MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 1 OCTOBER, 2019
Lalu Yadav - Once a Sight to Behold and A Voice to Marvel
In his heydays
I am always sad when I see someone big being taken down. I detested Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gadaffi, but the manner of their end nevertheless made me sad. That final helplessness when the law or foes close in can never be comprehended by anyone but the loser. I feel sorry for the Lalu at the moment the doors of the Birsa Munda jailed shut behind him. It truly is a tragedy of epic proportions.
At full flight he was a sight to behold and a voice to marvel. He represented forces that never before sat on the high table where power and resources are allocated. When once asked as to what he did for poor people, he just replied;"swarg tho nahi diya, par swar zaroor diya." But there was another Lalu that took over. This was the megalomaniacal side of him that did not restrain him from accepting the limits societal mores and norms insisted upon.
Instead of learning from his guru Karpoori Thakur that to be invincible and unmoved from your essential instincts you have to be honest to the core and above all be seen to be that by all. Ironically enough the foundations of the great chara ghotala was laid during Karpoori Thakur's Chief Ministerial regime (Yashwant Sinha was his Principal Secretary), when disbursement of funds was decentralized somewhat to directly benefit the core constituency of the former Janata Party - the backward classes and Muslims coalition.
The upper castes and the Dalits were not cattle-herders and hence this 'reform' was meant to benefit the innermost core of that constituency - the Yadavs. Therefore there is some irony in that the roots of Lalu Prasad Yadav's destruction was laid in the courts of his hero and mentor.
I first met Lalu Yadav in 1988 when I accompanied VP Singh to two desolate villages near Jehanabad, Baghaura and Dalelchak where 54 Rajputs were massacred by the Maoist Co-ordination Committee. It was still early days for the now out of Congress VP Singh, and he was seeking to shore up his Rajput base in his fight against Rajiv Gandhi. The bigger Thakurs were all opposed to him. Anyway, soon after we arrived at Patna airport, Sharad Yadav disappeared and just VP Singh, Ramdhan and a few of us went to meet with the aggrieved Thakurs and the terrorised Dalits who were awaiting retaliatory attacks. That happened no sooner we left.
But next day back in Patna, Sharad Yadav suggested to me that we have lunch at Lalu Yadav's place. So we went off to a small tin roofed quarters of the Veterinary College where the future Bihar CM received us and seated us on a bench. Before lunch he handed us a small towel each and we washed our hands and face while he drew water from hand pump. Sharad Yadav and myself sat facing each other with our legs on either side of the bench and two steel thals were laid in front of us. A pedestal fan fought valiantly against the heat and humdity. The meal was very frugal, but piping hot made up for everything it may have lacked. Rice, dhal and a couple of subzis. I turned down the dahi as I had a notion that anything in Bihar not boiling hot is not edible. I asked for hot tea that washed down the meal instead of the liquid that came from the frayed nozzle of the creaking hand pump.
But Lalu had one surprise in store for me. He had read my pamphlet "Ganga key santhan" the Hindi version of my somewhat grandiloquently titled "The Children of the Ganga: An Enquiry into the Poverty of the People of the Gangetic plains" written in 1985. It was a study that made big news in Bihar. Chandrashekhar was very happy with it. His chelas immediately suggested that I be taken off as the author and netaji's name put in its place. One chamcha even said "yeh toh Chandrasekharji ki baat bol rahe hain. Sirf likha hai inhone." I was agreeable to it, but CS would have nothing to do with it. He bluntly said that no one will believe that he could have researched it and written it. I distinctly remember only Syed Shahabuddin had a criticism. He objected to my referring to the Ganges as the holy Ganga. Its just a river he said. I said even Kaaba was just stone but why does he consider it holy? CS put and end to what was shaping up to become acrimonious by cryptically saying "Ganga is holy, Kaaba is holy".
Lalu recalled some of the statistics in it and rattled off things from it like the credit/deposit ratios, the investment in irrigation and rural development, and the destructive freight equalization policy. He had a somewhat different take on it though. He said it was an upper caste/class conspiracy to keep the people of UP and Bihar poor and backward. Sharad Yadav had no interest in such things. On the way back Sharad Yadav told me that he had introduced me to the next CM of Bihar. VP Singh was curious to know what Sharad had to say. Among us Sharad Yadav, who had an infinite capacity for intrigue, was referred to as Mamashree inspired by the portrayal of Shakuni in the then popular Mahabharata serial. I told him that Mamashree thought of Lalu as a future CM to take the place of the great Karpoori Thakur. VP Singh gave me a quizzical look, as if to say are you for real?
