Defeated in 2005 after a 15-year stint in power and decimated in 2010 polls that saw his once seemingly invincible RJD shrink to 22 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly, the effervescent backward class leader is back to the centrestage once again, helping the grand alliance reap a bountiful electoral harvest and emerging as the king maker.
The 67-year-old leader cut his political teeth in students politics when he was first elected general secretary of the Patna University Students Union and then its President in the early 1970s.
As Bihar and Gujarat saw violent protests by students against the Indira Gandhi government in 1974, Lalu grew in stature and is widely believed to have persuaded socialist icon Jayaprakash Narayan, then leading the life of a recluse, to spearhead the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti’s agitation. The students’ agitation grew in sweep and scale after declaration of Emergency on 25 June 1975 and culminated in formation of the first non-Congress government at the Centre in 1977.
Lalu, then aged 29, was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1977, but lost the subsequent election in 1979 when Congress staged an emphatic comeback. He got elected to the Bihar assembly in 1980 and 1985. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the second time in 1989, when riding anti-Congress sentiments following the Bofors scandal, V.P. Singh formed the National Front government.
In 1990, when Janata dal won Bihar, the wily political craftsman, whose rusticity cleverly masks the guile, persuaded Haryana chief minister Devi Lal, the man who had significantly contributed to building of the National Front, to force an internal election for choosing the chief minister after V.P. Singh favoured Ram Sundar Das and Chandra Shekhar plumped for his protege Raghunath Jha.
Lalu, who had become the leader of opposition in 1989 after the death of Karpoori Thakur, felt he had a natural claim to the hot seat, and won.
There was no looking back for Lalu, whom former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf had once described as an “artiste of a politician", thereafter. V.P. Singh, whose coalition government was supported from outside by BJP, got dusted the Mandal Commission report of 1978 and announced implementation of 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC), apparently in an attempt at consolidating the OBC voters behind the Janata Dal and checking BJP’s growing influence among Hindus, marking the beginning of the ‘Mandal versus Kamandal’ politics.
The measure saw unprecedented consolidation of backward classes in Bihar and Lalu, one of the most vocal supporters of Singh’s action, emerged as the tallest OBC leader.
When BJP leader L.K. Advani set out on his Rath Yatra in support of construction of Ram Temple in 1990, the chariot rolled unhindered up to Samastipur in Bihar before Lalu got him arrested, winning the goodwill of Muslims, who were still in shock following the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 that had claimed over 1000 lives, mostly members of the minority community.
With Congress’s vast votebank of Minorities and OBCs firmly behind him now, Lalu ran Bihar virtually like a fief, drawing criticism for patronising crime and lawlessness.
Despite accusations from rivals of presiding over ‘jungle raj’, Lalu openly backed dubious characters like Mohammed Shahabuddin and Pappu Yadav, who later became MPs. His sway over Bihar continued even when he got embroiled in the fodder scam in 1996 and had to resign as chief minister the following year after CBI procured warrant for his arrest.
So complete was his control over Bihar that he installed his semi-literate wife Rabri Devi, a mother to his nine children, as chief minister, without even a whimper of protest. Rabri ruled the key Hindi heartland state for another eight years before being unseated by Nitish Kumar, who powered JD(U)-BJP combine to victory in 2005.
However, before power slipped away from his hands in Bihar, Lalu had carved out a place for him in the national politics. RJD had won 22 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2004 and joined hands with Congress to participate in the UPA-I government headed by Manmohan Singh.
Lalu’s RJD, the second largest party in the UPA after Congress, managed to secure the railway portfolio. As railway minister, he left passenger fares untouched during his entire tenure and claimed to have ushered in a turnaround in the loss-making public sector behemoth. However, his successor in the railway ministry Mamata Banerjee and also government auditor CAG, later slammed him for allegedly “fudging" figures to present a “misleading" picture of the railways’ finances. However, the hype over the claimed turnaround saw several Ivy League schools invite him to deliver lectures which he did in his inimitable Hindi.
After his party managed to secure only four seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, his distance with Congress grew. The 2010 Bihar assembly elections further eroded his stature as RJD’s tally plunged to 22, its worst ever.
Adversity seemed to have overtaken the once powerful mass leader when he was convicted in a fodder scam case in 2013 and was disqualified from contesting elections. The massive defeat in 2014 Lok Sabha poll, when a Modi wave swept large parts of India, including Bihar, proved a blessing in disguise for Lalu, whose RJD notched four seats, and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), which had split with BJP, a meagre two.
Nitish owned up responsibility for his party’s debacle and stepped down, thus setting the stage for a reunion with Lalu. Both realised that taking on BJP-led NDA, which had partners like Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, separately, was not possible.
The two finally came together as Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav brokered peace. After dithering over nominating Nitish Kumar as their alliance’s chief ministerial face, Lalu acceded. The Congress, marginalised in the state since 1990, too joined hands.
Known for his canny political sense, Lalu stooped and accepted Nitish, an arch rival, as the leader of the grand alliance and together they conquered the state. With an assertive Nitish Kumar at helm, Lalu may not be able to run the government by proxy as he did under Rabri’s stewardship, but the voluble politician will definitely have a major say in running the affairs of Bihar after a decade-long hiatus.