Lalu Prasad’s real fight is for the family
The office of the Subdivisional District Magistrate in Hajipur, Bihar, is having a festive poll season. Or so it seems by the sound of it. Every hour an half or so, trumpets and other band-baaja instruments blare into the closeby chambers of lawyers, who emerge on cue to see which candidate has turned up now to file his nomination papers.
On 3 October, however, is not just another day. The lawyers have abandoned their work entirely to gather near the SDM’s office. It is around 12 in the afternoon, peak time for the court. “I have two bail cases lined up in the afternoon today,” says Gunjan Prasad, a criminal lawyer practising at the Hajipur Sessions Court. “I am just waiting to see how Tejashwi looks.” He is referring to Tejashwi Yadav, younger son of RJD leader Lalu Prasad, who is to file his nomination papers to contest the Raghopur Assembly constituency. Trumpets and drums intervene as he speaks, and all eyes turn towards the entry gate. “No, he is not Tejashwi,” says someone. “He is Nishant Gandhi, who has launched his own outfit, Gareeb Aadmi Party.” As Gandhi, who claims to be fighting for the poor who “everybody uses but nobody cares for”, nears the SDM’s office, a fleet of cars starts entering the compound. Commandos spring out to cover a Swaraj Mazda, as people swarm around. Slogans arise, and it’s clear that the awaited event of the day is underway.
Lalu Prasad steps out with Tejashwi, 26, on his right and elder son Tej Pratap on his left. Accompanying them is senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. They move briskly to enter the SDM’s office. At 12.45 pm, they appear again, after the filing work. The crowd urges Lalu Prasad to speak, but he places a finger on his lips and moves straight to his vehicle. Tejashwi is set to make his debut in electoral politics, and nothing more, it would seem, needs be said. It’s known that Tej Pratap will file his nomination papers for the nearby Mahua Assembly seat in a day or two.
In a battle that will decide the fate of his family, Lalu Prasad is not inclined to leave any stone unturned. Saturday was chosen for filing Tejashwi’s nomination on the advice of an astrologer in Patna. The two seats for the sons were picked only after thrashing out which would be relatively safe bets for the family. Lalu Prasad himself has won twice from Raghopur, and so has his wife Rabri Devi. In 2010, however, Rabri Devi lost to the JD-U candidate Satish Kumar by a margin of 63,000 votes. But the JD-U is now an ally and Lalu Prasad believes his family’s appeal has not diminished here. In Mahua, the RJD chief’s confidant Ravindra Rai has switched sides and will pose a challenge to Tej Pratap. Caste wise, both constituencies are Yadav dominated, and as a flag-bearer of Yadav pride, he expects his sons to emerge victorious.
From the SDM’s office to Raghopur, the Yadav caravan leads a road show of supporters, stopping by at every important node of the constituency. Lalu Prasad and Tejashwi wave to the crowds that gather around their vehicle, with Tej Pratap taking a back seat. The father rarely speaks and keeps turning down requests to get out of the vehicle. He just points a finger at Tejashwi, a gesture asking them to vote for the young man.
The convoy halts at Dawood Nagar, a village where local RJD leader Ramdhani Yadav has arranged snacks. The RJD chief takes stock of ground preparations and demands to know who’d be voting for Satish Kumar, who after being denied a JD-U ticket is now a member and candidate of the BJP. In between, he introduces Tejashwi to the elders: “Now he will take care of you. Give him your blessings.” The loudspeaker plays a song that narrates how Lalu is not able to serve people because other parties have conspired to trap him in a legal case. But he has Tejashwi now to tackle the challenges posed by the “Samanty parties” (read BJP and its allies).
