Two events last week caused seismic shivers in one of India’s largest political dynasties. Former Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Prasad, son of the besieged Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, was ejected from his official bungalow on 5 Desh Ratna Marg by his former boss and ally Nitish Kumar. Then, he and mother Rabri Devi were summoned by Income Tax officials to explain shady land deals in Patna, Delhi and other cities—if found guilty under benami property laws, they could go to jail for seven years. Though the Gandhis and Mayawati stayed away, the ‘BJP Bhagao, Desh Bachao’ rally in Patna Lalu organised on August 27 may be his last hope to escape and challenge his nemesis. For the opposition, he has embarrassment potential.
Lalu is a victim of the Narendra Modi government’s relentless crackdown on corruption. Tax authorities are snapping at his heels, investigating a vast shadow empire of shady property deals, massive kickbacks and concealed crores. The RJD boss, who has so far led a charmed life, faces an obliterating threat to the clan he has built up through a series of business and political marriages. It faces extinction. His woes officially began in the evening of July 26, when TV channels flashed the news of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of JD(U) heading to the Raj Bhavan to resign. Lalu motioned his aides who were watching to be quiet. Adjusting his spectacles, he looked at the TV screen for a few moments before asking nearly half of his aides to leave.
A faint smile flickered across his face through tiny beads of sweat as he said under his breath, “Phir ek baar, bees saal baad (once again it is, 20 years later)”. Exactly 20 years ago on July 26, 1997, Lalu’s semi-literate wife Rabri Devi made history and became part of India’s political lore by attending office as CM of Bihar for the first time. Now 69, Lalu—who was Bihar CM for seven years till then—had shrewdly pitchforked her from a naïve housewife’s obscurity to the state’s most powerful post and retained his hold over power just four days before going to jail for the first time in connection with the Rs 1,000-crore fodder scam.
Now, faced with the prospect of his two young sons losing their positions as top ministers in the state Cabinet due to Nitish’s “betrayal”, Lalu was unruffled. “Ab jao, khana kha lo (go and eat),” he told his younger son and heir apparent Tejashwi Yadav, 28, who had sat through the meeting. “Kuchh nahin hoga (nothing bad will happen to you),” the doting father told Tejashwi, whose 20-month dream run as Bihar’s deputy chief minister was set to end abruptly. A few minutes later, it did, as Nitish dumped the grand alliance in one dramatic masterstroke.History repeated itself with uncanny congruence of dates. Rabri had won the trust vote in the Assembly on July 28, 1997. On the same date 20 years later, Nitish won it as he dramatically entered into an alliance with the BJP, Bihar’s main Opposition party till two days ago, and left Lalu suddenly high and dry.
The Lalu family, India’s most powerful political clan after the Gandhis, has been under threat due to the loss of power and the corruption cases registered against them by the CBI, Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income Tax Department. The embattled Yadavs are bracing for an uphill struggle legally and politically. The Big Bang rally they hosted in Patna on August 27, bringing 17 Opposition parties together on an anti-Nitish, anti-BJP platform, has filled the Yadavs with hopes for a comeback. It is too early to guess if Lalu’s image as Bihar’s newly-reborn political martyr will hand him ample electoral dividends.
Bihar’s ‘LPG’: Lalu, Politics and Graft
The high political ambitions of the RJD chief and his large family—Lalu, Rabri and their two sons and seven daughters—and corruption charges five of them are facing have been the talking point across Bihar. The lethal combination of politics and corruption has produced a catchy sobriquet in many middle-class drawing rooms—LPG for ‘Lalu, Politics and Graft’—as a single unit describing the Yadav clan. For all the tall claims of secularism and social justice during Lalu and Rabri’s 15 years (1990 to 2005) in power in Bihar, the clan’s appetite for amassing wealth through dubious means has left even RJD’s core supporters in the state’s hinterlands shocked.
The infamous fodder scam cases have hobbled Lalu for 20 years and, due to his conviction in one of them in September 2013, he lost the right to contest elections for the next 11 years. While he is facing trial in Jharkhand in four other cases of the scam, corruption charges against his children Tejashwi and eldest daughter Misa Bharti, RJD Rajya Sabha member, threaten to unravel his carefully crafted plot to install them firmly in politics.
