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Gopalganj to Raisina review: Lalu Prasad Yadav writes himself a character certificate, rather than a personal memoir

If this Lok Sabha Election has missed anything, it is a touch of equanimity and humour among its contenders. By extension, it has missed the presence of one of India’s most raw, yet charismatic politicians, Lalu Prasad Yadav. Currently behind bars, Yadav’s life, his journey from the poverty of Gopalganj to the riches that accompany national-level power, have been written, eulogised and critiqued over the years. A product of the tutelage of political leader Jai Prakash Narayan, Yadav has either been regarded as the goofy roughneck that India’s elite could simply not accept as a plausible face of the country's leadership, or he has been deified as someone whose rough edges and accessible disposition were the reason behind his popularity. Granted then that Yadav has always been divisive, but he has never been boring. His memoir, co-written with the journalist Nalin Verma, is every bit as funny, irreverent and over-the-top as the man himself — perhaps the only man who could be so in Indian politics.

Titled Gopalganj to Raisina, Yadav’s memoir is a document of the broad strokes. That is, he has tied his memoir largely to his political journey, rather than his personal one. One can't call it a hagiography (since its story comes from the horse’s mouth itself), but one can say that it is more than kind to its subject, and therefore elusive in its humanity. But if there is anyone in Indian politics who would match self-service with distinct and disarming earthiness, it is Lalu Prasad Yadav. Yadav begins his journey from the fields of Gopalganj, where he describes his struggles with poverty. As only perhaps he could, Yadav even spells out scenes where he is urinating in the fields, in one case answering a call with ‘Hum hain, Lalua’. He has chosen to use his native tongue in places in the book, which jump out at the reader. Only Yadav could be as agnostic to class privilege, even if it is in a romanticised idea of his past.

 Gopalganj to Raisina review: Lalu Prasad Yadav writes himself a character certificate, rather than a personal memoir

The cover of Gopalganj to Raisina Road

The memoir follows a predictable route, scarcely interjected by insights into anything other than Yadav’s politics. There is the incident of a ghost that he sees when he is young, his momentarily acknowledged popularity with the ladies, his reputation as a stage actor, but that is pretty much it. In an attempt to valourise almost every breath he has ever taken, Yadav overcompensates. He doesn’t stop short of saying he is inspired by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. But even this part — the part where Yadav is clearly admiring himself in the mirror of history — his ornate sense of humour, his pathologically over-the-top manner manage to create an image that is exceptional, even if highly flawed. Be it getting yellow and red cards in football games to ‘avenge foul play’ against his teammates, or his first ever words to Rabri: ‘I am the leader of a big movement going on in Bihar’.

Even while he regards himself, Yadav manages to draw moments of earthiness. His adulation for his mentor Jai Prakash Narayan (JP) is quite clear. At one point, he underhandedly explains to JP his reason for drinking. ‘Babuji, I drink toddy at times because I am from a village background where toddy-drinking is common,’ he says. In a later chapter of the book, he admits that both him and his then friend Nitish Kumar would ‘don our best kurta-pajama and loiter around the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in the hope of being noticed’ for ministerial roles. The sanguinity of some of these casual revelations makes one wish Yadav would rewrite his memoir altogether, this time without the need to platform himself, for what could possibly be a stellar example of imagination and storytelling coming together. This memoir, unfortunately, has neither of those elements. There are glimpses of what Yadav can offer, or just how fascinating he is as a subject, but for the most part, this side of him remains elusive, occasionally emerging through the character certificate that this book aims to be.

There are of course interesting political revelations. None more so than Yadav’s claim that he arrested LK Advani, despite the then Prime Minister VP Singh’s reluctance, on the way to Ayodhya during his rath yatra. Yadav claims that after Advani questioned his authority by saying ‘Kaun mai ka doodh piya hai, jo mera rath yatra rokega,’ he replied with, ‘Maine ma aur bhains dono ka doodh piya hai’. Even if untrue, only Yadav could have said or claimed to have said something as outrageously funny and pointed. There are other instances, for example where Yadav casts George Fernandes as the man who orchestrated most of his downfalls. There is then perhaps the most intriguingly pegged yet weak late chapter on Nitish Kumar titled ‘Younger Brother Nitish’. Yadav paints Kumar as an opportunist who once withdrew a dinner invitation he had handed out to the now Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is, however, precious little in this much anticipated late chapter that has not otherwise already been a subject of speculation in the public arena. Summarily, it is perhaps one of the bigger letdowns of the book.

This is no masterpiece of writing or storytelling by any stretch of the imagination. In what is largely a self-regarding exercise, there are sightings of the real Lalu Prasad Yadav, the man whose jagged edges have made him stand out in Indian politics. Yadav may or may not be the many things he is accused of, but he is, as portions of this book suggest, eternally intriguing, perplexing and unmissable. Politics in this country is poorer without his enigmatic presence. The memoir, however, we can live without.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 10:17:46 IST