The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Minister performs, man hides

New Delhi, July 6: When everybody is on his side, Laloo Prasad Yadav loses himself. He hid himself from his debut railway budget today, imbibed a bit of the persona of his “leader”, Manmohan Singh, and read out one of the lengthiest railway budget speeches that not once lapsed into comic relief.

The railway ministry might yet take the mickey out of the man. Laloo Prasad was a tease, holding the House to ransom with anticipation of hilarity when there was little.

Through the nearly two-hour speech Laloo Prasad read out from noon today, Prime Minister Singh sat in his corner, listening intently with the headphones; Pranab Mukherjee, seated next to him, had the headphones on, too, and occasionally did his paperwork; Sonia Gandhi did not need the headphones, Shivraj Patil did.

Immediately after the speech, Singh walked up to Laloo Prasad and congratulated him quietly, smiling in appreciation and almost abashed that he was being watched. Laloo Prasad acknowledged graciously.

In that handshake of a few seconds, the Prime Minister conveyed an approval that Laloo Prasad will treasure because it came from a man so unlike him, a man who is a veteran with Union budgets that set trends without drawing attention to his persona.

Laloo Prasad hid himself from his debut railway budget today. He was more Manmohan than the man about whom it is said that his first promise after becoming chief minister of Bihar was to make the state’s roads as “smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks”.

When Laloo Prasad took the microphone in the Lok Sabha at noon, there was Jaya Prada in a row of seats across the floor in front of him, and anticipation of a regaling performance. But they were all with him, eager to applaud and to support, none to challenge and none to inspire earthy wit and provoke parliamentary abuse.

Laloo Prasad had decided not to be himself. He was so serious he might have been severe. For an hour and 50 minutes, through the two parts of the speech, he did not let the monologue lapse into comic relief. If he digressed from the written text, it was mostly to pay obeisance to Sonia.

The Opposition was absent and the few friendly interruptions drew little by way of repartee. Half-an-hour into his speech, there were still more than 300 members in their seats and the budget was turning into a long list of giveaways — more trains, more stations and a more bucolic feel to the railways that will be evident in not only the earthen cups but also in the promise of “Village-on-Wheels”, trains that will give the ordinary Indians cheap “Bharat Darshan”.

He gave early notice of his seriousness. The haircut has taken the flicks way above the forehead, the gold-rimmed glasses added to the serious mien, the light green long kurta and pyjamas matched the mood. It takes a challenge to draw the best out of Laloo Prasad when he is speaking in public.

He began humbly, pointing out that the government has been in power for just about a month and he has had limited time to make sense of the intricacies of running the railway. Just before he took the microphone, MPs were displaying a newspaper that had carried a photograph of George Fernandes in the company of a scam-accused. Laloo Prasad was not distracted. He just asked Ram Vilas Paswan, seated immediately to his right, to give him his spectacles before he started reading the prepared text.

Half-an-hour into his speech, he had the House in a mild titter when he remarked that Maneka Gandhi may wonder if the kulhars he had introduced were environment-friendly but the Opposition should learn from Sonia and “bow to her” instead of boycotting the House. Laloo Prasad was speaking to a House that wanted to cheer him on but could not draw him out. They were all on his side.

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