By then others in the nascent political party helpfully made the Delhi party know that Lalu was a bit of a hoodlum and often went drunk to the assembly. Vashishta Narain Singh and Shivanand Tiwari worked overtime to neutralize the effect that Sharad Yadav may have had on VP Singh. VP Singh did in fact make up his mind. It was Ram Sundar Das, the veteran dalit leader and former CM. Ram Sundar Das is now well past ninety and is still a MP. But when the time came, following the 1990 assembly elections, Sharad Yadav with Devilal's backing made Lalu contest the election to the legislative party leadership and had the PM's candidate, Ram Sundar Das, defeated. Among the arguments that Sharad Yadav was said to have made to swing Devilal was that VP Singh was essentially a casteist and only went to Baghaura and Dalelchak because Rajputs were killed. It was due to constant taunts like this that VP Singh, always very conscious of his Thakur background and seeking a new image adopted the Mandal Commission recommendations as his mantra. Remember his favorite slogan was - Yeh Raja nahin fakir hai, desh ka naya taqdeer hai!
VP Singh's taqdeer didn't last very long, but Lalu Prasad entered our recent mythology by arresting LK Advani in Samastipur and separating him from DCM Toyota van turned rath. Lalu famously quipped "motor gadi thi, koi uran khatola tho nahi. Mein ney pahiye sey hawa utaar diya." Advani never forgave him for the scorn he poured on him. VP Singh carefully chose Lalu to do the honors as he did not want Mulayam Singh Yadav, then CM in UP to get the credit. Sharad Yadav too was not too keen on an arrest in Bihar as he could sense his protege finding his own wings. And after putting Advani in the cooler, Lalu never looked back. He became the darling of the fawning leftist element in the English media.
VP Singh fell in 1991 but Lalu Prasad went on to be a long serving CM of a long suffering Bihar. Along the way he undercut his recent mentor, Sharad Yadav, and took center place in national politics as one of those foremost in the national politics. He had clearly become very vainglorious and his adulation by the Delhi media got to his head. The Congress had clambered back to power. But after it was felled in the elections it was time for a khichdi. He now made his famous comment: "ham King nahi, king maker hain."
And thats how HD Deve Gowda became king of the pile. VP Singh wanted no part of it and the CPM made its "historic blunder" by refusing permission to Jyothi Basu. But Deve Gowda ever wary of the now domineering Lalu, made a somewhat pliant and flexible Karnataka cadre IPS officer, Joginder Singh, the CBI chief. Joginder instead of blocking the fodder scam investigations, filed the charge-sheet.
Folklore has it that Lalu stormed into the PM's office at 7 RCR and belted out a few to Deve Gowda. The SPG stays outside and so could not save the PM from a few whacks. Soon Deve Gowda was felled by another Bihar politician, Sitaram Kesri, as he went scenting after him over the mysterious murder of his physician, a Dr.Tanwar.
Once again Lalu Yadav became king maker. From the sublime he now went in for the ridiculous. He picked Inder Kumar Gujral to become PN in 1997. The high point of Gujral's political career was when he went to Baghdad after Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait and embraced him. Many said it was a Saddam double whose cheeks he had kissed. But it caught Lalu's eye. Gujral he blithely told the media, was a Gujjar and Bihar would welcome him as a friend of the BC's and Muslims (the Saddam embrace). In 1991 IK Gujral contested the Lok Sabha seat from Patna and with him went his caboodle of IIC based do-gooders, who in an earlier period were the cheerleaders for Ramakrishna Hegde's "value based politics."
It was amusing to see people like Kuldip Nayyar campaigning in Patna while Lalu's goons went about looting booths. The Election Commission took heed and countermanded the election. That was the end of value based politics and we got a good taste of what India missed when Inder Gujral imported a million tons of Australian wheat to "shore up" the buffers. When in reality the purchase at about $300 a ton over the prevailing price was only to shore up the coffers of his family. The CBI's investigation of this was later turned off by Vajpayee in exchange for Gujral's good behavior. His son is now the Akali Dal's MP from Jalandhar.
