It’s almost straight out of a Bollywood potboiler! A high-profile politician who has just been sentenced, gets some of his lackeys to commit a petty offence and gleefully walk into the same prison, just days before or after the ‘boss’ himself ‘checks in’. The lackeys will help ensure that the rough and tumble of a prison term do not crease the Teflon exteriors of ‘boss’ as he counts his days behind bars! When Madan Yadav and Laxman Mahto were sent to Birsa Munda Central Jail in the Indian state of Jharkhand last week, over a petty case of theft, it was par for the course. But eyebrows were raised the moment it came to light that the duo was very close to former Bihar chief minister Lalu Yadav, who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail in the fodder scam case and was housed in the same Birsa Munda Central Jail!
So, while ‘boss’ was finally made to ‘savour’ jail cuisine, it was not without him pulling off a fast one and winking at the administration on the sly.
That’s the incorrigible, unputdownable Lalu for the uninitiated.
Born in Phulwaria, Bihar, on June 11, 1948, Lalu joined politics during those tumultuous years following the 1975 Emergency. In 1977, under the tutelage of his mentor and socialist leader of the Janata Party, Jai Prakash Narayan, Lalu was nominated as a candidate from the Chhapra Lok Sabha constituency. He won and never looked back — until the fodder scam stung, that is.
And there is no denying that the wily Bihari has never had it this rough in a political career spanning four decades.
When the fodder scam first came to light in 1996, Lalu’s writ as chief minister ran unchallenged in Bihar. His hobnobbing with half-truths, his political guile of an old fox, and most of all, the remarkable ease with which he commandeered Bihar’s caste politics left the electorate eating out of his hands and his rivals in a tizzy.
The first jolt to this fiefdom came in 1997 when Lalu was named in a first information report (FIR) filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), looking into the Rs9.4 billion fodder scam. Sensing that his arrest was imminent, Lalu resigned, but not before getting his wife Rabri Devi to fill the void at the CM’s office. Such a blatant act of nepotism was hitherto unheard of in Indian politics, but for Lalu, it was a matter of keeping the gravy train chugging under a ridiculously familiar stewardship, allowing him to effectively wield the administrative ‘remote control’ even from jail. Months later, he secured bail, but by then, Bihar’s honeymoon with Lalu had started turning sour.
Sensing trouble in the hinterlands of Bihar, Lalu switched gear and started looking at national politics. He knew he wouldn’t have the numbers to call the shots in Bihar politics in the foreseeable future, but even with a handful of members of parliament and his political brinkmanship he could still be a force to reckon with in Delhi’s coalition politics. Not only did he support the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments at the Centre in 2004 and 2009, but also milked his personal equations with the then Congress supremo, Sonia Gandhi, to bag the politically important Railways Ministry in 2004.
His stint as railways minister between 2004 and 2009 is a classic example of how masterfully can one camouflage a lacklustre showing in the garb of a “turnaround” through manipulation of the books. Lalu’s claim of a loss-making Indian Railways staging a remarkable “comeback” was lapped up by industry captains and business school masterminds alike. So much so, that Lalu was invited as a guest to talk about his “magic formula” to B-school wizards at Harvard and Wharton. But months later, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office came out with a scathing attack of the Lalu brand of book-keeping — effectively accusing him of an accounting fraud, whereby a part of the expenses of the ministry were presented as revenue!
With his party Rashtriya Janata Dal winning just a handful of seats in the 2009 general elections, Lalu knew his Delhi dream was virtually over. Later, in 2013, a Supreme Court ruling that sought to keep people with criminal records out of politics saw Lalu stripped of his parliament membership as well. The chips were down like never before, forcing him to join hands with his sworn enemy in Bihar politics, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. And Lalu was back in vogue in the 2015 Bihar state elections — this time as ‘King-maker’, backing Nitish for CM.
However, Lalu seems to have finally run out of steam, hitting against a formidable political opponent in the form of Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah. First, Nitish was impressed upon to part ways with Lalu over the disproportionate assets case. Then, the CBI went hot on Lalu’s trail, leading to his eventual indictment in the fodder scam case. These political masterstrokes have landed the maverick on the mat.
But mind you, three-and-a-half years isn’t too long a time in politics and known to be a man for the long haul, the last word about Lalu is yet to be said. He was never short of luck when he needed to induct both his sons into politics. He was never short of luck when he needed to politically relocate himself to greener pastures, be it Bihar or Delhi. And he may never be short of luck to stage yet another comeback, defying all odds.
But for now, a frugal diet, some small talk in Bhojpuri and Madan and Laxman for company, to laugh at his wisecracks, are the Bihar behemoth’s humble fodder for sustenance.
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter: @moumiayush.