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Autobiography of an Iconoclast

Awanish Kumar (awanishkumar86@gmail.com) teaches at a college in Mumbai.

Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey by Lalu Prasad Yadav with Nalin Verma, New Delhi: Rupa, 2019; pp 256, ₹ 500.

 

The author is thankful to Anisha George and an anonymous reviewer for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.
 

In the introduction to the autobiography of Lalu Prasad Yadav, there are two literary references: Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanas and the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The first is to demonstrate how the so-called sacred texts of Hinduism denigrate the oppressed castes and women whereas Faiz makes an appearance in the title of the chapter itself through his verse: woh shaan salamaat rehti hai (that dignity [with which one approaches adversity] lives on). These two references in a way capture the essence of Lalu Prasad’s politics over the last 30 years. He has communicated to his intended audience about caste and dignity/self-respect as no other political leader from the backward classes in the last few decades. That too, in Bihar where feudalism in its worst form continues to exist and, to some extent, prosper even in the 21st century.

An Important Biography

Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey is the story of Lalu Prasad from his humble origins till recently when he was incarcerated under the charges of misappropriation of funds in the fodder scam of the 1980s–90s. This book is a significant addition to the growing list of political biographies. Senior political scientist Gopal Guru has called Lalu Prasad the typecast victim of upper-caste political leaders and media through a process of “cultural inferiorisation” (Guru 2004: 261–62). According to Guru, electoral politics, as it exists today, has a moral implication for leaders from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and women. There is a negative political semantic at play against such leaders which tends to ridicule and humiliate them. The most extreme application of these tactics has been against Lalu Prasad (Guru 2004). This is a sort of mythmaking resulting in veritable Laluphobia among the Indian liberals and intellectuals; and like other phobias, it does not have a well-argued rational basis.

The book, hence, makes a beginning to tell the story of Lalu Prasad from his own perspective but how far it achieves its own objectives is questionable. The book is written with a deep sense of attachment to Bhojpuri culture and an unmatchable sense of wit and humour, sometimes hidden under the matter of fact rendition of events. For instance, while discussing about the “treachery” of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the roots of their animosity towards him, he describes an incident where he was asked to mobilise students to participate in a jail bharo agitation. He convinced 17 students with ABVP background and promised them puri and jalebi at a friend’s house in Patna. However, when the students reached Patna, they were put in a bus going to Buxar jail. Of course, the ABVP students ran away as the bus neared the Buxar jail. When asked by JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) about the incident, Lalu Prasad smilingly told him that the students had not run away but tried to emulate the Hazaribagh jail escape by JP in 1942. Lalu Prasad ends this story in the following manner: “JP just smiled. Perhaps he had seen through my act. Thus, I defended the ABVP activists despite their treachery” (p 34). There is no attempt to censor the events or even attach any notion of faux morality to explain or justify.

The conditions and surroundings of Phulwaria village (Gopalganj district) and his family are plainly described without much romanticisation. This is not astonishing given that at one point Lalu Prasad himself contends that, “there is no glamour in poverty” (p 3). There is also an underlying recognition that most other people from the disadvantaged caste groups and even women had similar food intake, housing conditions, etc. Lalu Prasad narrates his fascination of and interest in folk singing such as Chaita, Biraha, Holi and Sorthi. He also does not conceal his early and great penchant for entertaining people with his jokes and mimicry that made him a popular student when he moved with his elder brother to Patna. It played an important part in his life too: Lalu Prasad got admission in the Miller High School because apart from his academic qualifications, he was able to mimic a popular All India Radio (AIR) character Loha Singh. In fact, his foray into public life started with an impromptu speech he delivered standing on the boundary walls of B N College in Patna where he demanded public transport for students like himself who came from far away corners of the city. His popularity among women students of the elite Patna Women’s College and other colleges due to his strong stance towards “street Romeos” also came handy during his union elections later.

