Former Chief Minister of Bihar Rabri Devi stands alone in a balcony, a shawl wrapped around her. What she can see on the other side of the street, if she wishes to, is the official residence of the Chief Minister that she and her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav had to vacate after living there for 15 years.
The house she occupies now as a mere member of the Legislative Council is smaller but still a sprawling home. A feast is underway on the lawns, and Lalu, who too was once Chief Minister of Bihar, is busy receiving people, and supervising a team of cooks.
Every year in January, on Makar Sankranti, he keeps his gates open to just about anyone who wants to walk in. He feeds and attends to them. The feast is somewhat subdued compared to the pomp of such gatherings when the couple used to run the state.
A few streets away, across a park that has a lake and installations by prominent artists, a result of the current government’s beautification drive, there is a flurry of activity—the din of cars carrying important people, hordes of cops talking into their walkie-talkies. Current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is about to finish a meal at a politician’s house.
In Rabri’s house, Lalu is seated in the winter sun holding a yellow rose.“It is Lord Vishnu’s colour. You people are city bred. You don’t know anything about such things,” he tells me and my photographer colleague. He hands the rose to a child whose father had brought him to the leader. “I once asked Murli Manohar Joshi if Marua (raagi) is a jhar (bush) or gaach (tree), and he had no answer,” he says.
The child is made to touch Lalu’s feet.
“Bhar saal gor lagte rehte hai. Namaste kaafi hai (All year round they touch my feet. A namaste is enough),” he says. “Today is Happy New Year for Hindus. A lot of people are bringing curd, and fruits, and sweets for the feast.”
Lalu Prasad’s party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, lost power in Patna in 2005. In that year’s Assembly polls, he was pitched in battle against Nitish Kumar, who had promised the people of Bihar he would end Lalu’s ‘goonda raj’. Rabri was CM, but it was he who held power, and voters were tired of scams, abductions, murders and an incompetent and corrupt police force that seemed to exist only to serve its political masters. And almost every aspect of Bihar’s life was touched by caste politics. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United won in 2005, in alliance with the BJP, and then again in 2010, crushing Lalu’s hopes of a comeback.
So here Lalu is now, sitting in his cane chair, chewing betel leaves, and dismissing the current government’s report card on its own achievements. “People are angry. I have to set things right,” he says. He goes for a quick survey of the open air kitchen where a few men are peeling and chopping vegetables. There is a makeshift tent where tables and chairs have been laid out for guests. Around 200 have already arrived. Lalu tells some men how to mix the tilkut (a sesame sweet) with chura (beaten rice).
He gets back to his chair, and asks a man to get him a kurta. The staffer helps the leader wear it, hands him a comb, and brings him a blue sweater.
“Where is the yellow one?” Lalu asks.
A yellow Monte Carlo sweater soon appears. He combs his hair, wears the yellow sweater, and then a gold pendant with an image of Goddess Durga. “A saint gave it to me. He put his hands out and closed his eyes, and suddenly there was this chain. He gave it to me. I am a religious man. I do a lot of puja.”
Guests are still arriving, but Rabri is nowhere in sight. She will come, her husband says.
“Get my new shoes and socks,” he yells.
The help assists him with the shoes and socks.
Lalu has been trying to make a phone call to Sister Lucina, principal of St Joseph’s Convent High School where two of his daughters studied.
“Someone call her,” he says.
Someone finally gets through to the principal’s office. He waits for her voice at the other end.
In 1993, Lalu took a pro-English stand and wanted it re-introduced in schools at a time when there was a political movement across India’s cowbelt to banish this ‘elitist language’ and re-assert the region’s vernacular linguistic identity. Despite his bold support of English, he has always tried to play the semi-literate clown, a man who would speak ‘funny English’ as a way to emphasise his rural and unprivileged background. Yet, the truth is that Lalu was educated in Patna, and has a degree in law.
“Madam, today is Makar Sankranti. You should come. There is lunch. Food, you know. Lot of food,” he shouts into the phone, inviting the school principal.
Sister Lucina declines.
He moves on.
“Where are your mamma and daddy?” he asks me.
