THEY WOULD RATHER have been “first in a village than second at Rome”, as Julius Caesar said while crossing the Alps. Yet, swinging between state and national politics, aspiring to be kings or kingmakers and playing backstage jigs to stitch up alliances— Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Pawar are regional patriarchs who have reshaped India’s political roadmap. They flexed their muscle till their bargaining power waned, when the numbers game relegated them to the sidelines. But they had learnt the art of survival in the rough and tumble of politics.
Some common threads ran through them—they all came from humble backgrounds, were active in student politics, fought the Congress and also aligned with it and have ruled the politically heftiest states in the country. Having put their nose to the grindstone to capture their political space in a cutthroat world, these septuagenarians are passing on the legacy, indicating that 2019 may be their last major act in the political theatre. And yet, they may never retire from politics, fighting to protect their turf till their last breath.
While the emergence of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav on the political arena was rooted in anti-Congress sentiment, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar began his journey in the Congress and split from it, protesting against the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi being projected as a prime ministerial candidate.
There was a time when Lalu Prasad Yadav’s life revolved only around his college, his village and his elder brother’s house near Patna’s airport. A call by the Bihar student leaders to gherao the state Assembly on March 18th, 1974, at a time when Congress ruled the state and country, changed Yadav’s life and Bihar’s politics. As a law student in Patna University, Lalu, a member of the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha (SYS) stood for president in the student elections with ABVP’s Sushil Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad, who were on the same panel as general secretary and assistant general secretary, respectively. They won, given the caste equations that dominates the state’s politics. The Congress and Communist Party of India (CPI) supporters voted for Lalu, a Yadav. That was the first political recognition Lalu received.
“In 1973-74, if someone saw Lalu, that person would not have thought much of him. But he always had a sharp political sense,” recalls veteran journalist Ram Bahadur Rai, who was organising secretary of the ABVP during the 1974 Bihar movement. When Rai met Lalu to invite him for a student leaders’ conference in Delhi when Finance MinisterArun Jaitley was Delhi University Students’ Union president, Lalu asked Rai why he needed to go. When Rai told him he would get an all-India platform as a student leader and political recognition, Lalu was all set to leave for the national capital with his sherwani and pyjamas.
People laughed at him but he said what came to his mind. It was this uninhibited rustic, blunt and witty style, with a touch of the comic, that later endeared him to the masses. Often a camouflage for his shrewdness, he would also use it to get back at people. Those who have witnessed his interactions with people in his house recall that it was like a durbar where he would sit in his dhoti and vest, facing the entrance with rows of chairs on both sides. He would have a spittoon placed next to him and if he wanted to embarrass someone, he would make that person sit next to it.
Amidst a growing disillusionment with Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the 70s, the Patna University Students’ Union organised a convention inviting student leaders from across Bihar for an anti- Government agitation. Lalu was part of a panel of around 10 student leaders to spearhead it. The plan was that these leaders will hold meetings across the state and appeal to the youth to join the March 18th agitation. He managed to make an impact in north Bihar and played a major role in mobilising students. “At that time he knew very little of Bihar’s geography. But he learnt then how to address people from a dais and what they wanted to hear. He got training in public speaking and politics. It was also a time he learnt political daav paich (manoeuvring),” says Rai. The rivals of Chief Minister Abdul Gafoor from within Congress, who were aspiring for the post, reportedly used Lalu’s shoulders to dethrone him.
As in most major agitations, funds started pouring in. Lalu faced allegations of siphoning off some money, recalls Rai, who was part of the Steering Committee that spearheaded the JP Movement. Around two decades later, the fodder scam cast a shadow on Lalu’s political journey, but signs of his tendency towards financial impropriety had surfaced way back in the 70s. In the 80s, Gafoor, who was then a Union Minister, told Rai that whenever Lalu was accused of taking money, he would call him and, referring to him as “chacha (uncle)”, tell him that he was standing at a particular crossing and that he should get him arrested.
As part of the anti-Congress Janata Parivar, Lalu was elected for the first time to the Lok Sabha in 1977 as its youngest member at 29. A few months later, however, he left to fight the Assembly polls in Bihar, one of the states where a Congress regime was dismissed after the Morarji Desai Government came to power in Delhi. That was the beginning of his foray into state politics. But the breakthrough came after Karpoori Thakur, who was Opposition leader, passed away in 1988.
Some common factors link the three stalwarts—they were all active in student politics, fought the Congress and also aligned with it and have ruled the politically heftiest states in the country
Lalu diligently aimed for the position, and with Sharad Yadav’s backing, he was made leader of Opposition in the Assembly. In 1990, soon after the VP Singh Government’s coalition came to power in Delhi, Lalu became Bihar’s chief minister.
