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He turned 73 Thursday in a hospital room while serving a prison sentence for corruption, but Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad remains a potent force in India’s politics.
Lalu, former chief minister of Bihar and former federal minister, has been convicted in four fodder scam – illegal withdrawal of money from the animal husbandry department of undivided Bihar in the 1990s – cases, and is laid low with many a disease, of the heart, of blood sugar, kidney and others.
But even now, political posters in the key state of Bihar revolve around him.
Thursday as well, posters if his RJD ad his rival, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU), featured Lalu.
Indian news agency ANI reported about the posters. The RJD posters hailed Lalu as the champion of the downtrodden while the JDU posters, expectedly, portrayed him as a corrupt man who only empowered his family financially.
So why does a 73-year-old, ailing man remain politically relevant?
Part of it has to be put down to the relevance of the state of Bihar in Indian politics. Bihar sends 40 representatives to the Lok Sabha, the lower House of India’s Parliament, and any party that controls it along with Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 seats, can expect a smooth ride to power in the federal government in New Delhi.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds power in Uttar Pradesh, but its hold over Bihar is tenuous.
In the last state elections in Bihar in 2015, even when the country was awash in the Modi wave, it was Lalu Prasad who stopped the BJP juggernaut. He wove an alliance with his archrival Nitish, who had then fallen out with the BJP, walking out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over choosing the polarizing figure of Modi as leader.
The RJD-JDU combine, along with the Congress party, defeated the BJP in the 2015 Bihar elections. A turning point of the campaign, pundits believed, was Lalu seizing a comment by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organization that is the ideological parent of the BJP.
Bhagwat’s comment on India’s reservations – affirmative action quotas in government jobs and educational institutions – was portrayed by Lalu in election rally after election rally as a clear and present threat to social protection for the downtrodden.
The result was that in November 2015, Nitish Kumar was sworn-in as Bihar chief minister for the fifth time – with Lalu’s sons, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav, as ministers in his cabinet.
Lalu, of course, is barred from contesting elections because of his conviction.
However, senior Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi began a series of exposés on Lalu and family, revealing in installments details about Lalu’s alleged corruption.
Federal anti-corruption units swung into action and Lalu’s family members were booked.
Nitish Kumar, citing his “call of conscience”, ditched the RJD-Congress combine and formed a fresh government with the BJP, with Sushil Modi as deputy chief minister.
Since then, Nitish’s image as the man who brought a semblance of development to one of India’s most backward and poor states has taken a beating.
Scam after scam has been unearthed, and one of his ministers had to resign after it was revealed that her husband was in touch with a man who ran a shelter home for destitute girls where underage girls were tortured, sexually abused, and some maybe even murdered.
The more recent lockdown for the novel coronavirus has also angered many Biharis against their chief minister.
Bihar is a major contributor of what in India are called “migrant workers” – poor laborers who work on daily wages across India building everything from roads to skyscrapers.
When Indian prime minister Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on four-hour notice, millions of such “migrant workers” were left in the lurch without employment or a way to go home to their states.
It sparked the biggest exodus of people India had seen since its Partition inn 1947. Hundreds died trying to get home in any way they could.
The Opposition in Bihar has alleged that Nitish was not keen on helping Biharis return, ad the charge seems to have stuck.
Nitish, many experts on Bihar politics have pointed out, needs a combine to rule because he does not have a “vote bank” that will elect him on his own. The BJP will want to rule Bihar on its own, though publicly the party has so far said it will stick by Nitish.
The RJD’s main strength is the political combination of Muslims and Yadavs – the largest grouping in the Other Backward Classes bloc – that he built in a state where caste still largely decides how the votes are cast.
Modi smashed all such political equations in the 2014 elections for the Lok Sabha, but just a year later Lalu’s political acumen trumped the Modi wave.
Even now, an uncaged Lalu is a formidable force to defeat in Bihar. He, however, has not been able to transfer the trust a large section of Bihar’s population has in him to either of his sons.
Hence, the RJD still needs Lalu.
The RJD has been alleging that Lalu is a victim of political vendetta and that he has been denied any relief despite his ill health.
Thursday, younger son Tejashwi, Lalu’s heir apparent, met his father at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi, Jharkhand, where Lalu is lodged.
Can he step out of his father’s shadow to take on Nitish Kumar and the BJP? The answer will be known next year, when Bihar goes to the polls.
The BJP, too, knows the importance of Bihar, and Lalu. Hence, the party launched its “virtual” campaign for the state elections from Bihar, and Lalu is certainly a prime target.