It’s lonely at the bottom too. At the top, amid false friends and real enemies, it was always so anyway. The media crews looking a quick witticism have gone. His 40-year political career is in danger of fading. So, it’s not surprising that Lalu Prasad Yadav (62) is wracked with self-doubt, trading his hard political declarations for soft philosophy.
“I am a philosopher. I am thinking… where I went wrong. Why did I fail? While I eat, talk and walk… I am analysing my defeat.”Lalu had wanted the interview over before the summer sun got harsh on the Gangetic plain. Six-thirty in the morning was the appointed time. But he had been awake late the previous night, "pensively strolling around the compound", according to an aide, and woke up late. At 7.30, lazily flipping newspapers outside a makeshift structure that used be to his camp office as rail minister, Lalu began to open up.
He lives in the official residence of his wife Rabri Devi, who is the leader of opposition in Bihar. When huge crowds were milling around the place, Lalu had dreamed of becoming India’s Prime Minister and moving to 7 Race Course Road. As the results of the 15th Lok Sabha elections began to emerge, the place emptied out.
The fall has been steep. Five years ago, Lalu Prasad was among India’s most powerful politicians. His party, the RJD, had won 24 seats in Lok Sabha and was the second biggest party in the ruling coalition at the centre. He became rail minister of India. His wife Rabri Devi was the chief minister of Bihar.
Then began the losses. After 15 years of ruling over Bihar, Lalu lost the state assembly elections in 2005. His party won merely four seats in the recent Lok Sabha elections and Lalu’s national presence is almost nothing. Nineteen years after he became the chief minister of India’s third largest state, Lalu is decisively out of power.
Is this the end of Lalu?
That’s the question worrying him too. He would come to that in a while.Two aides stood by — one with a cup of tea, the other with a glass of water. It would be a few minutes before he notices them. Two portraits of Krishna, the most famous Yadav before Lalu, solemnly gazed at him from the wall. "My son, Tej Pratap, is a devotee," Lalu explained. Isn’t he one? "I am one too," he said. While he went to jail in connection with the fodder scam 1997 Lalu had remarked it was not a bad thing after all. "Don’t you know Bhagwan Krishna was born in a jail?"
It was in jail that Lord Shiva appeared in a dream and ordered Lalu to give up non-vegetarian food. "I get a strong urge to eat fish. But then I cannot defy Shivji," he explains his dilemma.
A few sips after, Lalu shouts for more tea — light black, with excess sugar and lemon — suddenly remembering the guests. “Look at him. He was eating rice and dal here, till the other day,” Lalu talked into the newspaper which had on front-page a photograph of Shyam Rajak — a Dalit leader, who shadowed Lalu for 20 years — dining with chief minister Nitish Kumar, Lalu’s principal rival. Rajak left Lalu and joined Nitish a few days ago. “Duniya matlabi ban gayi hai,”(the world has become selfish) he said, putting the paper away.
Several of his close followers have left him. Lalu had made leaders out of miners, constables, teachers, housewives — including his own wife and brothers-in-law. “Not less than 400 of them…” The closest comparison could be with N.T. Ramarao or MGR who ruled Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for around a decade each. But Lalu’s dream run continued for two decades.
Things have suddenly changed, evidently. This morning, the only two senior leaders at Lalu’s place were Abdul Bari Siddiqui and Shakil Ahmad. Then followed a trickle of workers — a dozen in all. Even three months ago, thousands waited for an audience with Lalu. “When people leave me, I am hurt.
But I don’t throw anyone out from the party. They are free to go,” he said. And quoted Kabir.
Badaki Maar Kabir Ki, Chit se diyo utaar
(The biggest penalty for anyone,/who has hurt you, is to detach him from you)
One can’t be certain about that now, but it was so until a few months ago. Lalu’s brand equity was unmatched. People sold fodder, beedi, crackers, toffees and toys branded as ‘Lalu’. Radio jockeys mimicked Lalu for a living. One Bollywood film was even titled Padmashree Lalu Prasad Yadav. “Many people made fortunes using my name. People throng to you when you have something to offer.”
“These people cannot live without power. I can. I used to graze cattle and never in my wildest dreams thought I would reach where I did. I am used to life on the street.” The philosophy of loss is as profound as the loneliness that surrounds it. “I have no meetings to attend now and I am relaxed.”
In the circular journey that started from the street and poised imminently to end there, Lalu had gathered a caravan and epitomised the most resolute change of course in the Republic’s history — the political empowerment of lower castes in India.
In UP and Bihar that together elects a seventh of the Lok Sabha, the Congress was relegated to irrelevance within four years of it celebrating its centenary in 1985. What replaced the Congress was a social alliance with the Yadavs and Muslims at its core and lower backwards and Dalits in its periphery. Mulayam, the Yadav in UP, was equally powerful but Lalu was the show master of the new era.Destiny’s child
Critics say it was all sher chance. "Voh kismat ki khaya hai" (he has been plain lucky), says Shivanand Tiwari, one-time close confidante of Lalu and now a JDU MP.
That said, few could match his wit, charm and gift of the gab. His critique of India’s nuclear explosion in 1998 was just one line. “Everyone makes such a hue and cry when a crude bomb explodes in Bihar. Here, you have a government that touts a bomb as its achievement.”
The poor and the powerless venerated him. As his ascent continued, the messiah lost touch with the ground. A coterie, including his two brothers-in-law, surrounded Lalu. When he was warned of the dangers, Lalu declared. “I am the power station. These are sub-stations and I can turn off the supply anytime.” Lalu enjoyed the glorious isolation that he now regrets. “People came to my gate and returned. I did not realise. I was gradually getting disconnected with the public,”
Return to power
Will he manage a comeback? “Never," swears Rajak. “He didn’t bother to care for his supporters. Now it’s too late.” But Lalu rubbishes it. “I can take on anyone all alone. You watch the game now. It’s only begun.”
Lalu plans to go to the people and explain Ambedkar’s vision. “Babasahab said, Buddham sharanam gachchhami, sangam sharanam gachchhami. The backwards and the poor awake first and then organise,” he says.
“My voters and support are intact. They did not expect this kind of a defeat. I will correct my mistakes and win
A party worker from Gaya who wanted his attention interrupted Lalu’s monologue. “Come tomorrow...” Lalu dismissed him with a wave.
But do not dismiss Lalu, just yet. At least wait till Diwali. Mohammad Shamzad, cracker seller at Patna City market has
ordered a new consignment of Lalu crackers and sparklers. One will know then whether there is any more spark left in him.
Better still, wait for the next Bihar assembly election in October 2010.
Inputs from Anirban Guha Roy ; Photos by Arvind Yadav