It is well known that he entered politics through his election in the student council of the Patna University Student’s Union (PUSU). However, the more remarkable fact somehow has escaped common knowledge. PUSU, in the period when Lalu Prasad was a student, did not have an elected student council. It was through the efforts of the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha (SYS), the youth wing of Samyukta Socialist Party (SanSoPa in popular parlance) and Lalu Prasad himself that the president and the general secretary were directly elected in 1970–71. His early political innings were greatly influenced by the thoughts of Rammanohar Lohia and the leadership of JP. He describes his interactions with JP with great enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Early Lalu Regime

Lalu Prasad fought the 1977 Lok Sabha elections from Chhapra when he was just 29 years old and had just passed his LLB exam. The journey till he became the chief minister of Bihar in March 1990 is peppered with his exposure to the national political scene, his attempts to bring together the Lok Dal (Charan Singh) and Lok Dal (Karpoori Thakur) factions and his eventual election as the leader of opposition in the Bihar state assembly despite a lot of factionalism within his party. His first stint as the chief minister is full of charismatic interventions and direct contact with the masses in the state. An almost forgotten Lalu Prasad slogan, “vote ka raaj matlab chhot ka raaj” (democracy means the rule of the weak), also comes from this period (p 51). Anyone who has lived through that period would testify to the great aspiration that Lalu Prasad rode on in those days.

Substance and Learnings

There are three important points that emerge from Lalu Prasad’s narrative about the early 1990s. I highlight these points despite the fact that most mainstream political analysts have already codified the main substance of these arguments in sameekarans (equations) such as MY (Muslims and Yadavs). It is important to study and learn from a politician’s early impulses towards important issues of their times, in order to highlight deeper ideological learnings and influences and the instinctive approach of a politician like Lalu Prasad.

The first point is about what Lalu Prasad feels is his contribution to the society of Bihar. In his understanding, and it is possible that this perception has the benefit of hindsight, the first and foremost problem of social or any other kind of reforms is to wake people up to their innate rights and self-awareness as full human beings. Lalu Prasad initially used his powers and resources as chief minister to create a spectacle that a person from the backward classes has finally reached the ruler’s throne. There was a popular story about Lalu Prasad’s ascension to the chief minister’s post when I was a child growing up in a kasba (small town) in Gopalganj district in early 1990s. I cannot authenticate the story but it conveys the point nevertheless. When Lalu Prasad went to see his mother after becoming chief minister, he struggled to impress upon her his new accomplishment. Finally, he had to tell her that he had become the raja of Bihar just like the rajas of the nearby Hathua estate! In the book too, a lot of his stories from his first term relate to his attempts to impress upon the unconscious and oppressed masses of Bihar that one of them, Lalu Prasad, had become the raja of the land. This might appear to outsiders as “drama,” as Lalu Prasad himself concedes in the book, but it was undoubtedly a period of great social awakening in Bihar.

In the much cited Karpoori Thakur slogan, “izzat aur roti”, izzat came before roti and in this narrative by Lalu Prasad, swarg came after swar. According to Lalu Prasad, he woke the masses up from the psyche of koi nrip hohin mohi ka hani, cheri chorhi na hoib rani (whoever becomes king how does it affect me, I won’t be queen overnight) (p 89). The poor and the oppressed developed an agency and a stake in the political process whereas earlier they were used as mere proxies by the feudal powers. This is best illustrated by the story of Lakshminiya, a Musahar woman who Lalu Prasad knew when he lived in the chaprasi quarters of the veterinary college in Patna during his student days. After many years, while campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in 1991, Lalu Prasad saw Laksminiya in a crowd jostling to see him. He then went ahead to converse with her about her family despite a number of party leaders trying to attract his attention (pp 90–91). This is a well-known incident that shows his instant and organic connect with the poor.1

The second point relates to his understanding of the bureaucracy and the political system. Lalu Prasad was aware that any change in self-perception in the backward and Dalit sections of the population must be accompanied with a deeper reform in the bureaucracy. Many of the incidents of his direct interactions with Dalit families or his helicopter visits to the villages performed a pedagogical function for the bureaucracy and the local political system, comprising of landlords, banias, thekedars and thanedars. There are of course other narrations and/or interpretations of these events from various quarters which Lalu Prasad takes into question in the book. There were strong rumours in the 1990s in upper-caste/upper-class drawing rooms about how senior bureaucrats were humiliated by Lalu Prasad in public and how at times they were asked to carry spittoons for the chief minister and so on. However, there are no certain ways of verifying whether such incidents indeed took place. It is possible that this approach towards the bureaucracy and the political system might have laid the basis of the subsequent decline of Lalu’s regime. But as far as the collective historical impact of the Lalu regime is concerned, no one can deny the diversification brought by him in the spheres of bureaucracy and politics with more members of the backward classes and Dalits getting representation.

