Phulwaria in Bihar’s Gopalganj district is like any village in the Hindi belt, and chances are most people haven’t heard of it. But, it is the absence of its most famous former resident that puts it centre stage in this Lok Sabha election. Phulwaria is the birth place of Lalu Prasad, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president and former chief minister, now serving a jail sentence in the fodder scam.
Though Prasad sought bail, which was rejected, to carry out “essential responsibilities as a party president" ahead of the election, there are no photos or statues of him in his village. On one “new year greeting poster" by a local RJD leader a tiny mugshot of Prasad jostles for space with 16 other leaders. It takes a group of excited young men and a 45-minute hunt to finally locate one dusty old photograph of Bihar’s former chief minister—but they are effusive in their praise of him.
“He is everything, our hero, our God. He once belonged to his village; now this village belongs to him. His absence has made this campaign dull. He was the voice of backward communities and that is missing now," said Chandan Yadav, a 23-year-old student who lives in the village. He dismissed Prasad’s conviction in the fodder scam as “a political conspiracy".
CAMPAIGN MISSES ITS STAR
Currently serving his sentence in Ranchi, this is the first election in which Prasad is not campaigning since launching the RJD in 1997. It’s also the first election he’ll be missing in more than 40 years since joining student politics in the 1970s. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1977 at the age of 29. He has since served as five-time MP, four-time MLA, Union railways minister, twice chief minister and Rajya Sabha member.
Prasad has built a reputation as a mass leader who drew crowds with his inimitable style of canvassing — whether his animated mimicry of opponents, his catchy one-liners or social engineering like his appeals to ‘MY’, or Muslim-Yadav support base. RJD is contesting 20 seats this election as part of the ‘mahagathbandhan’ or grand alliance with the Congress, which is contesting nine seats.
Irrespective of whether they support the opposition alliance, voters in Gopalganj, Prasad’s birth place, and Saran, which he represented in Parliament for five terms, say they sorely miss Prasad’s energy. “For good or for bad, he came to symbolize Bihar. My family has never voted for his party, but he was an important contrarian voice," said Munna Singh, a driver from Mehian village.
Born in Phulwaria in a poor peasant family, Prasad is infamous for having overseen a regime that was described as “jungle raj" due to the abysmal law and order situation that prevailed. He was accused of corruption and participating in benami land deals.
“Lalu arrived on the political scene in Bihar at a time when the average upper caste voter did not want to see a Yadav as chief minister. He understood this sentiment early on and used it to his benefit," said Rakesh Ranjan, who teaches political science at Patna College and is a state coordinator for the Lokniti programme of New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies . “He had a massive opportunity to be remembered as a political hero but two things brought him down—the fodder scam and nepotism, which began when he made his wife Rabri Devi chief minister."
In the 2015 assembly elections, Prasad led the alliance that blocked the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) entry in Bihar. The current Lok Sabha polls are critical to the opposition alliance as former ally and now chief minister Nitish Kumar switched sides to join the National Democratic Alliance. This election will be a key indicator of whether the opposition alliance can pull off a win without Kumar and whether the RJD can be a potent force without the physical presence of Prasad.
LALU’S TROUBLED LEGACY
Bihar has always been split on whether Prasad is the “messiah of the backwards" or the architect of the state’s downfall, and these sentiments have sharpened in his absence. “He pushed Bihar back by decades. We still see the effect his policies had on education and employment. Now the same legacy is being passed on to his sons," said Shashi Gupta, a salesman at an electronic shop in Thawe near Gopalganj.
A challenge lies ahead of the RJD, which was down to just two Lok Sabha seats in 2014. This time, it is part of the coalition of Congress and smaller regional parties against the BJP-led alliance, which includes Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP).
RJD was a steady ally of the Congress, and Prasad’s loyalty to former party president Sonia Gandhi is well-known. “Even before Congress leaders started talking about Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate in the early 2000s, Prasad publicly endorsed her for the post. RJD continues to be our biggest ally, but that bond between the RJD and Congress is missing now and it is felt on the ground," a senior state Congress leader said.
Voters feel the alliance lacks a common narrative. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and RJD’s lead campaigner and former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav have held just one joint rally in four phases of polling so far.
