His Sadhna-style hair – never combed but patted down – extra-long kurta sleeves and rocking one-liners have always been a cartoonist’s delight.
But Lalu Prasad -- he dropped the Yadav surname sometime in the early noughties -- and his politics are a serious combination. Shrewd marketing and always taking the politically correct side made him a phenomenon that India’s Hindi heartland has never experienced.
So much so that the word “Lalu” is used to describe anything out of the ordinary. In Bihar’s Bhojpur region — where he comes from — ‘Lalu byah’ means marriages conducted during inauspicious time but are expected to be blissful.
There’s more, products named after him -- from powdered gram, a popular ethnic food in Bihar, to lungis, crackers, toys and even films -- always do well.
When he lost to the Nitish Kumar-led NDA in the 2005 elections, he told television journalists: “Hum nahin raheein to tohra sab ke chalega (If I am not around, will you guys survive)?” In fact, several TV stations closed down their Patna bureaus later, as Bihar news became bland without his one-liners.
In March 1990, then PM VP Singh and Janata Party strongmen chose Prasad as the Bihar CM over several heavyweights, as they considered him a rustic charmer with no real following to become a threat.
Prasad proved them wrong. With his quick wit, native intelligence and keen sense of politics, he devoured even his mentors.
But it was in August 1990 that he really began unfolding his strategy. With the Mandal commission recommendations being bitterly debated and caste equations overwhelming the state, he managed to forge a combination of backward and extremely backward castes against upper castes.
Next came the Ram Mandir movement. Prasad gained Muslim support in the wake of BJP leader LK Advani’s yatra. Suddenly, he emerged as the saviour of the minorities all over the country. Thereafter, there was no stopping the messiah.
Another favourite tool of Prasad is prodding the poorest man among his audience to aspire high by narrating his own story of poverty and hunger. He even evolved a new political lingo to connect with his audience.
He replaced formal speeches with rustic expressions of anger and happiness and, in the process, changed the traditional form of governance into an informal panchayat.
Such was his power at one time that his government was not destabilised even after he made his unlettered wife the CM of Bihar.
His image was so strong and appealing that even the CPI-ML joined his government, although the caste consolidation made the mainline Left parties almost irrelevant.
But in the end, his ambition and popularity proved to be his undoing. He isolated his socialist friends by forming his own Rashtriya Janata Dal and throwing out a guide and mentor George Fernandes.
But although battered and lonely these days, Prasad is still a man who is loved or hated with equal passion. And that makes him a formidable foe – even if he is inside a jail.