking to hold training camps to discipline party workers — a measure he’d never taken before. He is also trying to build up a core working committee of the party for its smooth functioning.

The recent win of RJD’s Prabhunath Singh over JD(U)’s P.K. Shahi by 1.37 lakh votes in the Maharajganj by-election has given him hope. “Despite being the ruling party, the JD(U) lost. This indicates that our voters are coming back to us,” he says. The seat, however, was with the RJD, which defeated the JD(U) to win it in 2009.

“These results tell us nothing. He seems to be a sinking ship,” Priyam says.

Will he swim or sink? The jury’s out on that — literally.

 
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