| RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi campaign at Marhowrah in Chhapra. (PTI) |
Lalu Prasad had fallen on his spouse Rabri Devi in 1997 when the Supreme Court rejected his bail petition warranting upon him to go to jail in a fodder scam case (RC-20A/96).
In and out of jail, Lalu ruled Bihar for the next eight years with Rabri in the chief minister’s chair and the remote control of the government and the party in his hands.
Seventeen years down the line, the RJD chief has repeated the same tactic.
The law has barred him from entering the poll fray following his conviction in the same case (RC-20A/96). He has fielded Rabri in Saran, which he had won five times in the past and is battling it out to become an MP by proxy — exactly in the manner in which he had ruled the state from 1997 to 2005.
Much to the consternation of his detractors and to his (Lalu’s) pleasure, his constituents — mainly the Yadavs, his caste-men — do not find any flaw with the arrangement.
“Rabri hai to kya hua. Lalu ki hi patni hai. Hum log Lalu ko hi vote dengein (What is wrong if Rabri is in the fray. After all, she is Lalu’s wife. We will vote for Lalu)”, said, Ganauri Yadav (58), a paan shop owner at Sonepur, a part of the Saran Lok Sabha constituency, around 70km north of Patna across the Ganga.
A conversation through a cross-section of people on the Sonepur-Seetalpur-Aami-Dighwara stretch brought to the fore that the upper caste Rajputs, who have traditionally been voting against Lalu - ever since the wily Yadav from Gopalganj wrested the Rajput bastion in 1977 - seeing a “fault line” in Lalu’s game-plan and expecting their caste-men and BJP nominee Rajiv Pratap Rudy to get an advantage of it.
But nothing has changed for the Yadavs. “Lalu and Rabri are same for us. We will go to the polling station and press the button on lantern (RJD’s symbol). As simple as that,” young and old, men and women say in unison on the stretch.
These words sum up what the Yadavs have in mind.
Much water has flown down the Ganga since Lalu became the chief minister, ruled the state by proxy through his wife, lost it to Nitish Kumar in 2005 and eventually lost the right to contest the elections last year. If not Lalu in his style and demeanour, Rabri has changed a lot. A sulking, reluctant and reticent Rabri in her ghunghat covering her forehead had gone to take oath as the chief minister in July 1997 — her redoubtable husband in escort on the eve of going to jail. Rabri was then a proverbial gungi gudia (dumb doll) as described by her opponents.
Today, the former chief minister replaced by Nitish after staying almost eight years in office wears Ray-Ban shades and speaks when prompted. She may not be as clinical as her successor Nitish is or as rhetorical her husband (Lalu) is in addressing the rallies, but she is hardly shy in articulating her thoughts. She has her medico daughter Misa — herself a candidate from the Pataliputra seat — and her two sons Tej Pratap and Tejaswi, grown up now, boosting her campaign in Saran.
But the more Lalu, Rabri, their children and even the collective aura of the state’s most powerful family have changed, the more Saran has remained the same. Apart from the change in the constituency’s nomenclature from Chhapra to Saran and deletions and substitution of the part of a couple of Assembly segments, the Saran Lok Sabha constituency has hardly undergone any significant change in its voting behaviour.
The Yadavs — the single largest caste in the constituency — apparently are as madly “in love” with their icon, Lalu Prasad as the Rajputs are “at war” with him. The Rajputs have been as historical opponent to Lalu as the Yadavs have been loyal to him ever since 1977. Lalu tried to mellow down the Rajputs’s ferocious and protracted opposition to him by inducting a Rajput chieftain of the region, Prabhunath Singh and getting him win the neighbouring Maharajganj seat with the support of Yadavs in 2013 by-election. Prabhunath in lieu of Lalu and his caste-men’s “largesse” in Maharajganj is trying hard to return the favour back to Rabri in Saran. “But nothing will work. We will vote against Lalu,” said Ram Naresh Singh at Dumri Adda on Sonepur-Chhapra stretch.
While the battle in Saran has boiled down to a straight contest between Rabri and Rudy with JD(U)’s Saleem Parvez driven to the margin, almost all the other seats, including Sheohar, Sitamarhi, Maharajganj, Hajipur, Ujiyarpur and Muzaffarpur, going to the polls on May 7 have been facing similar scenario.
While Rabri is locked in a fierce contest against Rudy, who has invariably contested against Lalu ever since 1998 but has never won against him, the BJP-backed LJP nominee, Ram Vilas Paswan, is locked in a straight fight against RJD-backed Congress nominee Sanjiv Prasad Toni in Hajipur.
A “don-turned-JD(U) nominee”, Manoranjan Prasad Singh “Dhoomal” is trying to add a “third angle” in the Maharajganj seat. But the battle in Maharajganj, which Prabhunath won in the by-election last year, stays closely confined between him and his BJP rival Janardan Singh Sigriwal. Ujiyarpur, too, seems to be witnessing a fierce contest between the RJD’s Alok Mehta and the RJD renegade-turned-BJP-candidate, Nityanand Rai, with the JD(U) also trying to make its mark on the seat - a part of the karmabhoomi of socialist patriarch Karpoori Thakur, a mentor to both Lalu and Nitish.
The fifth phase is all set to witness a distressing feature for Nitish. Like in the third and fourth phases, the fifth round, too, is likely to see the “marginalisation” of the JD(U) and its leader Nitish — the man credited for the turnaround in Bihar’s fortune and lauded by the likes of the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, for bringing Bihar out of 15 years of Lalu-Rabri’s “misrule”.
It has turned out to be a contest between “Narendra Modi lao and Narendra Modi bhagao (Bring Narendra Modi and drive Narendra Modi out)” forces.
Nitish is on the side of “Modi bhagao” campaign. But to his chagrin, the 16.5 per cent Muslims have by and large found that the beleaguered chief minister does not have “adequate” votebank in his kitty, as Lalu has in the 15 per cent Yadavs. It is more a matter of strategy than a matter of choice that apparently has goaded the Muslims to side strongly with Lalu-led RJD-Congress alliance.
The only solace for Nitish is he is getting praise and words in glowing terms even from the sections voting against him.
“He (Nitish) has done good work. All the good roads you see around, power supply for almost 22 hours a day, bee-hive of schools and health centres are Nitish’s gift. We will vote for him in the Assembly elections. Right now, we have to defeat Ram Vilas Paswan for he has ditched Lalu, joining Narendra Modi’s bandwagon,” said Prakash Yadav at Raja Pakar, a part of Hajipur Lok Sabha constituency.