Lalu, Rabri, Misa and Tejashwi are under the scanner of Central investigation agencies for allegedly acquiring several parcels of prime land in Bihar and Delhi-NCR through the benami route. Lalu’s elder son Tej Pratap Yadav, who was health minister in the erstwhile grand alliance government, also allegedly acquired prime plots in Bihar towns through the benami route. He and Tejashwi, whose declared assets are worth `2.01 crore and `2.32 crore respectively, are also accused of concealing their land ownership details in their affidavits during the 2015 Assembly polls.
The CBI registered a case against Lalu, Rabri, Tejashwi and five others on July 6 for the alleged rigging and manipulation of the tender process by which two Railways-run hotels—BNR Puri and BNR Ranchi—were leased to a Patna-based private firm in 2005-06, when Lalu was the railways minister. CBI, which raided Lalu’s home in Patna the next day, found evidence that the firm’s directors, in a quid pro quo arrangement, had sold three acres of prime land in Patna at a very low price to a suspected shell firm, Delight Marketing Company Pvt Ltd, controlled by Yadav’s family in a new name. While Lalu allegedly orchestrated the whole deal, Rabri purchased Delight Marketing’s shares at prices far below the market rates. This is the plot of land where Bihar’s largest mall is under construction at a cost of Rs 750 crore in partnership between the Yadavs and an RJD legislator.
Misa, whose premises in Delhi-NCR have been raided a number of times by the ED and I-T officials in the last three months, faces charges of acquiring prime land and buildings at prices lower than market rates. She and her husband have been interrogated after their chartered accountant Rajesh Agrawal was arrested by the ED in May in connection with a money laundering racket allegedly involving `8,000 crore. The I-T Department attached a few immovable properties of Misa and Tejashwi in Delhi-NCR on June 19, and a probe is on.
“Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family members own benami properties worth `1,000 crore. These were illegally acquired over 12 years through shell companies formed with the sole purpose of making Lalu’s family members richer and richer,” said Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP, who earlier made a series of revelations of the land acquisition spree of the Lalu family. “Tejashwi, by the time he was 26, had become the owner of 26 plots of prime property acquired illegally.”
Lalu has been the national president of RJD for 10 consecutive years. “It’s an unwritten rule in RJD that till Laluji is alive, only he will be the single candidate for the party president’s election,” says a former RJD minister.While Rabri was CM, Lalu ruled Bihar by proxy, getting government files sent to him in jail. During the couple’s 15-year rule, Lalu exercised total control over power and party, often helped by his two muscle-flexing brothers-in-law, who have been alienated for the past several years.
Lalu’s desire to send Misa to the Lok Sabha in the 2014 polls cost him his trusted aide and three-term party MP Ram Kripal Yadav. When the RJD chief denied Ram Kripal a ticket for his chosen seat of Pataliputra, he fought on a BJP ticket and defeated Misa. Lalu nominated her to Rajya Sabha the next year. Rabri is in her second stint as an MLC.“Nitish was unhappy when, minutes after the grand alliance’s victory in 2015, Lalu insisted on making Tejashwi deputy CM and Tej Pratap the health minister. Nitish could not protest as we had the most MLAs,” says an RJD legislator.
To make sure the two sons, both first-time MLAs with no political and administrative experience, functioned well as ministers, Lalu got two of his most trusted IAS officers moved into the brothers’ departments a day after they assumed charge. Sudhir Kumar, a 1982-batch IAS officer who worked with Lalu as OSD when he was railways minister, was made the principal secretary of the road construction department under Tejashwi. R K Mahajan, a 1987-batch IAS officer, was shifted from the education department as principal secretary of the health department that was under Tej Pratap. Mahajan had served at Rail Bhavan as director (public grievances) during Lalu’s stint as railway minister.“Irregularities in Tejashwi and Tej Pratap’s departments were concealed by these two officers,” says a senior bureaucrat. Lalu also regularly supervised the departments his two sons handled.