“At home,” I say. They live in Patna.
“Call them. Tell them I have invited them. Actually, give the phone to me,” he says.
He calls my mother. “This is Lalu Prasad Yadav. You are invited to lunch at my house. It is near Anne Marg,” he says and goes on to offer my confused mother directions to the venue.
All this while, his wife Rabri is missing.
“She will come later. After she has done her puja inside,” Lalu says.
The former CM’s eldest son Tej Pratap Yadav is sitting in a little storehouse. On the walls, there are newspaper clippings of his political debut. He had flunked his BA examinations in BN College. He now owns a motorcycle agency in the Naxal belt of Aurangabad, Bihar. The agency is called Lara, derived from the first syllables of his parents’ names.
Tej Pratap is surrounded by his coterie of young men. He is learning the ropes of politics, everyone says. But unlike his father, who has always celebrated the image of an urban buffoon, he is more sophisticated because he wants to be. He moves with grace, talks little, and keeps his hair styled and gelled. At some point during the feast, he leaves home in his BMW. And returns soon.
Tejaswi, the other son who is a professional cricketer, has been hailed as a ‘prince’ in party posters. Lalu tells me that all his children have careers in politics ahead of them. “In time, they will all join,” he says. For now, he is working towards undoing the damage of his reign, his patronage of unpopular figures like Subhash Yadav and Sadhu Yadav, the brothers of his wife Rabri Devi. They were eventually sidelined, but by then, Lalu’s downfall had begun.
Now, he has done away with these ‘unwanted’ members, and takes care to keep Rabri Devi out of the reach of journalists except when the couple performs Chhath Puja at their residence and their photographs are splashed in newspapers. When he had installed Rabri in his place by making her his successor, many had seen it as a form of dynastic politics that Lalu had fought against all his life. Rabri was sworn in as CM not once but twice, a result of Lalu’s legal tangles.
He has been accused in numerous cases, chiefly of corruption, the most infamous being the 90s’ Fodder Scam in which Rs 950 crore went missing from the state’s animal husbandry department. He was held in judicial custody on a few occasions and spent this time in state guest houses and prisons while Rabri ruled Bihar.
Two days earlier, cars and SUVs roll out of the gates of Rabri Devi’s home. The security men jolt out of their lounging positions in tents that line the front of the house, do a quick salute, and return to whatever they were doing.
Lalu is on his way to his cowshed in Danapur to attend to his cows. He has many. The couple still sells milk, and most evenings when he is in Patna, Lalu goes to that cowshed and spends an hour there.
When he returns home, he settles down in a chair by a fire, and speaks about new developments in the state and in his life. “I don’t talk to Rabri much,” he says. “I just don’t have that kind of time. There’s a lot of work. Bihar ki ruthi janata ko manana hai (We have to mollify an upset populace).”
He is hopeful that people will give him another chance in power. After all, Nitish is serving his second term, and public memory is short. But he is worried about the media. “I used to call up journalists and shout at them for inaccurate reporting,” he says. “The sister of a prominent editor, she had her TV show, and she used to get people to a studio in Haryana, dress them up as mafia men, put guns in their hands, place flower pots behind them, and shoot that to make it seem as if there was no rule of law in Bihar. Such shameful journalism,” he says. “One other journalist, and I think he was of the foreign press, wrote that I was high on marijuana. I don’t know what he smelt. And what he wrote. So, I have to be careful now. Nitish has bought over the media. They write nice things about him.”
Back to the feast. At some point, Rabri arrives dressed in a white sari. She stands with Lalu, or behind him, for photographers. She then disappears into the house. It was a brief appearance that lasted not more than ten minutes. By early evening, most of the guests have finished eating, but they linger. Lalu has personally served meals to scores of people, including me. When he is sure that all his guests have eaten, he sits down in the sun for his own meal.
He eats with his hands, and with obvious relish, as an attendant fans him. “HE IS A dabbang neta (irrepressible politician),” says Anwar Ahmed, former MLC of Patna, of Lalu, “He says what he wants. He didn’t let Praveen Togadia step into Patna. That’s what gives Muslims a sense of security.”