The final point is about his understanding of communal harmony. At the outset, it is important to highlight how deeply the politicians of his generation and particularly someone like Lalu Prasad had learnt about the vicious, hateful and dangerous nature of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is something that younger politicians, knowingly or perhaps because of their ignorance about history, lack in their repertoire. According to Lalu Prasad, apart from his deep suspicion of the RSS, what really moved him to work for communal harmony in Bihar was the Bhagalpur riots where more than 1,500 people, mostly Muslims, died in 1989. It was commendable that during the Lalu regime, Bihar remained riot-free at the time of the Babri demolition and later.

Here again, the more popular event is how Lalu Prasad got L K Advani arrested in Samastipur during the latter’s rath yatra. It was a brave act, given that the central government led by the party that Lalu Prasad himself belonged to was supported by the BJP at that time. It was also an act that required careful planning and administration. Lalu Prasad describes the event in great detail in the book.

He narrates how he dealt with one of the few riots that did take place in Bihar in Sitamarhi in 1992. According to Lalu Prasad, the moment he learnt about the riots, he reached the town in a helicopter:

as our chopper hovered over Sitamarhi, I found people armed with hatchets, spears and agricultural tools indulging in arson and violence. I landed at the state guest house and called for an open Jeep fitted with a public address system. I also called for five more Jeeps with constables to escort me. I stood in the moving vehicle, holding the megaphone and announcing that curfew had been clamped… (p 84)

Lalu Prasad then visited the riot-affected areas and stayed in the town for days till normalcy was restored. This nugget is important because one of the least known facts about the Lalu regime in the 1990s was this hands-on approach to deal with communal disturbances anywhere in the state. In the Indian political landscape, it is indeed a stellar achievement that Lalu Prasad is unarguably the only non-Congress, non-left regional political leader who has never aligned with the RSS–BJP combine, either overtly or covertly.

Jungle Raj?

In 1991 general elections, Janata Dal did exceptionally well in Bihar winning 33 out of 54 seats. This was against the national trend where the Congress party fared better. The same was true for the 1995 assembly elections when Lalu Prasad continued to be the unchallenged leader of Bihar. However, in the meanwhile two of his old comrades, George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar, had left the party to form Samata Party and by the time of the Lok Sabha elections in 1996 had aligned themselves with the BJP too. The fodder scam, which was ongoing since at least 1981–82, was unearthed during the early Lalu regime. The scam was the most basic one: using fake bills to draw money from the district treasury.

In his defence, Lalu Prasad reproduces in full a long open letter written by senior journalist A J Philip in May 2018. Philip, an admirer of Lalu Prasad since more than a decade, once wrote that Lalu Prasad’s “asset, which is ‘disproportionate to his income,’ is the kind of money a minister routinely spends on a pre-marriage party in Punjab” (Philip 2005). A number of sympathetic observers find it ironic and unfair but the fact remains that the Indian courts have convicted Lalu Prasad for the fodder scam and he holds the distinction of being the only politician of consequence to be incarcerated on corruption charges in India and barred from contesting elections.

What Went Wrong?

Also, it is undeniable that Lalu Prasad’s rule by his second stint had developed its own problems of overreach and non-accountability. But by any standards it was a story of decline and not of the creation of backwardness. Putting the entire blame of Bihar’s poor state of development on Lalu Prasad is hugely unfair to him. The book very briefly deals with his own assessment of what went wrong during that period. He stopped mingling with ordinary people and became blind to emerging situations at the state and national levels. He was also unable to keep his flock together, etc. Lalu Prasad also argues that a number of issues that have affected Bihar’s development historically, such as the recurrent floods and freight equalisation policy, were beyond his purview and he alone cannot be blamed for the failures in those respects.

To the claims that Lalu regime was the harbinger of anarchy and jungle raj, it is important to note that even during the height of the media hype of jungle raj, Bihar was not at the top of crime charts in the country (Dasgupta 2010). Also, the improvements under Nitish Kumar took place mostly in the realm of petty crimes and kidnapping; the sort of crimes that affect the middle classes and dominant social groups. At the same time, the crimes against the members of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs) and women witnessed a rise. So, it is not incorrect to say that the perceptions regarding the rise or fall in crime and anarchy are relative to the social position of the observer (Dasgupta 2010). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the rise in crime against SCs/STs and women was a reflection of the return of the upper-caste rule in Bihar, riding on the back of Nitish Kumar after a gap of 15 years (Kumar 2013).

