From leader to convict: Memories of another time with Lalu

By Mohan Guruswamy

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 will feel sorry for Lalu the moment the doors of the Birsa Munda jail 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  what he did for poor people, he just replied: "Swarg toh nahi diya, par swar zaroor diya" (I didn't give them heaven, but I certainly gave them a voice).

But there was another Lalu that took over. This was the megalomaniacal side of him.

 From leader to convict: Memories of another time with Lalu

Lalu Prasad outside a Ranchi court on September 30. PTI

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, it was ironically during Thakur's chief ministerial regime that the foundations of the great chara ghotala (fodder scam) were laid.

It was during his time that disbursement of funds was decentralised somewhat to directly benefit the core constituency of the former Janata Party - the coalition of backward classes and Muslims.  The upper classes and the dalits were not cattle-herders and hence this 'reform' was meant to benefit the innermost core of that constituency - the Yadavs. So there is some irony that the roots of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s destruction were 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 the Maoist Co-ordination Committee massacred 54 Rajputs. 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.

Soon after we arrived at Patna airport, Sharad Yadav disappeared from the contingent 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 soon after we left.

The 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 a 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 humidity. The meal was very frugal, but it was piping hot, making up for everything it may have lacked. Rice, dal 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". It was a study that made big news in Bihar.

Chandrasekhar, who had his own chelas even then,  was very happy with it. His followers immediately suggested that my name be taken off as the author and netaji's name put in its place. One chamcha even said "yeh tho Chandrasekharji ki baat bol rahen 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 would 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. It’s just a river he said. I said even Kaaba was just a stone so why consider it holy?

CS put an end to what was shaping up into an acrimonious discussion 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 equalisation policy. He had a somewhat different take on it. 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, but on the way back, he did tell me that he had introduced me to the next CM of Bihar.

VP Singh was curious to know what Sharad Yadav's opinion was.

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 Lalu was a future CM, set 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 let the Delhi party know that Lalu was a bit of a hoodlum and often went drunk to the Assembly. So it was left to Vashishta Narain Singh and Shivanand Tiwari to work overtime to neutralise the effect that Sharad Yadav may have had on VP Singh.

VP Singh did, in fact, make up his mind eventually on the CM candidate for Bihar -- it would be 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 elections, Sharad Yadav with Devilal's backing made Lalu contest an election to the legislative party leadership and had the then PM VP Singh'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 (fate) didn't last very long, but Lalu Prasad entered our recent mythology by arresting LK Advani in Samasthipur and separating him from the DCM Toyota van-turned-rath. Lalu famously quipped "motor gadi thi, koi uran khatola toh nahi. Mein ney pahiye sey hawa utaar diya."

Advani never forgave him for the scorn he poured on him.

VP Singh had carefully chosen Lalu to do the honors as he did not want Mulayam Singh Yadav, then CM in UP, to get the credit for halting the Ram rath. Sharad Yadav was actually not too keen on an arrest in Bihar as he could sense his protégé finding his own wings.

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 become 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 opposition. 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 that’s 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, it is said. Soon, another Bihar politician, Sitaram Kesri, felled Deve Gowda 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 PM in 1997. The high point of Gujral's political career was when as the VP Singh’s foreign minister, 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 it implied when Inder Gujral imported a million tons of Australian wheat to "shore up" the buffers. It would be alleged later that the purchase, at about $300 a ton over the prevailing price, was only to shore up coffers. Vajpayee reportedly later turned off the CBI’s investigation of this in exchange for Gujral's support. His son was also the Akali Dal's MP from Jalandhar.

In late 2003 I had written another Bihar paper "The Economic Strangulation of Bihar." Chandrasekhar, former Prime Minister, gave Lalu Prasad a copy. 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 day’s 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 noting 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 him about what  I thought these ministers were doing, Lalu jumped to say “murga khaya." He was alluding to the food bills of Rajiv Prasad 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 Deputy Commissioner, G. Krishnaiah. He has since been acquitted by the Supreme Court and continues to serve the people, as only Bihari politicians can.

Lalu Prasad made the Economic Strangulation of Bihar by the NDA his campaign theme and went on to win handily. He cheerfully waved a booklet purportedly printed by me and kept shouting from every pulpit that Bihar was exploited and strangulated by the Vajpayee government. He had my word for it and in the process elevated me to near godhood.

During the course of this campaign, Sushil Modi, then a BJP MLA made some unsavory comments about me. I took him and Chandan Mitra, BJP MP and Editor of the party newspaper, The Pioneer, to the Patiala House courts on a charge of criminal defamation. Despite Arun Jaitely’s vigorous intercession in the High Court, Justice Rajiv Sikri ruled that the trial proceed expeditiously and directed the lower court to report on its progress. Once the trial court judge began applying the accelerator, both, Modi and Mitra pleaded guilty and apologized in writing and also paid me a handsome indemnity.

The Pioneer was even made to publish on its front page an article by me on the subject titled “Sushil Modi ko gussa kyon aata hai?” Modi's lawyer pleaded to the judge that the damages claimed were too high. All my lawyer had to say was that he was now 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. Lalu Prasad’s party made an issue of it in the state assembly and demanded that Sushil Modi, now the deputy CM, resign as he pleaded guilty in a criminal case.

But my dalliance with Lalu didn’t end there. When the UPA came to power, on his own volition, he wrote to Dr. 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 key 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 knew 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 Minster 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 silent split air conditioners. And Dal bhat was replaced by chicken from Oberoi's. I am sure he will get that and more in the Birsa Munda jail. The netas 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!

Updated Date: Oct 03, 2013 13:16:53 IST