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Lalu-Nitish joshi: twist in a Bihar tale

Lalu-Nitish joshi: twist in a Bihar tale

There is a wonderfully poignant story, possibly apocryphal, about the original Hindi cinema ‘phenomenon’ Rajesh Khanna that reveals the limits of superstardom. During his peak years, Khanna would hold a daily durbar where his fans would gather to hear him recite dialogues from his films. The room would be packed and the drink would flow. Many years later, Khanna found the hall empty. “Arre, where has everyone gone?” he asked his Man Friday. “Sir, there is a new hero in town and his name is Amitabh Bachchan,” replied his aide softly. Shaken, Khanna went back to sleep.

I saw shades of Rajesh Khanna recently in Patna while meeting Lalu Prasad. Like Khanna’s reign in Bollywood in the early 1970s, Lalu too was once the ‘superstar’ of Bihar politics through the 1990s. When he won the infamous 1995 election (he described it as “Lalu versus all” with typical flamboyance), the celebrations continued through the night. I asked an old man amidst the teeming crowds why he was there. “Sir, Laluji ne haemin swar diya hai, nahi toh kaun haemin allow karta mukhya mantra ke bangle mein. (Lalu has given us a voice, else who would allow us into the CM’s bungalow.) The man belonged to the Maha-Dalit Musahar community, once ostracised by the forward castes.

But in recent times, after losing four consecutive elections since 2005, Lalu has appeared a defeated man. When he arrived for a media event at a local hotel, there was initial excitement. For 45 minutes, he regaled the audience with his wit and repartee: In form, he is still the most natural political communicator. But then, as the evening wore on, the jokes began to wear thin, the punch-lines had a repetitive feel to them. Sitting next to me, an RJD supporter looked at his watch and yawned. Maybe Lalu was still a folk-hero, but the show was over. Like Rajesh Khanna, Lalu’s best is in the past.

And yet, there are signs in the last fortnight that Lalu may be scripting a famous political comeback. RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks on reservation appear to have awakened a neta in hibernation. Suddenly, what was meant to be an election about ‘jungle raj’ versus ‘development’ has now been transformed into a ‘war’ between forward and backward castes. This is the terrain that Lalu is comfortable with, one which doesn’t expose his awful track record in administration but allows him to play the identity politics which first drove his remarkable rise