Six months ago, he was in jail, convicted for corruption. He is out on bail, debarred from contesting the elections himself. Two months ago, it seemed like his party was on the verge of a vertical organisational split. He has lost the state assembly elections twice in a row, in 2005 and 2010. Some of his key aides have deserted the party. And his performance in the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 left him with no leverage in Delhi. His political obituary was all but written.
Today, Lalu Yadav is back, as the principal challenger to the NDA combine in Bihar and the man who may well dash BJP's dreams of getting 25 seats from the state. And it is on the basis of his old, tested, social alliance of Yadavs and Muslims, a formidable combination that can tilt the scales in many of Bihar's 40 seats.
On the outskirts of Darbhanga, in Gausaghat, a group of men are playing cards in the middle of the day. Ganesh Yadav looks up when asked about his political preference. "This time, it is lantern (RJD symbol). It is time to bring Lalu raj back. MAA Fatmi (RJD candidate) is a local who has done a lot for the area."
His friend, Surendra Prasad Yadav explains, "Kirti Azad, the local BJP MP, is useless. He has done nothing for the constituency and all he chants now is Namo Namo. Bhai, will Namo do anything for Darbhanga? Is he standing from here?" Sunil Singh, a shop-owner originally from Chapra, rebuts Yadav and says, "I will vote for BJP, any sensible person should. This is not for Azad. He is a pawn. It is for the centre." But Yadav hits back, "What do you mean? Anyone who doesn't vote for Namo is a fool? Think what you may, but I am not with Namo."
In neighbouring Madhubani constituency, Ram Kumar Yadav is the mukhiya of Mohanpur village, and a member of RJD. In an interview in February, Yadav had told HT that his loyalties are divided, for he is also a follower of Baba Ramdev, who is a Yadav and is backing BJP. The fact that BJP's candidate in the area happens to be a Yadav (Hukum Deo Narayan) also created doubts in the mukhiya's mind.
But in a conversation on Saturday, Ram Kumar Yadav's dilemmas appeared resolved. "Yadavs will remain with Laluji. At most, 25% will drift to BJP. There is sympathy for him after the jail term. What happened was wrong." This ties in with what a Lalu aide had told this reporter when he was convicted. "Indians have a deep desire to see their leaders penalised. But as soon as they are penalised, there is a surge of sympathy."
It is this perception - that Lalu's core base has remained intact - which appears to be tilting Muslims to RJD. Mohammed Imtiaz in Urdu, a Muslim pocket of Darbhanga, says, "Nitish ji has also done a lot for us. But in this election, the aim is to defeat Modi. And Lalu, along with Congress, is best positioned to do that. For the assembly elections, we may return to Nitish."
An RJD office bearer, Qaushar Khan, in Patna's Phulwari Sharif even claims that in areas where RJD is best positioned to defeat BJP, JD(U) activists have gone relatively quiet. "There are 28 ward councillors here. 10 are from JD(U). But they are completely inactive, because Nitish's primary aim is also defeat of BJP." This information could not be independently verified, and JD(U) leaders rubbish the claim, saying they are perfectly capable of independently taking on BJP.
What is however clear is that Lalu's aggressive posturing and track record vis-a-vis BJP, his successful pursuit of an alliance with Congress, his vocal commitment to 'secularism' and projection of the current election as a moment like 1947 has struck a chord with minorities. Fond of recalling that he was the one who stopped LK Advani's rath-yatra and got him arrested in Samastipur during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, Lalu could well be the man who slows down Modi's yatra to Delhi.