In 1992, as Hindu-Muslim riots broke out across the country after the Babri Masjid demolition, Lalu had enforced a strict curfew in Bihar. He rode pillion on the motorbikes of police officials and politicians, taking rounds of violence-prone areas to ensure that peace was maintained, and even sat in PCR vans taking calls from frightened Muslim families. “A message went out to the Muslim community,” says Ahmed, “He was the big brother watching out for us.”
Lalu’s M-Y (Muslim and Yadav) voter base was a strong electoral combination at the time.
“Lalu had the guts,” says Ahmed, “We talk about development. Where is it? There are more and more liquor shops because that’s one way to make illegal money. Schemes for minorities don’t work. Nothing works. Bureaucrats run the show. Nitish’s gates are always closed. He has become unavailable to the public. Lalu’s gates are always open.” Lalu is trying hard to win over estranged voters. A few months ago, after 18 people died of spurious liquor, he gave their families Rs 50,000 each from party funds. “A man drinks to escape the drudgery of life,” Lalu says.
Lalu and Rabri began their marital life in a small one-room tenement in Patna. Mukund Rai, Lalu’s eldest brother, points to a padlock. “It has always been locked. It is a reminder of Lalu’s humble beginnings,” he says. In reality, Lalu’s beginnings were humbler. He was born in 1948 in Phulwaria, 165 km from Patna, He had six brothers and a sister. They lived in a mud hut. Their father Kundan Rai was a farmer, and on most days, the family did not have enough to eat.
“It has all changed now. Now, they have all built pukka huts, but in those days, things were different. We were the oppressed lot,” says Mukund Rai, a wrinkled old man who is hard of hearing and speaks slowly, straining his memory for words to use. “We were very poor then. We were not allowed to study. That was a luxury of the ‘babu-bhaiya log’ (elite).”
Rai lives on the campus of Bihar Veterinary College. He claims he had served as a peon here for 40 years, and that he lives in the quarters allotted to a friend. He says he has a house in a better part of Patna, but prefers to live here.
“We were born in different times. Upper-castes used to say, ‘What will you do after studying?’ They would tell us to rear cattle. There used to be a government school, but we were bonded labourers, and we lived in fear of upper-castes,” he says, as people gather to listen to the tale of the origins of Lalu’s contempt for upper-castes. “In those days, it was not prajatantra (democracy). Those were the days of Rajas. They abused us, punished us for forgetting our place [in society]. They even ran a jail for us and our cattle. It was called Kanji house, and we would have to pay them, or work for them to get our cattle out of that jail.”
Lalu had a rebellious streak. He just wouldn’t conform to traditional notions of caste and barriers of identity, according to his brother. “He was bright,” he says, “Too bright to have stayed there long. We have seen our mother cry because she could not give us enough food.”
In 1954, Mukund Rai brought Lalu to Patna, enrolled him in a school, and later in Patna University. Rai started working in the veterinary college, and they lived in the cramped quarters. After schooling, Lalu started doing odd jobs to fund his education. Those were the heady days of Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement, and Lalu found himself swayed by it. He and his friends would talk for hours about socialism, and Marxism, and all the ills of a capitalist society.
“He was a fighter,” says Rai, “But I used to ask him who he would fight. The battles you pick are useless when the system is against you. But he wouldn’t listen.”
“Lalu always got first class. He married Rabri Devi in 1973. She was a young girl then, fair and healthy. We had selected her for him. Of all her sisters, she looked the best. I went on to live in another place. Lalu was working at the college then and he had those quarters. It was there that Misa (Lalu’s first child) was born.”
Rai says Rabri was shy and docile, but then power changed her. “I visit them sometimes, but I can’t stay there,” he says, “It is her house. Her wayward brothers were responsible for the damage done to Lalu. But we don’t say anything. She was always in favour of her brothers,” he says. “Now, she has severed connections, but what has been done can’t be undone.”
Another winter day in Delhi, at Lalu’s official residence as an MP, he is, once again, sitting in the sun. I ask to meet Rabri. “Come later,” he says.