A month before allegations of illegal land acquisition started erupting against Lalu’s family, RJD leaders had raised demands that Tejashwi should be promoted from Bihar’s deputy chief minister to chief minister. RJD sources said Lalu even planned to appoint Tejashwi as the CM by ousting Nitish if the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance had won the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh in March.
All Eyes on Tejashwi
Lalu banks on Tejashwi much more than any other RJD leader. Such is Lalu’s hold over the party and Tejashwi’s “popularity” among the masses that none of the top RJD leaders has dissented to Lalu-Rabri’s plans to project him as Bihar’s future CM.“RJD is down, but certainly not out. We are the single largest party in the Assembly and we are already proving to be the strongest Opposition party. The massive crowd at the Patna rally despite our loss of power and the floods showed that the people are with us,” says senior RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddique, who was the finance minister in the grand alliance government. A long-time Lalu loyalist, he describes Tejashwi as “Bihar’s youth icon and RJD’s future”, insisting that he was “unduly framed by CBI”.
Other top RJD leaders such as former Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and former MPs Raghunath Jha, Jagadanand Singh and Prabhunath Singh, and MPs and MLAs are also hopeful of the party’s prospects under Tejashwi’s leadership. “With our Patna rally, the countdown of Nitish Kumar and BJP has started,” says Raghuvansh Prasad.Tejashwi, a former cricketer with a lacklustre three-year stint in IPL and Ranji Trophy, quit his studies in Class IX. He is soft-spoken, articulate and suave, qualities seen lacking in his father. His brief tenure as deputy CM was largely free from controversy. His 45-minute scintillating speech during the trust vote, with well-crafted barbs targeting Nitish and BJP, made most RJD leaders optimistic about a brighter future for him and the party.
“Tejashwi’s powerful speeches during the trust vote and then at the Patna rally have proved that Nitish, by dumping RJD and joining NDA, has unwittingly given Bihar’s backward and oppressed classes the future Lalu Prasad,” says Bhola Prasad, an RJD legislator.A bachelor like his brother, Tejashwi is popular among RJD’s youth supporters, especially young women in the Yadav community. While retaining some of the rustic, earthy style that earned Lalu both his popularity and the pitfalls, Tejashwi speaks as a responsible politician in tune with the demands of Bihar’s modern electorate. Unlike Lalu, he has been gentle with bureaucrats and seniors in the party.
Known as politically smarter and more ambitious than his elder brother, Tejashwi held a string of public meetings across Bihar after losing power, attacking Nitish and BJP and mobilising support for RJD’s August 27 rally. Apart from the huge crowd that turned up, the rally gave RJD a boost as 21 leaders of 17 non-NDA parties from across the country attended it and gave a war cry against the BJP. Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and JD(U) rebel Sharad Yadav lauded Tejashwi at the rally. Contrary to RJD leaders’ fears, Tejashwi was not arrested by CBI before the rally.
“So far Tejashwi has won just one Assembly poll from his mother’s old constituency of Raghopur. He has to prove himself as a leader for entire Bihar, a leader for all castes. He has to break free from the caste-based politics of his father to make a mark,” says an RJD legislator.Bihar’s Yadav community, the state’s largest OBC group accounting for 15 per cent of the population forming the bulk of Lalu’s sturdy support base with the Muslims, sees in Tejashwi fresh promise. RJD leaders say he will have to work more to cultivate his Muslim support base. “Just being Lalu’s son will not be enough to start with,” said a Muslim leader of RJD.
Lalu: the Story so Far
The son of a farmer, Lalu first tasted political success by winning the post of general secretary of Patna University’s (PU) students’ union in 1967, but lost the president’s poll there three years later. With a BA degree, he started working as a clerk at Patna Veterinary College. He married Rabri, a farmer’s daughter, three years later and was elected president of PU’s students union. Under Jayaprakash Narayan’s guidance, he led the students’ agitation in Bihar against Indira Gandhi’s Central government in 1974 and was arrested in 1975. Two years later, he was elected MP from Chapra at age 29. He won the 1980 and 1985 Assembly polls from Sonepur and became Leader of Opposition in 1989.