Pramod Kumar Ram, a senior RJD leader and state secretary from Gopalganj, recalls seeing Prasad for the first time during the Mandal agitation in the early 1990s in Patna. Ram describes how Prasad leapt out of a jeep on the way to Gandhi Maidan and dared security personnel to arrest him. “I was drawn by his fearlessness. Whenever he held a public meeting, people would cycle hours from villages to get a glimpse of him. He was chatty, engaging and funny at his meetings. He could remember people’s faces and names, and that really is the greatest quality of a leader," Ram said.
For two decades, RJD and its election symbol, the lantern, have been synonymous with Prasad. At rallies, his photographs form the backdrop and publicity material is replete with his words and pictures though he is not on the trail.
“Naturally, our party and its campaign would have been stronger (with his presence). Our opponents would have been weaker. He is a mass leader and his presence makes a difference. But still, if one goes out with the flag of Laluji’s party, people like you, and they stand up for you," Tejashwi Yadav, Prasad’s younger son, told Mint.
In an earlier interview, Tejashwi said, “Last time we met, seat-sharing talks were on. When we meet him in Ranchi, we talk about everything. We talk about home, we talk about politics. He gives advice."
Early in April, Prasad wrote an open letter to his voters, which was released on his Twitter handle, from the hospital ward in Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi, where he has served eight months of his prison term. “Everything is at stake in this election - country, society, Lalu, who in other words gave you the aspiration to move about as equals with your heads held high and your rights, self-respect and dignity," he wrote.
The family is in touch with him regularly. “Every key decision—seat-sharing, choice of candidates, the party’s focus on reservation—is vetted by him," said a senior party member, requesting anonymity.
But giving advice from far cannot substitute being on the ground. “The organizing capacity that Lalu brought to the table is no longer there. In an earlier era, even in his absence, his party would draw unimaginable crowds, but now that is not happening. Even Yadav strongholds, like Patliputra, are beginning to show chinks in the armour," Ranjan said.
In the seats that Prasad influenced, the sentiment among voters is that Tejashwi Yadav carries his father’s mantle “well" but the baggage of RJD’s past, particularly family troubles and corruption charges, continue to dog the party. Without his blustering personality to counter charges with comments and sharp political calculations, the next generation is hurting.
NEPOTISM WEAKENED PARTY
“Lalu began with close relatives like Rabri Devi’s brother, Sadhu Yadav. His children still call Ram Kirpal Yadav (BJP MP from Patliputra and former close aide of Prasad) their uncle, but all his close aides have left him over time. Most of them were upset because he ran his family like a government, and the government like a family affair. These troubles have returned to haunt the family," said Bunty, who goes by one name and owns a homeware shop in Chapra.
Chapra, which falls within the Saran parliamentary constituency, symbolizes how internal family matters are impacting RJD’s electoral prospects. Prasad’s elder son, Tej Pratap , wanted his mother, Rabri Devi, to contest from Saran, a seat she lost to former Union minister and BJP member Rajeev Pratap Rudy in 2014. Instead, RJD fielded Chandrika Rai, Tej Pratap’s father-in-law, from the seat, a move Tej Pratap has publicly opposed as he recently filed a divorce petition in a Patna family court. Voters, even long-term Prasad supporters, fear the factionalism will sabotage the party’s chances in Saran.
There is also speculation that older daughter Misa Bharti, who is contesting from Patliputra against sitting BJP MP Ram Kripal Yadav, is unhappy as she believes the sons are being promoted more. When asked about it, Tejashwi told Mint, “It is my family matter and we will deal with it."
Patna College’s Ranjan says people may miss Prasad, and may sympathize with him, but it is “purely sentimental" and is unlikely to give RJD an electoral advantage. “Not everyone in the second rung of RJD’s leadership is okay to work under Tejashwi, largely because Lalu divided his party among his children and took no note of leaders who helped him build his party," said Ranjan.
While three phases of Bihar’s election still remain, the outcome of this election could decide the political fate of Prasad and the next generation of his family. Prasad cannot contest or campaign, but for voters in Bihar, who either love him or loathe him, he remains the politician who defined the state.
Summing up the sentiment on the ground, a voter in Gopalganj said: “You could never ignore Lalu. He was number one in whatever he did. Netagiri mei vikhyaat, chori mei vikhyaat (accomplished in realpolitik, accomplished in corruption)."
Get latest election news and live updates on Elections 2019 here