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Bofors booms, Lalu returns fire in rhyme

New Delhi, Feb. 26: Loud as ever, Bofors stole Lalu Prasad’s thunder this afternoon. But it didn’t quite derail him.

His railway budget — populist like always and with wagonloads of sops like slashed fares, more trains and cushions on second class seats — was presented in Parliament against the backdrop of continuous slogan-shouting by the Opposition, revived recently by Bofors accused Ottavio Quattrocchi’s detention in Argentina and the government’s alleged attempt to keep the news under wraps.

Towards the end of the speech, the Opposition and the Congress-led ruling alliance had almost come to blows and were calling each other names. At that point, Lalu Prasad could have barely heard himself speak.

But throughout his hour-long speech, he chugged along bravely.

A couple of times, he tried to match the Opposition’s decibel level. Once, he urged them to “take some rest” and hear him. But mostly, he just ignored the constant Quattrocchi chant.

Trouble began first thing in the morning. The BJP-led Opposition disrupted proceedings as soon as the two Houses met — an hour before the budget presentation.

Gali gali mein shor hai, Quattrocchi mama chor hai (everyone knows Quattrocchi Uncle is a thief),” the Opposition MPs chanted.

Samajwadi Party members, also angry over “attempts” to impose President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh, walked into the well of the House.

Lalu Prasad came in for high praise from his wife, who described him as the “best-ever” railway minister. “He has presented yet another people-friendly budget,” Rabri Devi said. She heaped scorn on Opposition MPs for interrupting Lalu Prasad’s speech. “They are jealous of the rapidly growing popularity of Laluji,” she said.

After five minutes of the ruckus, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee adjourned the House till noon.

The Rajya Sabha went through similar turbulence. In the afternoon, it was adjourned for the day.

At noon, several BJP members crowded the well of the House in the Lok Sabha. Amid the chanting, Lalu Prasad launched into his speech.

The Samajwadis kept time with the BJP for the first 10 minutes and then staged a walkout.

“They just need an excuse not to listen to a budget for the poor,” Lalu Prasad said, pointing at the Opposition. “They are cowards.”

The Opposition shouted: “Quattrocchi vapas lao (bring back Quattrocchi)” and “sharam karo (have some shame).”

An undaunted Lalu Prasad went on with his speech, peppering it with couplets.

Maana ki badi-badi baaten karna hamein nahin aaya, magar dil par badi kaarigari se naam likhte hain (Agreed I can’t talk big/ But I inscribe my name in your heart with great skill),” he said.

For bringing about a turnaround in the railway’s fortunes, he compared himself to Lord Krishna who had lifted Mount Govardhan on a fingertip. Lalu Prasad conceded he had received help from his colleagues in the ministry.

Another couplet followed: “Like a tree offers shade, I look after every traveller.” Then pointing at the slogan-shouting Opposition, he said: “I care for you, too.’’

While explaining measures for the handicapped, he made a similar gesture at the Opposition.

Hearing the speech over their headphones, the treasury benches remained largely unprovoked, ignoring the Opposition and applauding Lalu Prasad now and then. Slogan-shouting BJP MPs, too, seemed to be tiring themselves out.

But about 45 minutes into the speech, the scene changed.

Spurred by a remark by Congress MP Surendra Prakash Goyal, the BJP brigade revised its slogan, linking Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Quattrocchi. Congressmen were furious.

Soon, parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was rushing towards a couple of angry party colleagues, urging restraint.

A little later, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh — the rural development minister belonging to Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal — charged for the Opposition, prompting Das Munshi to run to Sonia’s seat.

By now, the House had descended into chaos. Lalu Prasad continued with his speech, though MPs caught little of it.

Speaker Somnath Chatterjee called it “a very sad day” and later ordered everything “unparliamentary” expunged from the record.

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