The roadshow ends at Bidupur market, where both Lalu Prasad and Tejashwi step out to address the crowd. The father warns the crowd of a hidden agenda of the RSS. “They want to do away with your right to reservations. Lalu will fight till death for your rights and Tejashwi will represent you,” he announces. As the son takes the mike, the crowd turns restive. The father instructs his security men to control them. “Namaskar,” says the 25-year-old, beginning a ten-minute speech in which he takes potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP leaders of Bihar. Each attack draws cheers. “BJP had given a slogan, ‘Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi,” he says, “I’m changing it to ‘Badbad Modi, gadbad Modi’,” mocking the original’s invocation as ‘noise’ and omnipresence as a ‘fraud’. “The people of Raghopur are not bikau (saleable) like Satish Kumar who shifted parties for his own benefit,” he continues, “You are tikau (loyal) and will exercise your voting rights for the candidate who fights for social justice.”
Raghopur has 44 panchayats with almost 300,000 voters, 125,000 of them Yadavs, followed by EBCs and Dalits and some 50,000 Rajputs. “There is no Modi factor here,” says Dr Jitendra Yadav of Khilwat village. “Tejashwi will easily register a win. We have forgiven the family and are happy that two Backward leaders Nitish and Lalu have come together.” In the last Assembly polls of 2010, he says, even Yadavs voted against Rabri Devi. “The leader should always be kept in check,” explains Hemant Yadav of Khilwat. “Now Lalu knows our importance.” Among Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), Chaurasias have a sizeable population in Raghopur, with an estimated 22,000 votes; EBCs played a crucial role in JD-U’s victory last time. “We never supported the RJD,” says Dharmendra Chaurasia of Wajidpur village. “Nitish is our leader as he got Chaurasias into the EBC category. Now he is with Lalu and it is our duty to ensure the victory of Tejashwi Yadav.” Chaurasias had long wanted to be EBCs and on 21 March this year, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced their formal inclusion as such. “He gave us what we wanted. Now it is our duty to return the favour,” says Chaurasia.
About 2 km from Bidupur, Qutubpur is a village with a large proportion of EBCs: over half the total of 4,000. “Our support would be for the grand alliance,” says Ashok Kumar Chaurasia, a 28-year- old painter. “Whatever development there is, be it a school, road or uniform for our kids, was done by Nitish Kumar.” Gajendra Bhagat of the Chaurasia Samaj Kalyan Samiti mentions Modi’s promise of 24-hour electricity supply. “What is Modi talking about?” he asks, “We get 20 hours of power supply and it is better than most parts of Bihar. Why should we ask for a change?”
The usual trend in Raghopur is that all other castes gang up against Rajputs. When Lalu and Nitish were fighting each other, the constituency’s EBCs would root for non-Yadavs. Now with both coming together, EBCs and Yadavs have combined forces against Rajputs, who are expected to side with the BJP. Satish Kumar, the BJP candidate, is a popular leader in the region but many voters are displeased that he has left the JD-U. Local BJP cadres are also upset with his candidacy, and some are planning to put up a rebel candidate Sanjay Kumar Singh, a lawyer and Rajput.
Another Rajput in the fray is Engineer Rakesh Kumar Singh of the Samajwadi Party whose mother Veera Devi had secured 43,000 votes in 2010 polls here. With two Rajput candidates fighting for the seat, their votes may get divided and that would benefit the RJD. Some Rajputs are also veering towards the Grand Alliance. Says one such voter, Sanjay Kumar Singh of Mohanpur village, “Modi is better for India, but Nitish is better for Bihar.” Tejashwi appears to have gained popularity rather quickly in these parts among the Yadav youth. “He knows his subject, speaks well and connects with the crowd. He is the future leader,” says Randhir Yadav, an 18-year- old in Kanchanpur village. “While his father does caste politics, he only speaks about development.”
After the roadshow, we accompany Tejashwi and Lalu Prasad on board his electioneering vehicle till Mahatma Gandhi Setu, a bridge that connects Hajipur to Patna. “My priority would be to bring vegetable farming under crop insurance, as most farmers now grow vegetables. I would also ensure enough work opportunities for the 18 panchayats closer to the Ganga river in my constituency.” His father periodically interrupts him to correct a fact now and then. The father- son ease is clear, but Tejashwi denies that his father considers him his political heir. “This is created by you people,” he says, “We are a united family. You try hard but we won’t speak a word against each other.” On whether he would become Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister if the grand alliance wins power, he says, “You are acting smart. First get the name of the BJP chief ministerial candidate and then we will announce ours.”
