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From her diminutive self, Rabri Devi comes of age with aggressive posturing

Two decades later, Rabri Devi, 62, whose term as CM lasted 91 months across three non-contiguous terms, is back in the hustle and bustle of politics, not merely as the mascot of the party in the absence of her husband, who is now serving another sentence related to the same fodder scam in a Ranchi jail, but as a unifying force keeping the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) together.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2018 22:52 IST
Anirban Guha Roy
Anirban Guha Roy
Hindustan Times
rabri devi,Rashtriya Janata Dal,lalu prasad yadav
When, as a misty-eyed housewife, Rabri Devi drove to Raj Bhavan on July 25, 1997 to take the oath of office as chief minister of Bihar, the move surprised everyone and reaffirmed the political shrewdness of her husband Lalu Prasad, who passed on the mantle o his wife just days before he was arrested in the multi-crore fodder scam case.(PTI)

When, as a misty-eyed housewife, Rabri Devi drove to Raj Bhavan on July 25, 1997 to take the oath of office as chief minister of Bihar, the move surprised everyone and reaffirmed the political shrewdness of her husband Lalu Prasad, who passed on the mantle to his wife just days before he was arrested in the multi-crore fodder scam case.

Two decades later, Rabri Devi, 62, whose term as CM lasted 91 months across three non-contiguous terms, is back in the hustle and bustle of politics, not merely as the mascot of the party in the absence of her husband, who is now serving another sentence related to the same fodder scam in a Ranchi jail, but as a unifying force keeping the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) together.

Prasad’s elder son Tej Pratap Yadav is in self-imposed exile after deciding to divorce his wife of six months (he appeared in a family court on Thursday). Pratap doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his younger brother Tejashwi Prasad Yadav , who is effectively in charge of the party. To Devi, then, has fallen the task of keeping the family and party going although, to be fair, Tejashwi has shown he has the same kind of political savvy as his father.

On Wednesday, Devi sat on a dharna (protest) inside the Bihar legislative council to protest the suspension of five of the party’s members , forcing the acting chairman of the Legislative Council to revoke the suspension within a few hours.

The day before ,she hit out at the Nitish Kumar government on rising crime. The situation in Bihar was a “maha jungleraj”, she thundered. Her use of the term was deliberate. “Jungle raj” (law of the jungle) was a barb first used in the 1990s by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to criticise the RJD government’s rule of Bihar.

“ Those who doubted Rabri’s capabilities as a politician have been proven wrong. She has matured as a public figure and enjoys the status of party guardian. She has seen many ups and downs in politics and has a new perspective on political life. Her simple lifestyle also drives the party, which is committed to social justice. Her role as the party’s woman mascot reflects she is capable of balancing her home and party with ease,” said, Abdul Bari Siddiqui, former opposition leader in the assembly and a senior RJD functionary.

Siddiqui said the former chief minister had shown indomitable fighting spirit , especially over the last couple of years. Devi herself wasn’t immune from charges of graft, and faced a disproportionate assets case in which she was acquitted.

RJD insiders describe Devi’s elevation as the party’s national vice president in February 2018, two months after Prasad went to jail in December 2017, as a master stroke by the latter. They say it made his wife a central figure in the party so as to keep his flock intact even as it ensured a smooth transition of power to his younger son, Tejashwi, who is the leader of the opposition in the state assembly. In May, Devi herself was elected leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Council.

Many see her role now as not very different from that in 1997, when her primary task was to keep everyone in the fold.

“ She acted as the glue for the party’s senior leaders to stay together despite several challenges and she continues to play the same role even now when Lalu is in jail. Many seniors who resent the fact that son Tejashwi is increasingly calling the shots, feel comfortable attending party meetings in Rabri’s presence”, said a senior RJD leader who did not want to be named.

In her initial years, Devi did embarass the party with some of her gaffes, say party insiders, and the growing clout of her brothers Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav worried some, but the two subsequently left the party and she severed ties with them. Over time, she grew in confidence and showed that she was capable of running the state even though many experts believe she was merely the face and Prasad remained the power behind the throne, irrespective of whether he was in jail, or in New Delhi (where he was a minister in the United Progressive Alliance).

Devi’s opponents continue to maintain that Devi remains just the face. “She has always been in the shadow of RJD chief . Till today, he calls the shots. Rabri is not a leader. There can’t be two leaders in the party especially when there is a process underway to pass the baton to Tejashwi,” said the BJP’s state vice president and spokesperson Devesh Kumar.

Still, Devi, with an ever-present smile and down-to -earth attitude, remains a big draw for the party, one reason why she is listed as a star campaigner after Prasad and Tejashwi and will no doubt be required to do the rounds in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha polls, when the RJD will be pitted against the National Democratic Alliance.

“ Lalu ji is there but we feel Rabri ji is our guardian,” said Shiv Chandra Ram, an RJD MLA, who is keen on contesting the Lok Sabha poll from the Hajipur seat.

A few months ago, Devi put one over the government when she returned her entire security cover after the government began reducing it in a phased manner -- a move clearly aimed at her and Prasad. A red-faced government had to backtrack and reinstate it.

Interestingly, Devi has chosen to take the side of her daughter in law Aishwariya in Taj Pratap’s divorce drama, which she has termed “a family affair.”

First Published: Nov 29, 2018 22:49 IST