|Lalu Prasad addresses his supporters at Koderma atop his Gareeb Rath during his mahayatra
to Ranchi on November 23, 2001. Picture by Deepak Kumar
The first image of Lalu Prasad’s mahayatra embedded in my mind is that of a man running with a fish in a bucket to 1 Aney Marg, the Bihar chief minister’s residence in Patna.
It was the morning of November 23, 2001. Winter was setting in and Lalu Prasad could be forgiven if he felt a little shiver. He stared long and hard at the fish.
Seeing a fish is considered auspicious before a journey, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief needed all the luck he could get.
He had already played one of the most audacious political gambles seen in India by installing wife Rabri Devi, till then a homemaker, into his own chief minister’s chair fearing arrest over the fodder scam.
Now, an arrest warrant having put his aura of invincibility under threat, he was about to start his first journey to Ranchi to surrender before the CBI court. Till a year ago, Ranchi fell in his fief but now it was the capital of the new state of Jharkhand sliced out of Bihar.
The court was hearing the fodder scam case RC-39A/1996 relating to allegedly fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 1.45 crore from the Dumka treasury in undivided Bihar. Dumka was now in Jharkhand.
(On Monday, the court will pass its verdict on a case relating to withdrawals from the Chaibasa treasury, also in Jharkhand.)
Lalu Prasad had decided to convert the 340km road trip into a mahayatra — a “long march” to martyrdom by the “Messiah of the Masses”.
After the fish sighting, he prayed in the bungalow’s puja room. Rabri put a tika on his forehead. It was left to then Bihar education minister Ram Chandra Purbey to air the Mahatma comparison.
“This is not a jail yatra; it’s a Dandi yatra against the NDA government which is trying to frame Laluji,” he declared, referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s 24-day, 390km march in 1930 from the Sabarmati Ashram to the coastal village of Dandi to violate the colonial salt law.
Around 8.30am, Lalu Prasad stepped out in a starched white kurta-pyjama. “Let’s go,” he barked to supporters.
He climbed into his air-conditioned Gareeb Rath — a van converted into a luxury vehicle — with brothers-in-law Sadhu and Subhash Yadav and state excise minister Shivanand Tiwary. Additional director-general Ashish Ranjan Sinha led the police escort.
As I hurried to my car, a white Ambassador, I couldn’t at first locate it in the sea of white Ambys, SUVs and vans parked outside the compound. Virtually every RJD minister and MLA, not to speak of other party leaders and workers, had turned up.
“Saheb has asked us to come with him to Ranchi,” said a minister. He said the motorcade would have 500 cars.
“Bihar is in the good hands of Rabri Devi at least for two days,” joked an MLA, making sure he was out of the earshot of known Lalu Prasad acolytes.
Finally, I spotted my car. But as we reached Bailey Road in the heart of Patna, we were stuck in a traffic jam.
“Laluji is having paan from his favourite shop at the Dak Bungalow roundabout,” said a legislator whose vehicle was stranded next to mine. The roundabout was more than 2km away.
“Is this a joke? He (Lalu Prasad) has brought the whole city to a standstill,” fumed a man in a car to my left. His wife saw some noisy youths in the RJD’s green caps and asked him to shut up.
More traffic snarls followed as Lalu Prasad got off to bow at a mazaar in Deedarganj, talk to his followers, lunch at Koderma, and take a toilet break in the Hazaribagh hills. His supporters kept stopping the cavalcade every now and then. Everywhere, he spoke of his impending “martyrdom”.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s for you people to see that your government remains. This is a conspiracy by the BJP government (at the Centre) because I speak up for downtrodden people like you,” he told cheering crowds.
In Nawada, local MLA Pappu Khan tried to get into the rath and injured himself. Inside the vehicle, Sadhu Yadav was reeling off the names of those who had joined the convoy.
“Many have come on their own,” he said. Lalu Prasad seemed pleased. “We should try a tumtum (horse-driven cart) yatra next time,” he chirped.
He seemed to suddenly remember that a close associate had climbed on the roof of his rath. “Bring him down. He is drunk. If he falls off, he’ll become mincemeat,” he told Sadhu.
The motorcade stopped for over an hour near Koderma, where local MLA Annapurna Devi had arranged lunch for the leader at the circuit house.
I had always enjoyed the drive from Patna to Ranchi because, after Nawada, the road snakes through forests and mountains. But this yatra was proving a nightmare. One could not get off the car during halts because the other vehicles were parked too near.
Most of the dhabas had closed and even finding water to drink was difficult. It was about 8pm when we reached Hazaribagh and I was racing to beat my deadline to file a report.
I went to the market, searched out a shop with a fax machine, wrote my story and faxed it. The shopkeeper listened attentively as I spoke to my colleagues in Patna.
“Aah, you have come with Laluji. I suppose Laluji has his good traits too. But I’m happy that I no longer have to live under Lalu raj,” he said. The man was kind enough to offer me tea.
We reached Ranchi at 11.30pm, 15 hours after having set off from Patna (usually, the journey then took about seven hours). The gates of the hotel where I was booked were closed. As the driver honked, a man stuck his neck out. I identified myself.
“Better come in quick. I’ve had to fight with many netas because I told them no rooms were available,” he said.
The next morning, I went to the circuit house to meet Lalu Prasad. He had had his bath and was praying. He preened about how the size of the crowd accompanying him had left the people of Ranchi stunned.
As he prepared to leave for the court, he saw his peon carry his luggage into his vehicle and lost his temper.
“Are you sending me to jail before the judgment?” he barked. The poor man hastily carried the two pieces of luggage back to Lalu Prasad’s bedroom.
The court proceedings were long-drawn. Then Bihar law minister Shakeel Ahmad Khan argued his leader’s case but the bail plea was rejected. Lalu Prasad was remanded in judicial custody. There was a baton-charge on the court compound as the crowd got unruly.
Lalu Prasad shouted: “Ary Marandi (Babulal Marandi, then BJP chief minister of Jharkhand), sabko pitwa diya (you beat up everybody).”
The RJD chief was escorted to the guesthouse of the Bacon factory, which, ironically, came under the animal husbandry department that was accused of plotting the fodder scam.
As dusk fell and the winter chill set in, the last glimpse of Lalu Prasad I had was at the fenced guesthouse. Bihar’s most powerful leader, wearing a monkey cap, was taking a stroll around 7pm. For the first time in the many years I had known him, he looked restless.
The fish he had seen in the morning had failed to bail him out.
(Lalu Prasad eventually secured bail after a little over a week.)