The Yadav brothers, meanwhile, have been accused of fudging their age and education. Tej Pratap’s affidavit says he’s a year younger than Tejashwi, whose own documents say he is ‘Class 9 pass’. “There is some design in mentioning Tejashwi Yadav’s educational qualifications as ninth pass,” Bihar BJP president Mangal Pandey has alleged, “I am sure he has studied further, but the Board certificate would have revealed his true age.” Lalu Prasad blames it on voter ID cards. “They have mentioned their age in the affidavit as given on their voter IDs,” he said in Patna, trying to brush the issue off.
As leaders, Tej Pratap and Tejashwi are quite unlike each other. While Tejashwi speaks like an experienced leader, his brother seems to avoid media interactions. Tej Pratap is considered close to his mother Rabri Devi and mostly takes care of family’s business interests. He regularly visits his Mahindra dealership, Lara Motors, in Aurangabad. Within the party, he takes care of the social media campaign with a team of 15 young people working 12 hours a day. Tejashwi, on the other hand, takes a keen interest in party work and is trying to build the RJD’s youth wing. Every evening, he holds a meeting of party workers along with his sister Misa Bharti and draws up an action plan for the next day (which must be approved by the father, of course). “Tejashwi is ‘tejashwi’ as his name means,” says his mentor Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, referring to his political acumen, “Just wait and he will become the future of Bihar.”
Party leaders recognise that the RJD’s fight in Mahua will not prove easy. “[Tej Pratap] is not charismatic like Tejashwi, who is treated like a star in his community,” says a senior party spokesperson. “He needs to establish a connection with the people.” Mahua is a constituency dominated by Yadavs, with a sizeable population of Koeris and Rajputs as well. The NDA has put up Ravindra Rai, who had won the seat for the JD-U last time round. Once Mahua went to the RJD as part of the seat-sharing arrangements for the 2015 polls, Rai joined Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), a BJP ally.
The other man Tej Pratap needs to watch out for is Jageshwar Rai, a former Lalu acolyte who had nursed the constituency for the RJD, only to watch Tej Pratap express a desire to represent it. “The people of Mahua want me to serve them,” Tej Pratap had said on a visit in July, addressing the crowd. Rai had opposed his candidacy, saying that he had a stronger claim to the seat. “Your father is the party supremo. He is free to give a party ticket to anybody he wants,” Rai said with sarcasm in Lalu Prasad’s presence. Suspended from the party, Rai has since joined Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party. Many observers say Rai is the biggest obstacle to an RJD victory here.
Chak Majahid, 2 km from Mahua town, is a village dominated by EBC Kumhars. Most had voted for Nitish Kumar’s JD-U back in 2010. But Laxmi Pandit, 40, explains why voters are in a fix this time. “Our votes are divided between the Grand Alliance and BJP candidate Ravindra Rai. The fact that Rai was always available for the people of Mahua is appealing to voters of our community. I have not decided yet.” The votes of Koeries, an OBC community of 50,000, will also play a role in the outcome. “Every party has given tickets to Yadavs,” says Kanhaiya Mandal of Singhada village, “We will see whom to vote for as there is nothing for us.”
All said, Lalu Prasad’s younger son—he is a former cricketer too—has a distinct advantage at the hustings, while his elder son may find the going tough. Both his charisma and caste calculations are in Tejashwi’s favour. As for Tej Pratap, he is faced with a tough opposition as well as rebels within his own party. “Everything will be okay and he will also win,” Lalu Prasad tells me, finally speaking up. The words of an electoral realist or a doting father? We must wait for the results, due on 8 November, for an answer.