Advocates come out of the e-court after the judgment in Ranchi. Picture by Prashant Mitra
New Delhi, Oct. 3: The severe judicial banishment of RJD boss Lalu Prasad may well mark a curtain call on his legislative career, but his singular brand and appeal will outlive the trial court sentence.
His internment for five years, along with a fine of Rs 25 lakh, is a body blow, not a death blow; such is the matrix of populist politics, it often transcends patent and serial misdemeanour, in this case rampant loot.
Jail tenure apart, the Supreme Court has banned convicted legislators from contesting elections for six more years.
Should Lalu fail his plea in appellate courts, he is effectively out of electoral contention, for by the time his 11-year exile from the poll arena ends, he will be 77 and the 21st century a quarter old. But that won’t bring on the expiry of his role or intervention in popular politics. The RJD will take the knock and move on, Lalu himself will continue to inform and influence the public discourse. Those mulling his obituary run the risk of being leaping erroneously ahead of what may come to pass.
The immediate and demonstrable evidence following today’s verdict by the special CBI judge in Ranchi is of a party rallying vociferously around its tainted leader and a constituency willing to see a victim in a man convicted as financial vandal. The RJD brass has proclaimed Lalu their “unchallenged supreme leader” louder than probably ever in the past; the ranks of Yadavs and Muslims in Lalu’s north Bihar home belt of Saran are saying their hero’s stains are the consequence of conspiracy, not crime. Clearly, the drift floating up to Lalu in this dark hour is of light still discernible. “How can you even ask who will lead the RJD now?” countered Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the seniormost RJD MP after Lalu, aghast that he had even been asked the question. “That seat has not been vacated by this order, of course it is Laluji, Laluji, Laluji. He is our one and only leader, in or out of jail.”
In a sense Lalu represents an intractable conundrum to his party, at once its biggest asset and liability. The emphatic underlining of Lalu’s enduring supremacy by the likes of Raghuvansh Prasad is evidence of how desperately they need Lalu at the helm, warts and all.
And there are good reasons why in the hamlets and villages of Saran, the CBI court’s ruling has unleashed not rejection of Lalu but renewed espousal. Lalu, after all, remains a man of many parts; corruption and rank dereliction, which Bihar pitilessly suffered during his 15-year reign, were one part of it. The other, and probably more enduring, part was the esteem and entitlement he brought to large communities on the margins, and the sense of security he brought to Bihar’s substantial minority population at critical hours.
At the height of his power in the mid-1990s, few leaders enjoyed such fanatical mass adulation as Lalu. At his worst, following Nitish Kumar’s takeover in 2005, Lalu still enjoyed 15-20 per cent of the vote. It is fair to suggest, even today, that all of Lalu’s misappropriations and mismanagement as potentate of Bihar have not pushed him into political arrears.
But a lot of how he is able to manage what is left will depend on how he negotiates the dungeon he has landed himself in. It is not clear yet what course Lalu will adopt to run the RJD hereon. He has two visible options — a return to imposing the dynasty (wife Rabri or son Tejaswi, both of who have revealed sizeable deficiency on the public stage) or picking a collegium of elders like Raghuvansh Prasad, Abdul Bari Siddiqui and Jagadanand Singh to run the day-to-day affairs of the party.
But one reason might tempt him to take the latter option. 2013 is not 1997, the year he pitchforked Rabri Devi into the chief minister’s chair just before heading to jail. He is not in power, his charisma has faded, his constituency has thinned, and, most important, he has a firm conviction pasted on his persona. Lalu is no longer possessed of the magnetism, personal and political, that compelled people to stick to him; a whimsical turn to Rabri or Tejaswi could well nudge a few RJD heads to other pastures.