There is a wonderfully poignant story, possibly apocryphal, about the original Hindi cinema ‘phenomenon’ Rajesh Khanna that reveals the limits of superstardom. During his peak years, Khanna would hold a daily durbar where his fans would gather to hear him recite dialogues from his films. The room would be packed and the drink would flow. Many years later, Khanna found the hall empty. “Arre, where has everyone gone?” he asked his Man Friday. “Sir, there is a new hero in town and his name is Amitabh Bachchan,” replied his aide softly. Shaken, Khanna went back to sleep.
I saw shades of Rajesh Khanna recently in Patna while meeting Lalu Prasad. Like Khanna’s reign in Bollywood in the early 1970s, Lalu too was once the ‘superstar’ of Bihar politics through the 1990s. When he won the infamous 1995 election (he described it as “Lalu versus all” with typical flamboyance), the celebrations continued through the night. I asked an old man amidst the teeming crowds why he was there. “Sir, Laluji ne haemin swar diya hai, nahi toh kaun haemin allow karta mukhya mantra ke bangle mein. (Lalu has given us a voice, else who would allow us into the CM’s bungalow.) The man belonged to the Maha-Dalit Musahar community, once ostracised by the forward castes.
But in recent times, after losing four consecutive elections since 2005, Lalu has appeared a defeated man. When he arrived for a media event at a local hotel, there was initial excitement. For 45 minutes, he regaled the audience with his wit and repartee: In form, he is still the most natural political communicator. But then, as the evening wore on, the jokes began to wear thin, the punch-lines had a repetitive feel to them. Sitting next to me, an RJD supporter looked at his watch and yawned. Maybe Lalu was still a folk-hero, but the show was over. Like Rajesh Khanna, Lalu’s best is in the past.
And yet, there are signs in the last fortnight that Lalu may be scripting a famous political comeback. RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks on reservation appear to have awakened a neta in hibernation. Suddenly, what was meant to be an election about ‘jungle raj’ versus ‘development’ has now been transformed into a ‘war’ between forward and backward castes. This is the terrain that Lalu is comfortable with, one which doesn’t expose his awful track record in administration but allows him to play the identity politics which first drove his remarkable rise.
In the 1990s, Lalu won three assembly elections in a row, breaking the vice-like stranglehold of the upper castes on power. In the mid 1990s, as the third front came to power in New Delhi, Lalu fancied himself as a king-maker. “One day, I will be king, Pataliputra is coming to Centre,” he told me in an interview at the time. I almost believed him as I did his memorable one-liner “Jab tak samose mein aloo hai, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu hain!”
But nothing is permanent in politics, certainly not power. The fodder scam led to his resignation and his subsequent decision to appoint wife Rabri Devi as his successor in 1997. That was the moment when Lalu’s politics was cruelly exposed. What was meant to be a revolt of the oppressed symbolised by Lalu’s charismatic persona was now seen as a palace coup where one family had taken over in the name of caste empowerment. Once the larger than life persona was chipped away at with allegations of corruption, criminalisation and family raj, there was very little he could fall back upon.
Caste assertion still mattered, only now the backward castes were looking beyond Lalu. He had created the space for the Mandal revolution, only now he wasn’t its sole beneficiary. Instead, Nitish Kumar with his greater commitment to good governance became the new poster boy of a changing Bihar. To carry the film analogy a little further — Lalu and Nitish Kumar were a bit like Khanna and Bachchan in Anand: They had acted together as lead actor and character artiste once, now the roles were being reversed.
But in the 2015 election, there could be another twist in this tale because suddenly it’s the Lalu-Nitish jodi and not the seemingly impregnable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo that appears to have gathered momentum. With no visible sign of anti-incumbency against Nitish, Lalu was expected to be the Achilles heel of the ‘maha-gatbandhan’. But while some still prefer ‘Nitish minus Lalu’, there is reason to believe that the original cowherd king of Bihar has rediscovered his mojo. Under the deliberately cultivated comic exterior — designed to appeal to Bihar’s vernacular orientation — lurks a sharp political mind: Notice how Lalu has now projected himself as a ‘victim’ of an upper caste ‘conspiracy’ against ‘social justice’ by playing the reservation card.
In the final stretch, there are signs that Lalu has been able to consolidate his traditional MY (Muslim-Yadav) base. Muslims still have a natural affinity for someone who kept the communal peace in difficult times — Lalu’s RJD still gets an average vote of around 20% — but the ability to gather the incremental or critical ‘plus’ vote has eroded. Bihar’s demographics are changing rapidly: In this election, almost 25% of Bihar’s voters are in the age of 18 to 29. These are the children of a Mandalised Bihar who have lived under either Lalu’s or Nitish’s rule. Are they yearning for change as defined by the Modi cult or are their loyalties still determined by home-spun heroes [Bihari versus Bahari (outsider) is a potent slogan] and caste arithmetic? That key question could settle the battle for Bihar this time.
Post-script: In 1983, long after his glory days were over, Rajesh Khanna delivered another super-hit Avtaar. It didn’t spark off a revival but clearly showed that no star, especially one who knows his craft, should ever be completely written off. The same could perhaps be said about Lalu in the ultimate Bihar Mahabharata.
Rajdeep Sardesai is an author and a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal