Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav wave at supporters in Motihari on Wednesday. Picture by Ajit Kumar Verma
Motihari, Aug. 9: An unspoken question reverberated silently across Motihari, around 155km north of Patna, where Tejashwi Prasad Yadav kicked off his Janadesh Apmaan Yatra, and Bihar's political circles today: Does he have it in him to be the torchbearer of father Lalu Prasad's legacy?
Legacy can be a tricky cross to bear. It can be a launch pad to stratospheric heights, or it can weigh down and sink a person. Especially when the said legacy is of Lalu Prasad - the Houdini of Indian politics who has time and again emerged magically unscathed when it seemed like there was no way he could escape from the depths.
"Today is a very special day," Tejashwi said at the foot of the Gandhi statue in Motihari - the same place where chief minister Nitish Kumar had concluded his 7km walk from Chandrahiya village on April 16 this year to commemorate the centenary year of the Champaran Satayagraha - as he began his state-wide campaign to drum up support against what his party has dubbed Nitish's "insult of the people's mandate", the partner switch from the Grand Alliance to the NDA.
"You must remember that three months back I had come here along with Nitish Kumar ji, and today I have come here to apologise to Bapu... that I made a mistake by being with Nitish Kumar; I did not see his real face. I want to apologise to Bapu that I never knew that the man with whom I stood by side will shake hand with those who have killed you (Gandhi)," Tejashwi said.
The supporters erupted in applause.
"Nitish ji has ditched the mandate of people. For me power does not matter, what matters is values; and Nitishji has murdered values," Tejashwi said.
He did connect, especially with the younger generation, but it was his father's magic that many found missing
"The very appearance of Lalu ji would send crowds into a tizzy," remarked Motihari resident Dhananjay Yadav, who said he has seen the RJD patriarch in public meetings since the early '90s. "His speeches had rustic charm and were full of wit. His connect with the masses was instant. The magic was so pronounced that even after he left, people would be discussing what Lalu said and how he said it.
"Tejashwi is urban and often speaks more like a Delhi wala than a dehati (hick). But he is clear in making his points," Dhananjay added.
The party did try to recreate the magic, and RJD leader from Motihari Binod Shrivastava ensured all stops were pulled out.
Elephants, horses, chariots, a phalanx of party leaders, a musical band playing Bhojpuri versions of Bollywood numbers, and slogan-shouting RJD youth wing workers on more than 100 motorcycles were all deployed to build a crescendo for the launch of the yatra. But then, even the best supporting musicians do not a Kishore Kumar make.
RJD state unit president Ram Chandra Purbey and MLA Mundrika Singh Yadav were among the first leaders to reach the Gandhi statue at the Maidan. They saw the statue dirty, and ordered it be cleaned immediately.
Tejashwi and his elder brother Tej Pratap reached Gandhi Maidan at 10.45am on foot from the circuit house around 500m away as RJD supporters roared "Tej-Tejashwi zindabad". Some of the bikers even fell down, unable to control their excitement.
Most people in the crowd were part of the support base that Lalu stitched together to emerge as a national leader to be reckoned with - the MY, or Muslim-Yadav, combination. It was evident that the party has fallen back on its core support base as it readies for a battle of survival for its first family.
The brothers first paid floral tributes to the Gandhi statue. Then Tej Pratap made a video call to Lalu and Rabri in Patna, and showed the parents what the ambience was like. Both brothers sat under the statue, as artists sang the Mahatma's favourite bhajans - Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram and Vaishnava Jana Toh. All the RJD leaders observed five minutes of silence as a mark of respect to the Father of the Nation.
Then the baton - the microphone - was handed over to Tejashwi.
Songs in support of Lalu and Rabri were continuously being played inside and outside Gandhi Maidan. And the RJD leaders lent full-throated support to their young leader.
"The country is changing; the youth are coming forward. Tejashwi is one of them, he is an emerging leader," said Rahul Yadav, husband of Lalu's third daughter Ragini Yadav. "I have come here to stand with him."
Mohammad Mehtab Alam, RJD youth leader from Siwan, said: "Tejashwi Yadav has made his own mark and identity. The youth are looking at him as their inspiration. The RJD has accepted him as leader."
Slightly more neutral observers, however, could not but raise the question of comparison with his father. "Something was missing," even core supporters admitted in private.
"It is unfair to compare the two," said a senior RJD leader under cover of anonymity. "Lalu ji came at a time when politics was Mandal-ised and the BJP was striving to grow through the Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra (of L.K. Advani). The entire backward castes and minorities were galvanised behind Laluji and his rustic charm. Tejashwi has inherited just a faded legacy of Lalu ji when the downtrodden castes are split. Lalu started with a clean slate. Tejashwi already has charges against him."
People who saw and heard Tejashwi today were impressed, but not bowled over.
"I have seen his father speaking in public rallies and many other functions. There is hardly any difference," said Kanishwar Kumar Keshri, a resident of Kesaria in East Champaran. "The only difference I find is that Lalu ji is a rustic leader whereas Tejashwi is soft in his language. Abhi kuch aur samay lagega inko apne pita jaisa banne mein par ye lamba race ka ghoda lagta hai (He will take some time to be like his father, but he seems a horse built for the long run)."