Lalu Prasad addresses an impromptu gathering near Mokama during his Parivartan Yatra. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur
Mokama (Central Bihar), Oct. 4: The anguished roadside cry is music to the neta’s ears; it rings to him of the recurrence of relevance.
So when a woman, aged to wrinkles and frail to the bone, scrambled to the front of Lalu Prasad’s SUV and began to plead protection against the high price of potatoes, it put a smile on the RJD leader’s face as wide as the Ganges flowing not far.
“Dekhiye, dekh lijiye,” he turned to me and said, “log ro-peet raha hai aur Nitish kahta hai sushashan hai (Look, see for yourself, people are driven to weeping and Nitish calls it good governance).”
He then took the woman by her palms and sought a pledge to redress her plea: “Humra ke raj de daa, sab theek ho jai. Lalu aai tab na aloo ke daam theek hoi (Give me power and all shall be well, potato prices will only be set right if Lalu comes).”
That’s a vastly premature demand for Lalu to make; Nitish is not done with even half of his second term yet. But something seems to have stirred his rusty political antennae. He appears to have received signals that this could be as good a time as any to begin his bid to recapture the realm he once lorded over with such complacency he lost it.
What these are is best told in his own words: “Jhooth raj hai, propaganda raj hai Nitish ka (Nitish’s is a government of lies and propaganda). People are tiring of hearing big claims and nothing on the ground, they are restive, they are protesting; Nitish cannot move in the state without police bandobast because he is facing anger everywhere.”
It is a good moment to remind Lalu of the derelictions of his own regime, the serial failures that swept him out of power. His retort is instant and a reminder of his famed gift of the gab: “Pagri Nitish pehne aur badnami abhiyo hamre sar (Nitish wears the crown and the infamy still rests on my head)?”
Plainly said, the past is past, Nitish is the man in power, he is on test, not me. Lalu, after a long lull of absence, has set out seeking “parivartan” (change) and he believes there is enough accumulating on the ground to achieve that. “People won’t be rushing to me like this if they were not troubled.”
The road running east of Patna along the great river, currently swollen on its famished banks, is typically Lalu territory, dotted with pockets of Yadav dominance which have remained strongly loyal to the RJD through its reverses.
The passage of Lalu through their boroughs is nothing they’d miss out on. In fact, they made a vibrant festival of it — local pipe bands and drum beaters, eddies of mid-street dancing, horsemen clip-clopping along the lengthened caravan bearing the green RJD standard, at every stop a blizzard of marigold garlands.
By the time Lalu got to Bakhtiyarpur 50 kilometres down the road, marigolds had become an unwieldy mound on his car top. He had passed half a dozen welcome arches and the voices on each stop seemed to feed the vote-hound in Lalu, widen the smile on his lips.
“I am seeing a new mood,” he chortled to party MP Ram Kripal Yadav, seated at the back of the car. “People have begun to see through the fraud of Nitish.”
Bakhtiyarpur was a significant station en route, perhaps the most significant one of the day for it is home to Nitish Kumar, chief minister and chief adversary.
Lalu was not going to pass it without making a significant show. A milling crowd besieged the town centre, not far from the house Nitish grew up in. Rows of RJD buntings hung low overhead, flags fluttered, drums and trombones drowned whatever it was that Lalu was trying to tell the throng pushing around his vehicle.
Seated in another car a few paces behind Lalu’s, the architect of the Bakhtiyarpur turnout looked on smugly: Vijay Krishna, local Rajput figurehead and mate of Nitish’s youth who has now made it his mission to help resuscitate the wheezing RJD.
The Bakhtiyarpur crowd would have seemed like a welcome burst of oxygen to Lalu, he has not been treated to such vigorous welcome in a while. “Lalu tum sarkar banao, garib mehengai ka maara hai,” screamed one man who had muscled his way to the windshield of Lalu’s car. “Lalooo Yaaadav, Zindaaabaaaad!”
It is tough to get an accurate sense of what the renewed fuss around Lalu Prasad might be about. Elections are too far off yet, it is too early to call closure on issues that will determine its course. Besides, this is a Yadav belt and they have never lost their enthusiasm about Lalu. This could well be his core constituency rallying around him while the others merely watched on.
But it could also be that caste affiliation is not the only factor driving people to fete Lalu. There could an element of commonly felt affliction, especially among the rural poor. An indignant whisper has become a rash across the state — prices are rising, corruption has become rampant, there is too much “afsarshahi” (bureaucracy) under Nitish; too many good plans, too little implementation.
Along the route Lalu took looms the massive steelwork of an NTPC power project Nitish lobbied to bring to Bihar as a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. It holds huge promise for the future of a deeply power-deficient state. But at present it spews disgruntlement.
Villagers complain the NTPC has ignored its promise to employ locals in the work force. They crib their land was taken away too cheap to house the project. “Jaat bhi gawaein, swad bhi na paaye,” said Rampujan Rai, a small farmer. (We lost our land and got little in return, not enough money, no jobs.)
For the first time in years, crossroads chatter is turning sceptical on Nitish, if not also often critical.
“There was good work done in the first term, roads were built, crime was controlled,” said Madanmohan Singh, a retired schoolteacher sheltering from rain at a highway tea stall in Athmalgola. “I believe Nitishji is well-intentioned and has good plans but plans are not enough. People want more, and they are feeling the pinch of prices and corruption.”
Lalu Prasad is evidently thrilled to hear the voices of disaffection echo off the road. But it is going to be a long journey, much longer than the one he took today, and somewhere along it he might run into Nitish Kumar effecting due corrections.