However, by the end of Lalu Prasad’s third term, there was a genuine dissatisfaction, perhaps even disenchantment, against him and his regime among the masses of Bihar. Lalu Prasad had aided the process of destroying the old—in terms of the upper-caste dominated bureaucracy, political culture and else—but had failed to create an alternative that could provide dignified life and work to his own constituency. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister in waiting, utilised this and also presented a positive vision for the future. In 2005, after two successive assembly elections, Nitish Kumar formed his government with the support of the BJP.

Recent Developments

Lalu Prasad’s turnaround after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections at the national level while he lost the state to Nitish Kumar has been documented well in the book. His work at the railway ministry was appreciated by a number of business schools and that has been captured effectively.

There is an interesting theory about Nitish Kumar in the book. According to Lalu Prasad, the relationship between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi started souring only in 2008–09 when Modi began to present himself as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister. Nitish Kumar had cultivated the Advani camp in the BJP to support him for the Prime Minister’s post. In any case of hung verdict, Nitish Kumar as a long-time ally of the BJP would be acceptable to all. However, when Modi began to receive impressive support for his candidature from different factions within the BJP, Nitish Kumar decided to break ties with the BJP in the hope that the opposition would field him as the Prime Minister contender. After a resounding defeat during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar again went back to the drawing board and found it best to align with Rashtriya Janata Dal and form a grand alliance. But then why did Nitish go back to the BJP? Unfortunately, the answer is not to be found in Lalu Prasad’s biography too.

The return of Lalu Prasad in the state’s politics again in 2015 when under his leadership the BJP was decisively defeated in the period of the so-called Modi wave is an example of his continued appeal among the masses of Bihar. However, with Nitish Kumar returning to the Modi camp, the future for Lalu Prasad and family looks uncertain unless the Lok Sabha election results turn out to be in their favour.

Limitations

I would strongly suggest to those who can read and understand the language to read the book in Hindi so as to get the flavour of the many quotes by Lalu Prasad in the book. The only sore point is an instance of wrong translation in the very first page of the book. The first page of Chapter 1 describes how Lalu Prasad Yadav did not know his age. Once when he asked his mother about it, she replied saying she did not remember: “hamra naikh-e yaad, tu anhariya mein janmale ki anjoriya mein” (I cannot remember if it was in daytime or dark). In this sentence, anhariya and anjoriya have been translated as daytime or dark whereas in the immediate next sentence, the correct meaning, that is dark fortnight or moonlit fortnight is used.

Finally, a major limitation of the book is its lack of engagement with the longstanding questions of the day, for instance, caste discrimination and its relationship with Hindutva politics, in some detail. A student of politics has to work hard to find a few lessons from the book. The final chapter is almost completely dedicated to Tejashvi Yadav as the inheritor of Lalu’s legacy without any real introduction to Tejashvi as a political person. Ironically, the chapter is titled, “Abhi toh Main Jawaan Hoon” (I am still young). Despite, these shortcomings and also a slightly hurried and unstructured nature of the organisation of the book, the story of Lalu Prasad is a story that must be read. In fact, a more detailed and thoroughgoing political biography of Lalu Prasad must be written.

Note

1 The co-author of the biography, Nalin Verma, has recently related another story of Lalu Prasad’s connect with the poor and vulnerable in Telegraph newspaper dated 8 May 2019 (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/guess-who-came-to-dinner-with-lalu-prasad/cid/1690130?).

References

Dasgupta, Chirashree (2010): “Unravelling Bihar’s ‘Growth Miracle’,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 52, pp 50–62.

Guru, Gopal (2004): “New Dalit Politics,” Indian Democracy: Meanings and Practices, Vora, Rajendra and Suhas Palshikar (eds), New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, Awanish (2013): “Nitish Kumar’s Honourable Exit: A Brief History of Caste Politics,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 28, pp 15–17.

Philip, A J (2005): “The Lalu Phenomenon: Give the Devil His Due,” Tribune, 29 November.

Updated On : 17th May, 2019

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