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India's man for all seasons
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the US recently doing the rounds of the United Nations General Assembly, meeting with President George W Bush and handling the high-profile one-to-one exchange with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

Foreign visits of Indian dignitaries are not popularity contests, but it is no surprise to most here that the Indian leader most sought after internationally to make a high-profile visit does not relate to foreign affairs or business. It does not happen to be Manmohan, not even Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, former prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, President Abdul Kalam Azad, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, or even India's most popular actor Amitabh Bachchan, biggest cricketer Sachin Tendulkar or most beautiful diva Aishwaria Rai.

The person most in demand is Lalu (the word literally translates as "fool") Prasad Yadav, the railway minister, technically reporting to Manmohan but owing his allegiance to "friend" Sonia Gandhi and the electorate of poverty-stricken lower-caste and Muslim supporters in the state of Bihar, which he has ruled for more than 14 years. For the past seven years, though, he has ruled by proxy through his wife Rabri (named after a popular sweet dish of northern India) Devi, who is chief minister of Bihar.

The Indian government has been inundated with requests from embassies and high commissions asking for Lalu's bio-data, as well as the possibility of a visit, ever since he became a minister in the central government this year. An official is quoted as saying, "More than 100 missions have sought his curriculum vitae and asked questions about him. They say he is worth studying. Such interest is unheard of for any other minister." Incidentally, Lalu Prasad is the subject of a study by sociologists at Harvard University in the United States.

The man himself is quite unfazed by such international attention. Speaking to Asia Times Online, Lalu said, "People all over the world want to know how the son of a cowherd has risen to such heights. Their interest in me is a victory of Indian democracy."

Since taking over as minister, Lalu has made one international visit to neighbor Pakistan as part of a delegation of other political leaders, who returned rather unhappy as all the attention was focused on Lalu, including a much-displayed hug by Musharraf, who counts on such gestures, including the more famous handshake with Vajpayee, to make peace with India.

"Musharraf is a good man and wants to improve relations with India," said Lalu. "I fully support the peace process."

Indeed, it is a paradox of Indian politics that Lalu has continued to hold sway over Bihar for as long as he has given that the state continues to languish in lawlessness, poverty and an absolute feudal culture. Other chief ministers, such as Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh) and S M Krishna (Karnataka) known for their fine development record, have been voted out of power by those who perceive themselves to be left out of the fruits of economic progress.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under former premier Vajpayee tried its best to dislodge Lalu, but failed as his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, continues to win elections, whether for seats to parliament or to the local assembly, riding on the powerful lower-caste and Muslim votes. Indeed, the BJP is out, but Lalu has endured and has taken on the mantle of union cabinet minister.

Even his detractors within the current dispensation are unable to shake the immense faith that Sonia Gandhi, the real power behind the scenes, has reposed on him because of his unstinted loyalty when she was out of the power reckoning. Lalu has the tendency to club his wife Rabri and Sonia together as two ladies who know more about Indian politics than anybody else because of their proximity with their husbands (Sonia is the widow of the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi).

"It is because of me that today the union government has sanctioned special funds for the development of Bihar. I have survived in Indian politics for so long as the people of Bihar do not want the communal politics pursued by the BJP. People may say that there is lawlessness in Bihar, but there have never been any communal riots in the state, when I or Rabriji [Rabri Devi] were chief minister, as the administration is very strong," said Lalu.

Indeed, in an age of reality bytes and mass television, Lalu is known for his earthy humor and quick repartee, but there are several others like him who have not managed to survive the hurly-burly of Indian politics. If Lalu still rules it is because he has managed to turn every political adversity into an opportunity, with an astute understanding of how the minds of his constituency, in essence the poor and backward, in Bihar tick. This may sound simplistic, but Lalu is a master at it.

He is the father of nine children, but when queried about family planning, says that his large family is a protest against the emergency that was imposed in the country in the late 1970s when Indira Gandhi (India's former prime minister) forced sterilization to control the country's population. His eldest daughter is named Misa, after a draconian law that provided the police a free rein in the late 1970s.

Faced with a corruption scandal in 1997 when he was the chief minister of Bihar, he appointed his wife Rabri Devi, who had spent most of her time in the kitchen and doing household work, as chief minister. When queried about issues relating to competence, he said Rabri had managed a house and nine children with considerable skill, and questioning her political competence would be an insult to every housewife in the country. It is common knowledge, though, that it is Lalu's writ that runs large, which obviously Rabri does not mind. Rabri recently said she is still happiest when she is cooking for her family.

This year Bihar was ravaged by floods, because of which thousands were left homeless and hundreds died. Lalu declared that the floods were a boon by the gods as expensive fish that was available only for the rich to eat were now able to swim freely to be caught and eaten by the poor.

Stung by being left behind in the information-technology boom that is sweeping most of India, Lalu said that computers were anti-poor, although his eldest son-in-law worked for India's software giant Infosys.

The anecdotes go on, and Lalu said, "I know some people say I can be funny. But there is always a deeper meaning to what I say. I am a socialist at heart and have the interests of the poor in mind. When people see how I manage to work my way out of tough situations, it gives them hope in their own life."

Indeed, when Harvard University studies Lalu it will be apparent that the existence of such politicians is to do with the nature of Indian polity, where often ideology rather than governance works; symbolism and not development can be the key to political survival; visions of hope rather than substance cut ice; caste and religion rather than performance are the criteria of an electoral base.

It has been such in the past - Indira Gandhi commanded a larger-than-life pro-poor image that nobody could puncture; the BJP rode to power on the strength of the destruction of the Babri Mosque, which became the symbol of past atrocities when Muslims ruled the country, and is currently at its wit's end to find another such passionate subject to coalesce the Hindu vote base.

Lalu is the living symbol of a political leader who represents the poor who live with no hope of making it among the richer, more affluent sections of Indian society who have benefited from economic reforms. Poking fun at the classes always goes down well with the masses. It is said that Lalu has survived because there is all-around squalor in Bihar, unlike in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, where pockets of growth have been a cause for envy. This is the paradox of Indian politics.

Meanwhile, Railway Minister Lalu is doing what he does best. He has ordered earthen cups to be used while serving tea on trains; curd preparations are mandatory in meals; he has announced a massive employment drive, though most reports point to overstaffing of India's cash-strapped rail systems with a poor safety record; he wants to remove a ban on the rail transport of cows to keep his Muslim constituency happy; he is studying papers related to the Gujarat communal riots to get at the BJP. In short, Lalu is again playing to the galleries. There is merit in some of his schemes as they benefit small-scale industry, as well as the poor. But in his quest to please and his populism, he has probably become a bit carried away. Such is the nature of Indian politics, which definitely merits further study for all to know more.

"It is not right that I am looking at the railways to benefit only a particular constituency. Today in India there are all sections of people, as the BJP realized when the poor voted them out. While looking at the needs of the poor, I cannot ignore that a large portion of travelers are affluent and want quality service. I am perhaps the only railway minister who has not increased fares of air-conditioned travel in the budget. I am here to look after the needs of every Indian," said Lalu.

In the meantime, countries that have expressed an interest in finding out more about Lalu Prasad include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Libya. Requests for his bio-data usually come with questions about how Lalu has managed to dominate Bihar's political scenario for nearly two decades. It's an enigma as well as an irony.

Lalu's parting answer to a final query: "I do not rule out the possibility of being prime minister of India one day, but there is still time."

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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Sep 29, 2004

Manmohan and Musharraf make nice (Sep 28, '04)


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