Posts Tagged ‘Bihar

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.


Nitish Kumar is back — and it’s business as usual in Patna. The huge “adhikar” rally that he held in Delhi is behind him. Right now, he is enthusiastically taking part in the ongoing Bihar Divas celebrations — which, while marking the state’s inception, have been holding the chief minister of Bihar up as the leader of the people.

On the surface, he is doing all that is routine. Kumar starts his day at around seven in the morning with the newspapers. He calls up government officials if a report — negative or otherwise — catches his eye. And then it’s time for the Assembly, his office, and his janata darbars.

Kumar, 62, is every inch the mukhya mantri that he was before his rally. In Delhi, he had a mission — he held meetings with the Prime Minister and the Union finance minister to urge that the state of Bihar be given a special status.

But back in Bihar, the chief minister — dressed in his trademark white kurta and pyjamas with a grey waistcoat — is honing his image as the people’s leader. He hobnobs with poet-director Gulzar at a literary festival this week, and then waits — fruitlessly, as it turns out — for singer Sonu Nigam to make an appearance at another function.

His thoughts, his colleagues insist, are all focused on Bihar. New Delhi, they insist, is far away. But Kumar is also a man who keeps his cards close to his chest. “This is not the time to talk about all this,” Kumar tells The Telegraph.

Outside Bihar — and in some quarters within the state too — the Kurmi leader, a qualified electrical engineer, who has been ruling the state for seven years, is being watched very closely. Was the rally — ostensibly held to voice Bihar’s demands for its rights — a dress rehearsal? Is the rally Kumar’s way of making a bid for the Prime Minister’s post in the 2014 election?

Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party has informally thrown his hat into the ring. Will Kumar — not known to be one of Modi’s supporters (three years ago, Kumar returned the Rs 5 crore that Modi had offered for the rehabilitation of Bihar’s flood-hit people) — take on Modi?

The first feelers he received are significant. The chief ministers of the neighbouring states — Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal and Naveen Patnaik of Odisha — have been in touch with him, insiders say, seeking advice on how to get their states’ due from the Centre. Talks are on to start an economic union involving the eastern states.

“Kumar is talking about issues such as pro-poor policies and better share of funding for states from the Centre which no regional party will disagree with. Also, he goes above all caste or class differences,” says Shaibal Gupta, member secretary of the Patna-based think tank, the Asian Development Research Institute.

“It has become clear that he is the most powerful spokesperson for backward states,” says Kumar’s cultural advisor, retired diplomat Pavan K. Varma.

Indeed, Kumar is a leader of some standing. Known for his no-nonsense style of functioning and secular image, he has close ties with many political leaders. And that’s why speculation is rife on whether he will be encouraged to make a bid for the Prime Minister’s post if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) fails to notch up adequate numbers in the general elections.

“He has clearly hinted that a non-Congress and non-BJP front is likely to emerge. And he has the capability of leading such a front,” Janata Dal (United) member of Parliament Ali Anwar Ansari says.

Right now, of course, he is with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP. “As of now, our alliance is intact. If and when we announce Modi’s name for the post of Prime Minister, we will seek Nitish Kumar’s views formally,” says Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP’s national spokesperson.

But Kumar’s colleagues in the JD(U) insist that Kumar will pull out of the NDA if the BJP zeroes in on Modi. “Kumar has always protested against Modi. The moment his name is declared, we will pull out of the NDA,” says Ansari.

And if that happens, his name is likely to emerge as one of the contenders for the Prime Minister’s post. “If the Congress and the BJP win 150-160 seats each, any leader with 30 seats can become crucial in the post-election scenario,” says Pune-based psephologist Suhas Palshikar. Kumar, he says, then could be in the race, just as other regional leaders — such as Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Mulayam Singh.

In other parties, the reactions are cautious. “It is too premature to say if there will be a Third Front. One can only talk about it after the elections,” says BJD member of Parliament Jay Panda, a view endorsed by the Left parties. “The question of the Third Front will form only after the elections,” says CPI(M) central secretariat member Nilotpal Basu.

One reason Kumar’s name is doing the rounds in political circles is that the JD(U) leader is seen as someone with more friends than enemies. He is already on good terms with the leaders of regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamul Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Known for his secular credentials, he has good ties with Left leaders such as Sitaram Yechury and A.B. Bardhan.

His advantage over leaders such as Mamata, Mayawati or Jayalalithaa is the old link he has with socialist groups. “Regional party leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Naveen Patnaik and even the Chautalas once belonged to the Janata family and that is a big advantage,” says Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug.

He is from the Hindi heartland, which is also seen as an advantage. Then, unlike some other regional leaders, he is also being upheld for “good governance”. Bihar is today the fastest growing state in the country. With a 10.9 per cent rate, it has overtaken Gujarat in terms of growth rates. Bihar’s per capita income almost doubled from Rs 7,914 in 2004-2005 to Rs 15,268 in 2011-2012.

As the leader of a state that was often described as lawless and underdeveloped, Kumar is also being seen within the state as the saviour of Bihar. “There was a time when our people were ashamed to call themselves Biharis. But now they take pride in the fact. Nitish Kumar has given us back our lost identity,” state education minister P.K. Shahi says.

Agriculture, his admirers point out, is booming in the state, and literacy graphs are going up. To boot, his personal image has always been clean. A teetotaller who lost his wife, a teacher, in 2007, Kumar is not a propagator of dynastic politics either. His son, a graduate from Mesra’s Birla Institute of Technology, is seemingly not interested in politics.

Not everybody is sure if all this is enough to catapult him to the Centre. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a psephologist who works closely with the BJP, says efforts to cobble up a Third Front will not succeed because the leaders have “bloated egos” which will come in the way of coalition politics. “Would Jayalalithaa be acceptable to Mamata; Mulayam to Mayawati,” he asks.

Another disadvantage that Kumar faces is the number of seats that he can win. “At present, out of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar, his party has 20. It can win five more in the 2014 elections,” says Gupta. Mayawati and Mulayam, on the other hand, are battling for 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, while Mamata and Jayalalithaa are banking on improving their tallies in the 2014 poll. Kumar can rely only on his 25-odd seats.

If he breaks ties with the BJP, the chances of winning even these many seats will weaken. “Nitish is a backward leader who has successfully crafted an alliance of backwards and forwards. If he is thinking of dumping the BJP, he is sure to lose the upper caste votes,” Mrug says. A Delhi-based analyst, however, stresses that Kumar then will get the support of the Muslims who are right now with his rival, Lalu Prasad Yadav.

But Kumar, some critics hold, has his downside. Some call him “dictatorial”, and others point out that the state is still to see prosperity. “There are many issues that he has not been able to improve. He has not done land reforms,” says a Patna-based political analyst. He has also not been able to sort out serious problems with the power situation, which have kept industry out of Bihar.

His party colleagues pooh-pooh such arguments. Ansari believes what’s important is that no government can be formed in 2014 without Kumar’s intervention.

The chief minister, his supporters say, will either emerge as the kingmaker — or the king.

 (A version of this story was published in The Telegraph with inputs from V Kumara Swamy on March 24, 2013)