Lalu Prasad Yadav, 72, former chief minister of Bihar is perhaps the only heartland leader of India who has never allied with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or jumped in to bed with it to grab and hold on to power.
This is in stark contrast with his near twin in Bihar politics — Nitish Kumar, 69 who has never let principles come in the way of power.
Yadav, currently housed in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) intensive care unit after a terrible bout of pneumonia, which saw his anxious family bring him from Ranchi jail to Delhi in an air ambulance.
Perilous state of health
Yadav’s perilous state of health had the Bihar Chief Minister saying that he hadn’t checked on Yadav’s health since 2018 but, he was worried about him now.
Yadav’s entire family, wife Rabri Devi, two sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap and seven daughters including Misa Bharti are in Delhi taking turns to be with him. Yadav’s ill health appears to have finally gotten the fractious family together.
Underneath the rustic veneer that Lalu has always projected is one of India’s sharpest political brains which saw him as the first student leader from Bihar to make it to the Lok Sabha for the first time at the age of 29 in 1977.
“You in the media are mostly urban upper caste log (people). You have a rustic caricature in mind of a “gwala” (cow herd) speaking typical singsong Bihari. I am always ready to cater to it. When I was a young leader it got me featured in Delhi and foreign press. They love pictures of me posing with my cows in my banyan (vest). I cater to it. On Holi I dance. The press makes a spectacle. It is not a false image as I do take care of my cows (he has always had a gaushala in all his official homes) but, I am not just the Lalu Yadav, you in the media reduce me to”.
I had felt the rebuke in his words of an extremely intelligent man, angry at the reductionist portrait of him.
Always an original
Yadav has always made for excellent copy and must-watch television. From saying he would make Patna streets as smooth as actor Hema Malini’s cheeks (one of his daughter’s is named Hema) to telling me in a TV interview that he loved the Thai food in a Delhi five star, Yadav never pulled his punches.
Yadav was accused of presiding over a corrupt reign of terror in Bihar called “jungle raj” and has been convicted in the fodder scam case for which he is currently serving his jail sentence.
Bihar is a hugely casteist state and Yadav has long been hated by upper castes. “I have been convicted in the fodder scam but, you tell me which forward caste leader has been ever convicted,” Yadav told me when I asked about the accusations against him just before he went to jail.
Perhaps the high water mark of Yadav’s politics was when he stopped L K Advani’s controversial Ram Rath Yatra (a political rally that lasted from September to October 1990) in Bihar as the chief minister. Yadav is the only leader who has never had any truck with what he calls “communal forces”.
Yadav was also the leader who forever buried the contentious issue of former congress president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins when he said that she was “India’s bahu” (daughter-in-law) and asked for an end to the controversy.
A grateful Gandhi has always since then gone out of her way to accommodate Yadav, practically asking Kumar to ally with him in the short term government before Kumar leapfrogged back in to the arms of the BJP.
Till Yadav was jailed his core vote in Bihar which includes Muslims has never deserted him. Tejaswi Yadav, his choice as his political successor, did remarkably well in the Bihar assembly elections held last year.
Like Yadav or hate him he is one of the few consistent leaders of India, adamant about no compromise with the BJP.
A true original and as he once said, ‘paying the price for it.’