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A sibling swing at succession

Patna, March 26: But for the man absent from the frame, this picture would have belonged strictly in family albums, not in newspaper pages. But for him, this would have been a very different picture, or, actually, a picture few would have bothered taking.

The people in it may have come across as far more meagre of circumstance, the backdrop would have been far humbler, if not lowly, a backdrop that belongs in a coarse daguerreotype. It would decidedly not have been this.

These are the back lawns of 10 Deshratna Marg, among the grander ministerial acreages of west Patna. And this is the family of RJD chief Lalu Prasad, the man not in the picture, the artist of this portrait, the sole master of this arrangement — the setting, the swing, the shade, the smiles, the language of bodies that belongs in a throne which hasn’t been available to adorn in a while.

But for Lalu Prasad and his astonishing journey from buffalo-boy in the Gopalganj boondocks to extended suzerainty over Bihar, none of this would exist.

That journey hit a trough when Lalu was cast out of power in 2005 and travelled further south when, in 2009, he did so poorly in the Lok Sabha that he lost his UPA cabinet perch in New Delhi.

This coming election, Lalu believes, could be his hour of revival, an opportunity to sneak through the bitterly sundered alliance between the JD(U) and the BJP who collaborated to unseat him a decade ago.

With Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi at war, Lalu is waving an altered calculus whose arithmetic he boasts to dominate: “No stopping this time, look at the voteshares, simpul, simpul, faarmula is simpul, do the plus-minus. Kyon pade ho chakkar mein, koi nahin hai takkar meinů Don’t be at all confused, the competition is all defused.”

Even when desperately downbeat, Lalu was never one to give up his derring-do countenance; the newly divided field in Bihar has added a decibel to his daring.

When Lalu cries out loud, he gathers crowds. The forecourt of 10 Deshratna Marg is humming with notes of new possibility. At the back of it, a rivalry has begun to eddy that Lalu often doesn’t want to countenance and wishes he could put down with the brandishing of a patriarchal baton.

You may not get to see a swing seat so voluptuous with political ambition.

Look closely at the picture and you’ll find it already too crammed; Misa has wedged herself in, but only just. To her right is the older of her two brothers, Tej Pratap; to her left is her mother Rabri Devi and then, ensconsed in the far corner, her little brother Tejaswi. There’s one former Bihar chief minister here and, should you individually enquire, three aspiring ones, Misa, Tej Pratap, Tejaswi, in descending order of age, though not necessarily in quantum of appetite.

The irony that runs across this image and its characters is that the one man who brought them this far — and the only one who could promise to take them any further from here — stands barred from contesting elections and, therefore, from public office. He is the man not in the picture, Lalu Prasad.

Lalu and Rabri Devi have nine children, seven daughters and two sons, of whom Misa is the eldest. Six of the daughters have been given away in marriage; among them Misa is the only one who refused to go away. She was able to persuade her IIM-trained husband, Sailesh, to come live in the Lalu household, instead.

The youngest and yet unmarried daughter lives mostly at the family’s camp residence in Delhi and spends much of her time looking after the affairs of Misa’s two school-going daughters.

Misa’s determination to stay on has often been ascribed to her will to being anointed RJD heiress, a desire whetted no end when as a 20-something girl she saw her father pull her mother out of the kitchen and install her as chief minister of Bihar.

Misa, far better educated — a trained doctor of medicine, in fact, and well spoken — quickly divined a future opportunity for herself. She might think of herself as best qualified to succeed her father.

Among all the Lalu-Rabri children, Misa is the one who alone has a memory of their days of adversity and struggle; she was 15 when her father became chief minister and the family stepped out of the low income housing they shared with cousins on the Patna Veterinary College campus and into 1 Aney Marg, the chief ministerial bungalow. Life would never be the same again.

Through her late teens and early adulthood, Misa apprenticed actively in the backroom machinations of power while the younger ones were at play. On occasion, following the fodder scam and Lalu’s removal from power, she would enact obdurate public defence of her parents and the party.

But she was soon to discover competitors at home: her two brothers Tej Pratap and Tejaswi. The apparent good cheer on the swing seat, mind you, is not faked or pretended for the camera. There exists among the siblings a fair bonhomie that comes from having lived out an open-house childhood around Lalu’s court.

But there also exists, inevitably, politics between them; very often, sibling rivalry can turn adult and begin to imitate the machinations of a medieval court where succession is up for grabs.

Misa is the domineering one who Lalu often does not venture to counter, for love or for latent fear, or probably both.

Tej Pratap is an oddball character and, therefore, more intractable. He turned a self-styled “Krishnavataar” a few years ago. He donned saffron robes and made it convenient for Lalu to keep him at arm’s length — a godman, not a man of this world, easy to keep off politics.

But came a time a few years ago, when he waddled into the family theatre, probably nudged along by Misa who was looking for an ally to counter Tejaswi, who is said to have Lalu’s favour.

Lalu tried keeping Tej Pratap distracted, awarding him an automobile dealership near Aurangabad that the son dutifully and charmingly christened with an amalgam of his parents’ first names: Lara Automobiles, he called it. But he soon lost interest, or was made to, delegated responsibilities and returned to 10 Deshratna Marg.

The saffron robes of Tej Pratap are long gone, he has donned khadi, the signature fabric of political intent. He now prowls the 10 Deshratna yard with his own clutch of loyalists and has posted a huge vinyl emboss of his on a side wall.

Each of the three has a coterie, each spies on the other’s activities, each schemes about behind Lalu while he attempts an uphill comeback.

The RJD boss still appears intent on Tejaswi, though. He eased him on to the 2010 campaign stage and since then, a murmur has prevailed that he is the chosen one.

Tejaswi spent a couple of IPL seasons warming the bench in the Delhi Daredevils dugout, then retired hurt to the political stage. He began to figure on RJD posters beside his parents, he was made to tail his father, sit on meetings, recruit a bunch of his own loyalists.

He was also given access to Lalu’s room at the RJD headquarters, if only as a sign others were meant to heed.

All of which was quickly noticed; very soon counter manoeuvres began to ripple on the family table. Misa landed one afternoon at the RJD offices and ordered her father’s room opened when neither he nor Tejaswi was in town. She sat in her father’s chair and ordered people around for a bit, if only to underline succession wasn’t a sealed affair.

Then she laid claim to the Lok Sabha seat her disqualified father fought and lost in 2009, and secured it. This, even at the cost of Lalu losing staunch loyalist Ram Kripal Yadav, now the BJP rival to Misa from Pataliputra. The battle is now for her to win and prove herself worthy.

Tej Pratap, court whisper will tell you, is her ally. Tejaswi, not yet the age he can contest, can afford a smile because he has time, and probably his father, on his side. Often, because they believe it to be a long-awaited season of favourable wind for the RJD, they all can. Like on the swing seat.