Lalu’s and SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s paths had already crossed in the anti-Congress coalitions in Delhi. VP Singh’s quota card, implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission to reserve government jobs for Other Backward Classes (OBC), infused a dose of elixir into the political fortunes of the two Yadav leaders, both of whom had socialist icons as their mentors. Mulayam’s relations with Lalu soured over the arrest of BJP veteran LK Advani in Bihar’s Samastipur during his rath yatra in 1990. VP Singh, the then prime minister, had apparently made a midnight call to Lalu, who was Bihar chief minister at the time, to have Advani arrested. Mulayam held it against Singh for preventing the BJP leader from entering Uttar Pradesh, thereby denying him credit for his arrest.
While Lalu was still dabbling in college politics in the early 70s, Mulayam was already in the lower chamber of the UP Assembly. However, both took the reins of their respective states as chief ministers around the same time during the VP Singh regime. In a way, the politics of the two backward leaders—shrewd and ambitious— ran parallel, dominating the two politically most influential states in the north. Both emerged as leaders in the resistance to the Emergency, both floated their own parties breaking away from the larger anti-Congress bandwagons, both switched between Parliament and Assembly and both aligned with the Congress at some point or the other. Lalu formed the RJD in 1997, five years after Mulayam founded the Samajwadi Party.
Just as Sharad Pawar's NCP was about to ally with the Congress to make on the BJP-Shiv Sena, Pawar tweeted that he will not contest as his daughter and another family member are in the fray
The elders in Saifai, Mulayam’s central UP village, which now has a transformed look with glass and concrete structures, stadia and colleges, recollect his days of pehlwani (wrestling). They say that whenever he came to Saifai after moving to Lucknow, one of the first things he would do was to meet the villagers in his lawn and chat with them.
In Delhi, the SP and RJD lent their numerical strength to coalitions at the Centre, nurturing national ambitions in the late 90s when anti-BJP coalitions came to power. Neither of the Yadavs figured in the list of prime ministerial candidates of the United Front regime. Both, however, got hefty portfolios in the Union Cabinet with Mulayam being made Defence Minister and Lalu Railways Minister. When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), with the outside support of 59 Left MPs came to power in 2004 after the defeat of the Vajpayee Government, the bargaining power of the SP and RJD had started diminishing. By the time the two parties withdrew support to Congress over the Women’s Reservation Bill in 2010, the two parties together (SP with 21 MPs and RJD with a tally of four) did not have the numerical strength to destabilise the Government. Their numbers further depleted in 2014 with the SP managing to retain only five seats in UP and the RJD four in Bihar. Somewhere along the line, the two politicians had drifted from being leaders of backward classes to just Yadav leaders.
In UP, Mulayam again became chief minister in 2003 for a third time, and after his party lost the 2007 Assembly elections, he was elected to the Lok Sabha for another term in 2009. In 2012, the SP won in the UP Assembly elections. Mulayam, by then 72, made way for his son to take charge of the state, but continued to be party supremo. In 2017, the BJP swept the state, defeating the SP- Congress alliance.
MEANWHILE, IN BIHAR, allegations of Lalu’s involvement in the fodder scam had cut short his reign as chief minister. He made his wife Rabri Devi the chief minister and continued to be party president, a position he holds till date. The RJD found a fresh lease of life when Nitish Kumar’s JDU joined hands with it and the alliance won the 2015 Assembly elections. Midway, however, Kumar parted ways with Lalu, after the CBI and Enforcement Directorate lodged corruption cases against him and his family, and aligned with the BJP. In jail and barred from contesting elections, Lalu has left several tough decisions to his heir, Tejashwi Yadav.
Both Mulayam and Lalu have handed over control of their respective parties to their heirs. It remains to be seen what line of politics their sons will decide to pursue in the future
Mulayam too faced allegations of amassing disproportionate assets during his term as chief minister between 1999 and 2005. Unlike Mulayam, who stood up in Lok Sabha and backed Narendra Modi as prime minister for a second term, Lalu has taken on the BJP, turning his arrest into a case of political vendetta. Lalu has been authorised by his party to select candidates for the Lok Sabha polls, while Mulayam, faced with a family feud and a faint semblance of himself, seems to be no longer calling the shots in the SP.
“Both Mulayam and Lalu have handed over their legacy to their children. In Bihar, Tejashwi has taken charge. In UP, Akhilesh has taken over. The heirs may pursue a new politics—going beyond caste and giving a development tone to it,” says social historian Badri Narayan. He does not foresee the possibility of bi-party politics in the country in the immediate future, saying for that the Congress needs to revive. “That looks difficult, though Priyanka Gandhi’s plunge into politics has raised some hopes.”
