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Professor Lalu Yadav

Professor Lalu Yadav

india Updated: Sep 02, 2006 03:06 IST

For years he’s been the joker of the pack in Indian politics; urban India’s favourite drawing room joke. Now, nearly 30 years after he won his first Lok Sabha election, Lalu Prasad Yadav could just end up having the last laugh.

The son of a poor farmer from Phulwaria in Bihar’s district Gopalgunj is today being wooed and courted by schools of management and administration. On September 18, the Railway Minister is scheduled to lecture students at India’s top B school, IIM, Ahmedabad on the nuances of the railways ‘turnaround’. The turnaround story, in fact, has already been introduced as a case study as part of the institute’s curriculum.

The Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussourie — training ground of India’s steely frame, the bureaucracy — is also reported to be wooing Lalu Prasad to come and deliver a lecture. He’s scheduled to speak at a Harvard University seminar in New Delhi next month. The HEC International Business School, Paris, wants to do a case study; GE boss Jeffrey Immelt has already done his salaams.

“I am on my way to becoming a visiting professor,” says Lalu Prasad of his new role. “This is a new job for me, but I am confident I will make a mark.”

To understand what B-schools and CEOs are oohing and aahing about, you have only to go back to 2001 when an expert group headed by Rakesh Mohan ( former advisor to the finance minister at the time, Yashwant Sinha) declared: “Indian Railways is today on the verge of a financial crisis.” The report predicted that if the railways didn’t change track it was doomed to ‘fatal bankruptcy’. The same year, the railways defaulted on paying a dividend of Rs 1,823 crore; its fund balances were a mere Rs 359 crore and its operating ratio — that is, expenses divided by traffic earnings — stood at a whopping 98 per cent.

Fast forward to 2005-06: Fund balances had reached Rs 12,141 crore, operating ratio was down to 83.7 per cent and internal generation was a healthy Rs 13,612 crore — all this without hiking either passenger or freight rates.

The irony is obvious: A man who failed to make any discernible progress in Bihar in the seven years that he was chief minister (15 if you add Rabri Devi’s proxy tenure) has managed to achieve remarkable success in such a short while at Rail Bhawan.

Sudhir Kumar, his articulate officer on special duty, a Delhi School of Economics graduate who is often credited for the turnaround, has his own take: “It is the minister’s passion and integrity that is leading this change,” he says.

Fodder for thought

Integrity is not a word often associated with Lalu Prasad, a key figure in the fodder scam case where funds earmarked for cattle fodder were diverted from the animal husbandry department. The scandal forced Lalu to step down as chief minister in 1997 (installing his wife in his place). In 2000, Lalu was hit by another scandal: Owning assets disproportionate to his known source of income. He has been jailed five times in connection with both scandals.

Both Lalu and Rabri are out on bail right now; the trial continues and no charge has been proved against them, yet.

Then, there’s the awkward matter of Sadhu Yadav, the minister’s brother-in-law, currently wanted by the Bihar police in an assault case.

Lalu’s defenders claim the cases are politically motivated. The say Bihar’s abysmal state is a result of a lack of central funding. And, they point to the fact that under Lalu, Bihar remained free of communal violence even in those times when the rest of the country was in flames: In 1992/93, for instance, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid when even such ‘advanced’ states like Maharashtra burned.

Lalu’s strength lies in his public appeal and his undeniable charisma as a champion of the poor, the oppressed and the backward. But says a rival politician: “Lalu Yadav would never want his state to progress, because he will lose his appeal the minute his people advance.”

On his own steam

It is no secret at Rail Bhavan that Lalu Prasad never wanted the Railway Ministry. When Manmohan Singh formed his cabinet two and a half years ago, he had lobbied for Home, but the Prime Minister balked at the idea of giving such a key ministry to someone who had corruption cases pending against him.

But having got a ministry he never wanted, Lalu seems determined to prove that he’s not the buffoon the English media often makes him out to be. It’s under him that e-ticketing has taken off, he’s supervising a railway station modernisation drive (nine ‘model’ stations were launched last year; seven of them in Bihar), he’s overhauled freight operations to make them more market friendly. “The entire emphasis is on regenerating the competitiveness of the railways,” says Sudhir Kumar. “We were functioning like a government monopoly. Today we realise that there is no mercy in a marketplace where the customer is king.”

Next on the cards: the launch of Garib Raths, airconditioned passenger trains that will connect Bihar and UP to Mumbai and other cities in the South.

Politically, Lalu Prasad may be down but he’s certainly not out in Bihar. He is aware that regardless of his image among the middle classes, his RJD party is a key UPA ally with 23 MPs in the Lok Sabha and eight in the Rajya Sabha — the only significant UPA presence in the Hindi heartland. And this past week, back in Patna after Parliament had adjourned, he made it clear that there are no permanent enemies in his brand of politics: He was willing to join hands with his rival Ram Vilas Paswan (they fell out in 2004) to campaign against Nitish Kumar’s ‘jungle raj’.

Lalu Prasad is perhaps the only Indian politician brand to have dolls modelled on him, to have a film based on him (Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav starring Suneil Shetty and Johnny Lever), seasonal products (Lalu rakhis and pichkaris), even, reportedly a Rs 23 Lalu chale sasural kit (comprising face powder, cream sticker bindis and a necklace).

But brand Lalu is undergoing a makeover. The dolls and cosmetic kits might have a market in the hinterland. In Delhi, Lalu seems determined to find a new image to sell, and Rail Bhavan may spring a few more surprises.