He was re-elected as MP from Chapra the same year, but after Janata Dal’s victory in Bihar’s 1990 Assembly polls, he became CM with the support of Devi Lal and Chandrashekhar, against the wishes of then PM V P Singh. Lalu established himself as a messiah of the poor, backward classes and minorities. He had got L K Advani’s Ram Janmabhoomi rath yatra stopped in Bihar in October 1990 and had him arrested, raising his secular credentials. He led Janata Dal to victory in the 1995 Assembly polls due to his strong Muslim-Yadav support base and became CM for the second time. With the `1,000-crore fodder scam surfacing in 1996, he resigned and installed Rabri as CM in July 1997 before being jailed.
Facing a revolt from his party, he split Janata Dal and formed RJD the same month. As the fodder scam probe continued, he was elected MP from Madhepura in the 1998 Lok Sabha poll, but was defeated in 1999. In Bihar’s Assembly polls in 2000, RJD lost majority, but Lalu managed to reinstall Rabri as CM with Congress support. He got elected as MP in 2004 and became railways minister. RJD and its allies were beaten by the BJP-JD(U) alliance in Bihar’s 2005 Assembly polls, ending Lalu-Rabri’s 15-year rule, often called ‘jungle raj’. RJD won only four of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 polls, but beat NDA in the 2015 Assembly polls and formed a grand alliance government with JD(U) and Congress. Lalu’s two sons served as Cabinet ministers for 20 months before corruption charges against them prompted CM Nitish Kumar to resign on July 26 and form a new government in alliance with the BJP.
Options Aplenty, Efforts On
Lalu’s efforts to unite the Opposition parties against the BJP got a major boost at his mega ‘BJP Bhagao, Desh Bachao’ rally in Patna on August 27, with 21 senior leaders from 17 non-NDA parties attending it. Among them were West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, former UP CM and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, JD(U) rebel Sharad Yadav, CPI’s D Raja and leaders from Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand Vikas Manch, RLD, NCP, DMK, Kerala Congress, AIUDF and National Conference. Although Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi failed to turn up, the party’s Ghulam Nabi Azad, C P Joshi and Hanumantha Rao attended. In her recorded speech, Sonia attacked the BJP. BSP chief Mayawati stayed away, but Lalu hopes she’ll join future rallies of the Opposition alliance.
JD(U) rebel Sharad Yadav attended despite warnings from the party, taking his war against Nitish Kumar a bold step higher. He delivered a rousing speech, saying Opposition unity in the country has started. He hugged Lalu as the crowds cheered. The two Yadav leaders and JD(U)’s rebel Rajya Sabha member Ali Anwar want to consolidate the sizeable Yadav-Muslim votes in Bihar.
RJD, with 80 MLAs, is Bihar’s largest party, and is determined to “thoroughly expose” Nitish’s claims of zero-tolerance towards corruption, and development with social justice. The `1,000-crore Srijan scam has handed Lalu a sturdy handle to beat Nitish and his ally BJP.
Lalu is exploring the scope of wooing JD(U)’s Yadav and Muslim MLAs to topple Nitish’s government. “It’s not impossible, and depends on the political winds at the time,” said a JD(U) leader. Nitish has said such efforts were at play in the days before he resigned as CM and dumped RJD.
After giving heir apparent Tejashwi Yadav a headstart in politics, Lalu wants to set him and his elder brother Tej Pratap Yadav firmly in Bihar politics. Tejashwi and Tej’s rallies after the grand alliance collapsed are drawing large crowds.
Tejashwi’s statewide campaign to tell people of “Nitish Kumar’s betrayal and BJP’s hunger for power” and Lalu’s Patna rally against BJP with several non-NDA parties attending are part of RJD’s survival instincts at work.
Lalu & Sons are trying to reclaim lost political ground in Bihar. RJD being the largest party in the Assembly, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap are readying to give Nitish Kumar’s new NDA government sleepless nights. The Yadav family claims the corruption cases and grand alliance collapse are part of BJP’s “vendetta politics and communal agenda”.