She is a mother, cook, model wife, successful “milkmaid” and the chief minister of the country’s most quixotic state. But Rabri Devi has just added another feather to her crown. If a testimony in court is anything to go by, she is even educated. Derided for long for studying up to class IV and branded “illiterate” by the upper-caste intelligentsia, the revelation that she is a matriculate comes as a happy news for her. For, her childhood memories are hoary and full of “missing links like a jigsaw puzzle.”
As if to celebrate her new-found literate status, she has launched an ambitious adult literacy mission in the most backward districts of the state. It will primarily target women who, like her, spent most of their adolescent years preparing for “happy domesticity”.
The story of Rabri Devi’s progress from standard IV to the secondary level is almost magical. Seventy-two-year-old Prasadi Chowdhary, recently summoned by the Patna high court to depose in a disproportionate assets case against the first couple, regaled the court with anecdotes of the chief minister’s struggle with “difficult words and simple maths” while she was studying in a school in Phulwari, her native village in Bihar’s Gopalganj district. It was the old man who finally dropped the bombshell. He told the court that Rabri Devi had studied up to matriculation level.
Father knows best
Though the statement caused a flutter in Bihar’s political circles, the opposition could not make an issue of it. After all, Chowdhary could not be accused of telling lies. The childless widower had adopted Rabri Devi when she was five years old. Who else would know her educational background better than her foster father'
Besides, Chowdhary’s memory turned out to be quite accurate. He even remembered the exact date of Rabri Devi’s marriage to Laloo Prasad Yadav in 1973 and the year she visited her sasural in 1974 — with 40 tollah of gold, a cow, a calf and 5.3 bigha of land that he had given her in marriage.
The revelation about her educational qualification may not help Rabri Devi politically at this juncture, but it will definitely boost her image in the “fine print market”.
Literacy is Rabri Devi’s latest obsession. Both she and her husband, Laloo Prasad Yadav, have suddenly woken up to the need of educating Bihar. Recently, the couple was seen listening with rapt attention to an American professor’s lecture on Paulo Fraerie’s mission of educating the blacks in Brazil.
To the people
The lecture session ended with the distribution of awards to poor and backward women who took part in a literacy camp conducted by a non-governmental organization. The chief minister’s eldest son in-law, Sailesh Kumar, later prepared a project report on the entire exercise. Sailesh Kumar is being seen as party insiders as the motivating force behind his mother in-law’s literacy campaign.
But the opposition is still sneering, accusing Rabri Devi of being under the shadow of her husband. In media briefings, Laloo Yadav still prompts her lines. Many opposition leaders describe in spicy detail how long she takes to sign a government paper. They are unlikely to take kindly to Chowdhary’s attempt at sprucing up Rabri Devi’s image.
The chief minister’s bio-data, distributed among dignitaries during her swearing-in in 1996, had merely put “educated” in the slot for “educational qualification”. The opposition cited her “poor articulation” and stoic silence in the assembly as signs of ignorance. Laloo Yadav had tried his best to defend his wife, saying that the best political brains in the country drew upon native intelligence and were not groomed in posh public schools.
So, when Rabri Devi begins touring the “illiterate” districts of Bihar like Kishanganj, she might dispel the doubts cast over her education. Kishanganj, where female literacy is below 15 per cent, would certainly be the best place to start her campaign from.