The author, to his credit, does reveal a few not-so-savoury moments and concedes mistakes, but those are far and few.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, at the peak of his power in the mid-1990s, seemed all-invincible. His spoken words were the law of the land. His tactics, biographer Sankarshan Thakur writes in Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav, “tore society and created violent estrangements”, but they “secured him a constituency whose arithmetic was infallible and whose loyalty was fierce”. He built a state where caste arithmetic alone determined who would wield the political power; where performance and non-performance didn’t influence the political fortune of the incumbent. Only the right caste combination mattered.
So, when Lalu comes out with his memoirs, Gopalganj to Raisina, it is bound to generate curiosity. The book, however, seems to be aimed at reclaiming the lost halo for the RJD supremo, who is currently languishing in a jail in a fodder scam case. The author, to his credit, does reveal a few not-so-savoury moments and concede mistakes, but those are far and few. Lalu, for instance, explains how he deceived Devi Lal when he refused to back the latter’s candidature for the prime ministership. Ironically, it was the Jat strongman’s support for Lalu that helped him get the top post in Bihar despite V.P. Singh’s persistence for a Dalit chief minister. “Despite having tremendous regard for Devi Lal, I backed V.P. Singh for the prime ministership,” he writes. Later, when differences between Lal and Singh threatened the coalition at the Centre, Lalu asked the then PM to take action against the Haryana strongman. “V.P. Singh was taken aback. For one, he had not, in his wildest dreams, anticipated such an outburst from me,” Lalu recalls.
This was not a one-off incident. For Lalu, personal interest always reigned supreme, at the cost of individuals and ideologies. The book mentions with immense reverence Karpoori Thakur, who brought Lalu into mainstream politics. What it doesn’t say is that Lalu had his grudge against the senior leader whom he privately called “Kapti (deceitful) Thakur”, while publicly he projected himself as his foremost disciple. Such was his disdain for Thakur that for all his Karpoori worship optics, he ensured a Karpoori Thakur Memorial just didn’t come up. The book also completely whitewashes the role of the likes of Ram Lakhan Yadav, who helped Lalu to get initial footholds in politics. So, is the case with incidents where Lalu’s role has been opportunistic, to say the least. For instance, in March 1974, he was leading a student procession in Patna which turned violent. But before the police could fire, Lalu escaped. Later in the evening, when Nitish Kumar and Narender Singh, concerned about their colleague’s well-being, went around looking for him, they found him gleefully cooking mutton in the backyard of his brother’s house. Here was the student leader busy cooking himself a delicacy on a day that saw dozens of protesters being killed and injured in police firing!
The author can also be accused of giving himself credit for almost everything. For instance, Lalu pompously claimed it was he who suggested the initially reluctant V.P. Singh to implement the Mandal Commission report. While it is widely believed that Lalu came into the picture only after the Raja of Manda decided to accept the Mandal Commission recommendations, the RJD leader’s version turns the story upside down. According to the book, it was Lalu who advised Singh to go for the Mandal report after the latter feared that any action against Devi Lal would make him appear anti-backward and anti-poor. “I firmly believed that, if it was done, it would take the sting out of any propaganda that Devi Lal might circulate about V.P. Singh being anti-backward,” he recalls.
The same can be said about L.K. Advani’s arrest during Ram Rath Yatra in Madhepura, Bihar. Writes Lalu, “To be honest, nobody had asked me to stop the procession or arrest Advani. The Prime Minister had said nothing. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who was the Union minister for Home Affairs, called me to Delhi and enquired if I planned to detain Advani. When I remained non-committal, he said, “Why are you taking it upon yourself (to block the procession)? Let the Yatra go on.” I then retorted, “Aap sab ko satta ka nasha chad gaya hai (You people are intoxicated by power).” Sankarshan Thakur gives another version of the story. “Having allowed him (Advani) this far, the logical place to halt the Ram Rath would have been Uttar Pradesh—in the name of peace and order. But Prime Minister V.P. Singh had a problem. He didn’t want Mulayam Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, to become a greater hero among Muslims of the state. Uttar Pradesh was V.P. Singh’s home ground too and he would not let the crown of the state’s secular king go to Mulayam Singh Yadav. He asked Laloo Yadav to stop Advani’s rath. Laloo did it with glee and glamour.”
Lalu defends the charge of fostering dynasty politics in Bihar. “But the truth is that I never had any intention, much less a planned strategy, to promote dynastic rule,” he writes as he recalls a chance encounter in New Delhi with then Congress president Sitaram Kesri. At that time, the clamour for his resignation was at its peak following the fodder scam allegations. “It was he (Kesri) who suggested to me privately that my wife, Rabri Devi, could take over as chief minister. I had laughed off the suggestion. I never discussed politics with Rabri—my wife of 25 years then,” Lalu reveals.
The author also makes a startling revelation that Nitish Kumar, the current Bihar Chief Minister who boarded the NDA bandwagon after fighting the BJP in alliance with the RJD, again wanted to come back to the Mahagathbandhan. “He sent his emissary, Prashant Kishor, to me on five different occasions.” But as per the book, Lalu this time wasn’t in the mood to accommodate Nitish Kumar.
The most poignant section of the book, however, is where Lalu admits how “success had gone” to his head and “blinded” him in the mid-1990s when he decided the fate of two Prime Ministers, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. “I had turned complacent and had begun ignoring the advice of my senior party men and policymakers. I had even discontinued the practice of convening meetings of my party leaders,” he confesses as he writes: “I did correct course, having learnt my lesson, when I became the Union minister for railways in 2004.” The Indian Railways performed phenomenally during his tenure as he gave nod to the “faster, longer, heavier” trains. Some may question his achievements at the Rail Bhavan, but the fact remains that Lalu was a different man there. “Lalu never interfered with the day-to-day functioning of the Railways. All he did was to get a few competent men, and leave the work to them,” a former member of the Railway Board and a close confidante of Lalu told this reviewer a few years ago.
For all its flaws and whitewashing, the book is a must-read. It’s a reminder of a messiah gone awry, a leader who gave voice to the downtrodden, but lost his own way in the corridors of power. He was destined to guide the poor to prosperity, but he ended up delivered hell.