In late 2003 I had written another Bihar paper "The Economic Strangulation of Bihar." Chandrashekhar, former Prime Minister, gave Lalu Prasad a copy. CS told me that Lalu read it with great excitement. Immediately I got a call from Premchand Gupta, Lalu's factotum, and he asked for a meeting. He wanted copies. I thought he wanted a few. But he had thousands in mind. I gave him a floppy with a copy of the paper and pointed him towards a printing press. I was soon invited by the Chief Secretary of Bihar to make a presentation to him and his officers.
When I reached Patna, I was instead taken to the CM's residence. The lady was in the kitchen supervising the days meals. Lalu Prasad was there with a retired IAS officer he called bade babu. Bade babu would tell him the gist of what was in a file and Lalu would tell the wife to sign it after the appropriate nothing was made.
Lalu then spoke about the new study as we walked looking at his cattle, fishpond, horse and even camel. He then told me that he wanted to use it in the forthcoming elections to the 2004 Lok Sabha. Just as I was getting ready to go, he said that I should meet some media persons who had arrived and tell them about the study. I gave the media my spiel over the economic neglect and exploitation of Bihar and UP, and to a specific question confirmed that it was so even in the NDA period, despite Bihar having thirteen ministers in it.
When one journo asked me about what did I think these ministers were doing, Lalu jumped to say 'murga khaya." He was alluding to the food bills of Rajiv Rudy in a five star hotel in Goa. The bills made available showed that the minister and his entourage consumed many thousand rupees of chicken in just one session. The bills of another NDA minster, Ravi Shankar Prasad, who went on 'official duty' to attend Raveena Tandon's wedding at Udaipur were also handed around. I quietly left the circus and found my way back to Delhi.
No one saw me off at the airport, except for an old friend, Akhlaq Ahmed a RJD MLA. In 2007 Akhlaq was sentenced to death for the murder for the 1994 murder of the Gopalganj Dy. Commissioner, G. Krishnaiah. Akhlaq has since been acquitted by the Supreme Court and continues to serve the public in the way only a Bihari politician can.
Lalu Prasad made the economic strangulation of Bihar by the NDA his campaign theme and went on to win handily. During the course of this campaign, Sushil Modi, made some unsavory comments about me. I took him and Chandan Mitra to the Patiala House courts on a charge of criminal defamation. After Arun Jaitely's intercession in the High Court was thrown out by Justice Rajiv Sikri, both pleaded guilty and apologized in writing and paid me a handsome indemnity. Modi's lawyer pleaded to the judge that the damages claimed were too high. All my lawyer had to say was that he was the Deputy CM of Bihar and left it there. But the meaning was explicit. Modi was made to pay. I purchased my fancy Tissot wrist watch with a part of this money.
But my dalliance with Lalu didn't end there. When the UPA came to power, on his own volition, he wrote to Manmohan Singh asking for me to be made a Member of the Planning Commission. He wrote that he wanted someone to look out for Bihar's interests. But the PM did not want me. He called Lalu and said that it was asking for trouble. Lalu also in his inimitable way said "aap dono ke beech mein kuch hua hain." He said his willing to take it up with Sonia Gandhi. I said the PM was right and the matter should be laid to rest. I was glad it did not materialize for MMS is not exactly someone I particularly admire or even respect.
I last met Lalu when he was still the Minister for Railways. He was being feted for performing a miracle with its profitability. A Harvard Business School group was visiting him and he wanted to know how he should play it. I knew it was the upturn of the economy and a little sleight of hand. Lalu Prasad himself told me that all he had done was to raise the safety limit for tonnage on a wagon by 20%. He said he knew from his sources that the officials did actually load this quantity and since it was in excess of what was deemed safe, they did not record it and pocketed the difference. With a laugh, he added that every Bihari worth his salt knows that. I don't know how much truth there was to this, but his predecessor, Nitish Kumar, did comment that safety norms were being breached. Well no goods train capsized when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the Minister for Railways.
It was late in the evening and Lalu suggested dinner. He told Premchand Gupta, his man for all reasons, to arrange for some murga from Oberoi. It was a very different meal from the first one I had with him. Lalu Prasad had traveled a long way for the Veterinary College quarters. the hand pump made way to bottled water. The rickety pedestal fan had given way to split air conditioners. Dal bhat was replaced by chicken from Oberoi's. I am sure he will get that and more in the Birsa Munda jail. The neta's have a way of taking care of one and another. After all as the song goes, there but for fortune would lie you and I!