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Running out of steam

Running out of steam

Lalu Prasad is the Pied Piper of Patna. One of the more special moments in journalism was travelling with the RJD chief to Pakistan in 2003. Indo-Pak relations were at a low, a series of terror attacks had brought the two countries to the brink of war. In this unnerving environment, the charismatic Lalu was transformed into a peace ambassador. Wherever he went, the cameras inevitably followed. At Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, the shopkeepers queued up to greet him; when we went to Islamabad’s Sunday market, he was again the star attraction. In the heart of the marketplace, he picked up a potato and exclaimed, “Bihar mein Lalu, aur Pakistan mein aloo!” The picture of Lalu buying vegetables made the front pages of most Pakistani newspapers.

Seven years later, the Lalu charisma is fading. He still comes up with the occasional witty ‘Laluism’ and his persona remains delightfully endearing, but as the high drama in Parliament during the Women’s Reservation Bill has shown, Lalu’s bark is now greater than his bite. While he may rightfully scream that the Bill was passed through an act of  ‘political dacoity’, the fact is that no one really takes Lalu’s threats of  bringing down the UPA government seriously. In a sense, Lalu and his Yadav soulmates — Mulayam and Sharad — represent the past tense of Indian politics, a politics where identity mattered more than issues.

When Lalu first burst on to the national political scene in the early 90s, he was an instant hit. The arrest of L.K. Advani at Samastipur in October 1990 during the Ram Rath Yatra catapulted him into the national limelight. That single act transformed him into the messiah of the Muslims, the politician who had dared to touch the Hindutva icon. Lalu dined out for the next decade on that one single moment of political bravado, his Muslim-Yadav combine forming the base for three successive victories in the Bihar elections.
The ascent of Lalu also coincided with the rise of  private news TV. Lalu was, without a doubt, Indian politics’ first TV star. The first time I interviewed Lalu for TV was in 1995 on the back of a remarkable victory in the Bihar elections. He insisted that the interview be conducted in his cowshed, the cows providing the visual backdrop to enhance Lalu’s rustic image. That was perhaps the first glimpse of Lalu, the consummate communicator, on national TV. In the years that followed, Lalu on TV guaranteed eyeballs in a manner that no politician before or since has been able to match.

But like a saas-bahu serial that finally begins to lose ratings, Lalu’s appeal too has begun to wear thin. The rhetoric, that was once both amusing and incisive, now seems tired and repetitive. Where did the decline begin? In his excellent book, The Making of Lalu Yadav, journalist Sankarshan Thakur writes, “Lalu Yadav lost his magic the day he said he was going to cling on to the chief ministership even if he were to be chargesheeted in the fodder scandal. That was the day Lalu Yadav, Bihar’s great rosy-cheeked hope, exposed himself. He wasn’t there to deliver power to the people, he was there to keep it for himself.”

Unfortunately, Lalu allowed himself to become a prisoner of the caricature that he had created of himself. There was always more to Lalu than the court jester image; he was, and is, perhaps one of the most astute politicians in the country. But because political life for him was a manufactured myth, the very image that he had created eventually devoured him. The backwards and the Muslims began to desert him the moment they realised the wide gap between Lalu the folk hero and Lalu the politician.

Which is why the women’s reservation bill has perhaps provided Lalu with a last stab at reviving his faltering political career. By raising the pitch over reservations for OBC and Muslim women, Lalu is making a desperate attempt to recapture his original constituency. The aim isn’t to bring down the UPA government, but to create a new focal point for the Mandal forces who have been badly splintered in recent years. In the process, he has joined hands with one-time enemies — Mulayam Singh and Sharad Yadav — in the hope that a political realignment in the Hindi heartland can be achieved.

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Where the Yadav troika may have got their calculations wrong though is in their belief that their Muslim-OBC support base is intact, and merely needs to be galvanised into action through emotive slogans. The last two decades have seen a dramatic shift in aspiration levels across the country, and to believe that UP and Bihar would be untouched by the winds of change is to remain frozen in time. How many Muslim women, for example, will truly believe that the Yadavs stand for political empowerment of the minorities when the fact is that none of the Mandal parties have made a serious effort to raise bread and butter issues of jobs and education for Muslims? When the Yadavs, after having enriched their families, claim to stand against elitism, how many people will trust them?

Which is why the anti-woman reservationists, despite the genuine deficiencies in the legislation, may struggle to get their campaign off the ground. The credibility crisis confronting the Yadavs may well rub off on their determined effort to become symbols of opposition to women’s reservation. When Rabri Devi and Dimple Yadav are your women ‘leaders’, who will trust the claims being made to represent womanhood and gender justice?

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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