The Many Faces of Sharad Yadav

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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The constant turner of ideological shades finds he has nowhere left to go but down

THE WORD FISSIPAROUS is an adjective for ‘the inclination to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups’. It seems imprinted on the DNA of every politically ambitious socialist ever since Ram Manohar Lohia made a call for ‘sudhaaro ya todo’ (reform or break it), a trait that has resulted in a succession of splits within the ranks, especially when ideological differences have reached a critical level. Sharad Yadav has made that slogan his lodestone for success over a large part of his career in politics. He has honed it into an art, the practice of engineering divisions and balkanising what was once a broad Janata Parivar.

It suited Sharad Yadav’s self image: that of a strategist and leader, if not of men, then of ideas and plots. A grandee, a scriptwriter and compass who led the powerful in their politics and policies. “He saw himself as a much taller man than he seemed, intellectually and in every other way, and loathed being compared to others, especially the Yadav leaders, although he needed to hang on to their coat-tails to establish himself electorally,” says a leader who was close to Yadav in the late 80s and 90s. It was a time when socialist stalwarts the likes of Madhu Limaye, Madhu and Pramila Dandavate and Surendra Mohan were still around, but their strength had begun to atrophy in the emerging political scenario. Sharad Yadav was in that happy place where he could portray himself as the most prominent among the next level of leaders and thereby lay claim to power in a new ideological order. His contemporaries were busy shoring up their standing as mass leaders, rolling in the dirt and dust of politics.

When he received visitors in his huge hallroom bedecked with flowers, real and artificial, he would always be seated on a throne-like chair at the far end, with a foot stool in front of him. Derision was the key note with which he addressed the media, and he always had a couple of courtiers around for canned laughter when he met the press. No one was allowed into the room until Yadav had seated himself. The optics allowed him to impress upon onlookers his grandeur, even underscore his mind as being above that of the ‘riffraff’. “There was a palpable sense of insecurity in the man. Since he believed that his leadership abilities were being overlooked in Delhi compared to the forceful popular myths and narratives of the likes of Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh, he felt a desperate need to keep repeating stories of his own association with the JP movement, the Emergency and so on, even spicing up the tales a bit,” says Yadav’s former associate.

Yadav was the ‘Yaani’ man, ‘yaani’ being a Hindi word for ‘meaning’ which he would constantly use patronisingly to explain the nuances of his strategies to those he considered short of comprehension skills. Thus did he survive the splits and rise above them time after time, armed with a sharp eye for which faction was on the political ascent. From JP to Charan Singh to Karpoori Thakur to Devi Lal to VP Singh, Lalu Yadav to Nitish Kumar, the shrewd politician would switch benefactors at opportune moments in search of power.

What he lacked as a popular leader, Sharad Yadav made up for by indulging in aegis shopping. It made him seem far more relevant than he was.

Yadav was a student leader at Jabalpur University in the 70s when he became an opposition candidate for a by-election at a time when a movement against Indira Gandhi was gathering momentum. Chastened by his defeat in the 1971 General Election and wiser in the knowledge that opposition disunity would only work to sustain the era’s Congress hegemony, various socialist leaders joined hands against Gandhi. Yadav was one of the principal beneficiaries of this. In 1974, he was chosen by Jayaprakash Narayan as the first candidate to contest an election under the Haldar Kisan symbol. It was the peak of the JP movement and Yadav won Jabalpur’s Lok Sabha seat.

After that, the gold medallist engineer from Jabalpur Engineering College was on a roll. He earned praise for quitting his seat when the Lok Sabha was extended by a year through a trick played on the Constitution, only to regain the Jabalpur seat in the post-Emergency polls of 1977. That winning streak in politics and the attendant goodwill, though, ran out once Yadav became an active participant in the sordid developments that led to the fall of India’s first anti- Congress Government and the disintegration of the Janata Party. He was a natural at hatching conspiracies, and this worked well for him in the game of intrigue that was socialist politics.