WHILE THE YADAVS held sway over the politics of the two major north Indian states, Sharad Govindrao Pawar emerged as a Maratha big gun in Maharashtra, the country’s second largest state. Almost the same age as Mulayam, Pawar also entered the state Assembly in 1967, representing his hometown Baramati. A Congressman, he had made Yashwantrao Chavan, the first chief minister of Maharashtra and a leader who represented radical humanism, his political guru. Pawar too shuttled between the state and Centre even as he moved in and out of the Congress. When in 1978, the Congress split into Congress (Indira) and Congress (Urs); Chavan and Pawar joined the latter. That year, he became chief minister for the first time, heading a coalition government. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, dismissing the Progressive Democratic Front, and winning in the state Assembly. Pawar won the Lok Sabha election in 1984. A year later, he returned to the state. He cited the need to save Congress culture as the reason for returning to its fold and became chief minister in 1988.
Unlike the Yadav leaders of the north, Pawar’s politics did not revolve around caste. “Whenever he became chief minister, he tried to pursue development of the state. He realised that farmers should shift from sugarcane farming to the agro industry,” says Mumbai- based political analyst Surendra Jondhale. He describes Pawar as a strange combination of pragmatism and unpredictability. He played a decisive role in renaming the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at the cost of his Maratha followers.
DMK has tied up with the Congress to take on the AIADMK and BJP in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi's son MK Stalin is now at the helm of the party while his daughter M Kanimozhi will contest Lok Sabha Elections
Another note of discord between Pawar and the Yadavs was his support for women’s reservation in Parliament and state Assemblies. A strong votary of women’s empowerment, he was the architect of Maharashtra’s policy for empowering women when he was chief minister in 1994. It gave women the right to inherit property.
In 1990, confronted with a BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, Pawar became chief minister with the support of 12 independent MLAs. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, he was believed to be one of the names being considered for prime minister. PV Narasimha Rao got the top job and Pawar was given the defence portfolio. But in 1993, he was sent back as chief minister, his fourth term.
Pawar faced his share of accusations of corruption as well. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Deputy Commissioner GR Khairnar, who made the allegations, however, failed to prove them. Six years later, after going back and forth between the state Assembly and Parliament and playing the role of Opposition leader in both, Pawar, along with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar, opposed any move to project Italian-born Sonia Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate. They formed the NCP. “The Party was launched over Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. Much water has flowed since then. NCP has lost its political relevance. It should have merged with Congress. Post-Pawar, if BJP remains in power, NCP may find it difficult to survive,” says Jondhale.
It is said that Pawar introduced the late Pramod Mahajan, a senior BJP leader, to the corporate captains in Mumbai. However, a shrewd politician, he did not stand by Mahajan when he needed his backing politically, according to sources in the BJP. At the same time, Pawar’s mass outreach helped him build the organisation. His terms of engagement with the Congress have been far from hostile, even aligning with it soon after the NCP was formed. In the 10 years when the Congress-led UPA was in power, the NCP, with nine MPs, was its constituent and Pawar was Union Agriculture Minister. Just as his party entered an understanding with the Congress to take on the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, he tweeted that he will not contest the polls as two members of his family, which includes his daughter Supriya Sule (who is a member of Parliament), are in the fray. He also pointed out that he has contested 14 times in the past. Badri Narayan agrees with Jondhale when he says that Pawar’s absence from the political scene in Maharashtra would leave a huge vacuum. “He was like a peepal tree,” he says.
Former Union Minister and NCP leader Praful Patel recalls that when the party was formed, several leaders who were in their forties were given a chance. “He had a tremendous connect with the people and yet kept himself updated with the contemporary. If he was speaking to my son, he would try to understand his way of thinking,” says Patel.
Further down south, this will be the first election for the DMK without its Kalaignar, M Karunanidhi, whose political journey had begun over six decades ago with an anti-Brahmin movement. After becoming chief minister at 44, he forged an alliance with Indira Gandhi for the 1971 General Election. With MGR, a friend- turned-foe, launching the AIADMK, the two Dravidian parties have since been locked in bitter political rivalry. Karunanidhi joined the Janata Parivar in the 1977 election. Tamil Nadu’s politics has witnessed a see-saw battle between the DMK and AIADMK (which too will be battling it out in the 2019 election campaign without its supremo, J Jayalaithaa). Both parties have aligned with the BJP and Congress. Karunanidhi’s succession was well-settled with son, MK Stalin, being no stranger to politics. His daughter, M Kanimozhi, a Rajya Sabha member, is planning to fight the election this time.
While the heirs of the regional dynasts may have inherited their legacy, earned through a long struggle and perseverance, it is to be seen whether they build on it through a progressive new brand of politics, or just fritter it away.