If Nitish Kumar is the best finished product of the social justice movement, Lalu Prasad was, at his prime, its uncut diamond prone to invent his own curse. He lost his spectacular mass base to glaring misgovernance and an unwavering belief that the self-respect plank on which he rode to power was for forever.
I once asked a Lalu aide about his cavalier approach to governance: “What to do? Each time we raise the issue, he scoots like a child asked to study maths.”
His tenure as CM was a study in how not to govern. He had political savvy but not the attention span and the acumen to turn Bihar around. Irresistible rustic charm, down-to-earth repartee and formidable secular credentials profiled the man who moved people like locusts. He never lectured. He talked to his audience.
“Hamery bina saleema nahin chalta (your film wouldn’t run without me in the frame),” he’d taunt TV cameramen. The Holi festivities at his Patna home pictured the way he ran the administration — a mix of bravado, profligacy and raucous celebration. All buffoonery, no substance!
But his fame transcended borders. A testimony to that was his 2003 Lahore visit as member of an Indian delegation of parliamentarians. He was the toast of the town. The Pakistan media and the public ate out of his hands, making Musharraf jocularly ask whether he’d contest elections in Pakistan.
At his mega rallies that were in no way smaller or less responsive than the one Narendra Modi addressed this weekend in Delhi, Lalu would upbraid policemen blocking the children and the elderly from getting close to the stage. If only he had supplemented such momentary empowerment by schemes that changed their lives!
A conversationalist with few peers in the genre, Lalu’s idiom gelled with his class, the backwards. He earned the Muslims’ trust by halting LK Advani’s 1990 Ramrath at Samastipur. The fallout: VP Singh’s BJP-backed government fell in Delhi; Lalu consolidated his base in Bihar; the saffron parivar acquired the Hindutva muscle that helped them amble to power in the second half of the nineties.
The fodder scam in which he now stands convicted had forced Lalu to give up his chief ministership in 1997. He drew all-round opprobrium for installing his wife, Rabri Devi, as CM but won another election to rule the state by proxy till 2005. Along the way, the sheen of the nineties wore thin, turning the lovable Lalu into a bit of a dragon. But that did not take away from the relevance of his kind in the country’s polity.
His track record and the trust he enjoyed of the Muslims lent force to the argument that the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque wasn’t a Hindu versus Muslim issue. That it was a tussle between secular and non-secular India.
The 2009 polls saw the RJD reduce to the strength of four in the Lok Sabha — Lalu himself and three Rajput MPs. The big question now is whether his clansmen, the Yadavs, will stand up for him in his worst crisis? Will the Muslims rise and pay back?
The poser is relevant in the light of Andhra’s Jagan Reddy phenomenon. The YSR Congress leader’s popularity graph there is defying the weight of the graft charges he faces.