Railway minister Lalu Prasad seemed to have dropped his plank of social justice for economic development after his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was ousted from power in Bihar by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), in the 2005 assembly elections.
It was after that defeat, which ended 15 years of “Lalu
raaj” (rule) over Bihar, that Prasad displayed a sense of urgency bordering on desperation to locate big-ticket railway projects in the state, according to ministry officials who have worked closely with him.
Then followed proposals for a pair of factories involving Rs2,000 crore in capital investment to manufacture electric and diesel locomotives in Madhepura and Marora, both in Bihar, and other large infrastructure projects.
“It was understood that the minister was looking at maximizing investment in Bihar and so these plans for the loco factories were taken up,” said a former railway official who did not want to be identified. Prasad’s attempts to fast-track the locomotive projects in the months preceding the general election failed, and they have been pushed back.
For a politician who built a formidable support base of backward castes and Muslims on the plank of ensuring social justice, the 2005 defeat appeared to have come as a wake-up call that he needed to do more for the state’s economic development to return to favour with voters.
But, closer to the general election that kicks off on Thursday, the 60-year-old politician known for his rustic wit and earthy charisma seems to have fallen back on vote-bank politics.
Prasad is contesting the Saran Lok Sabha seat, taking on Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Thursday’s election. The Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, has fielded a Muslim candidate, Saleem Parwez, who could cut into the RJD’s Muslim vote bank.
It is perhaps this concern that led Prasad to attack Varun Gandhi, the young BJP politician whose hate speech targeting Muslims last month has landed him in jail. Had he been the home minister, Prasad said at an election rally, he would have run a “roller over his chest and thought about the consequences later”. The RJD chief escaped with a censure from the Election Commission.
Prasad defeated Rudy by a margin of around 70,000 votes in 2004 from Chapra, as Saran was known prior to the last delimitation exercise that redrew the boundaries of assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies in India.
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Academician Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute says that Prasad’s brand of vote-bank politics has hit a dead end in Bihar. "Lalu has once again played up the concerns about the security of minorities in the state. But I think the people of the state would think of this as old wine in a new bottle."
The plank of social justice, too, has largely lost its appeal. The other backward classes—whose cause Prasad championed—have emerged as a power centre in their own right over the last two decades in Bihar.
"Now, the people want development and Nitish has shown that he is capable of improving the administration and can also be politically inclusive," says Gupta about the chief minister who has grown in stature since taking office.
Just in case, Prasad is also fighting for election from the Patliputra constituency in addition to Saran.
The outcome of this general election in Bihar, which has 40 Lok Sabha seats, would be crucial as an indicator of Prasad’s political fortunes in his pocket borough. It could indicate whether he is destined for political oblivion or set the stage for his return to power next year in the state of 35 million people.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the RJD had won 22 seats, the JD(U) six, the BJP five, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) four and the Congress three.
Apart from chief minister Kumar’s growing stature, Prasad has another reason to be worried about after ditching the Congress party—which led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre—to ally with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.
Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says that there is a growing sense of discomfort between Kumar and the BJP over issues that pertain to the latter’s core Hindutva agenda. "This makes Nitish a prospective ally for the UPA," says Rangarajan.
The stint as railway minister between 2004 and 2009 helped Prasad rebuild his personal image, which had taken a beating after the so-called fodder scam that involved the embezzlement of public funds to the tune of Rs950 crore. His administration was also criticized for the decrepit state of Bihar’s finances, its public infrastructure and law and order.
Prasad has won credit for the impressive financial turnaround of Indian Railways, once notorious for its sloth and inefficiency, a feat that has brought him invitations to address business school students at home and abroad, and become a case study for management institutions.
That counts for little in this election. "Lalu needs to be in power at the Centre as these are desperate times for him," says Gupta. "This election will be one of the most significant challenges he has ever faced in his career."