Sharad Yadav has launched a loud assault on Nitish Kumar for returning to the very NDA he once urged him not to leave. This leaves Yadav with little option but to accept the generosity of Lalu who he dumped with such alacrity when he felt the need

What followed was a series of regroupings, with splinters emerging such as the Lok Dal (Charan Singh), Lok Dal (Karpoori), Lok Dal (Bahuguna) and so on. Despite the fact that Charan Singh had played a major role as his political mentor, Yadav chose to go with Karpoori Thakur. By 1982, Devi Lal had become a major force in Haryana. Though the Congress robbed a victory from him that year, he was seen as a surefire success, and so Yadav hitched his wagon to Devi Lal’s. In the next state elections, Devi Lal won 85 of Haryana’s 90 seats and Yadav latched on to Ranjit Singh, Devi’s Lal’s son, and soon began to play a bigger role in politics than Om Prakash Chautala by fashioning himself as his top advisor.

NATIONALLY, IN THE meantime, anti-Congressism was taking on the proportions of a religion. Devi Lal was flush with funds that bankrolled the socialists of both Bihar and UP. And Yadav’s ambition would compel him, almost obsessively, to project an image of himself larger than warranted by reality. He was not your standard-issue OBC politician of the Hindi belt.

It was soon clear that JP’s blessings and support were not enough to keep Yadav centre-stage for long. In a bid to find an identity that would serve as a political draw of the future, Yadav moved his electoral caravan closer to the political action in UP and Bihar. Despite opposition from Mulayam Singh Yadav to his entry to UP, he moved to Badaun in India’s most populous state, a constituency he won in 1989.

That was a watershed year. With Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress looking vulnerable, Yadav was determined to play a key role in government formation at the Centre. VP Singh had formed the Jan Morcha against corruption in 1987, a party that was to form the kernel of the Janata Dal. In the General Election of 1989, which was dominated by the Bofors scandal, Yadav was one of the main players to project VP Singh as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. Despite emerging as the single largest party, the Congress could not form a government, and VP Singh took power at the head of a coalition backed by the Left. Yadav was the textiles minister in this newly formed National Front Government, which had external support of the BJP. At the peak of its power, Yadav pressured the Prime Minister VP Singh to speedily implement the Mandal Commission report assuring OBCs reservations. Along with Ram Vilas Paswan, Yadav came to be known as the right and left hand of the Prime Minister, virtually piloting what would turn out to be the most potent political decision of the times. On August 7th, 1990, the Centre issued orders for its implementation, even as the BJP raised the heat on the Ram Mandir issue at Ayodhya. Caste politics came to the forefront of Indian politics and VP Singh came to be seen as an OBC champion.

But cracks within the NF Government began to show as the BJP went all out to counter the Mandal effect with its Mandir agenda. Sharad Yadav led a rebellion against Devi Lal. Along with Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar, he also worked against other top Jat leaders of the time, leaving Devi Lal to rue later, “Jis ke shareer pe kapda nahin thha, maine usko kapda mantri banaya thha.” (The one who had no cloth, I made him cloth minister)

Sharad Yadav survived several splits and rose above them, armed with a sharp eye for which political faction was on the ascent. From Charan Singh to Karpoori Thakur to Devi Lal to VP Singh, Lalu Yadav to Nitish Kumar, he would switch benefactors at opportune moments

Over time, he would fall out with VP Singh, too, and betray his trust. On October 23rd, 1990, Lalu Yadav, as Chief Minister of Bihar, arrested LK Advani and blocked his chariot from entering the state on its way to Ayodhya. The BJP withdrew support to the VP Singh Government. After its fall, Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar formed the SJP and got the support of the Congress for a new government under Chandra Shekhar.

Mass leader or not, Yadav had an uncanny ability to shift loyalty exactly as his ambitions required. Just as he’d bagged a role in Mandal politics, he now wanted one in an anti- Mandir front. For this, he saw a good bet in Lalu Yadav, who had emerged as the hero of all those opposed to the BJP and its Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, and decided to ‘mentor’ him. In the 1991 General Election during which Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, Yadav won the Madhepura constituency in east Bihar, though it was the Congress which assumed power, under PV Narasimha Rao.

Sharad Yadav’s association with Lalu Yadav carried on a while. By 1995, Lalu had decided that he would no longer be dwarfed by any other leader. By then, his brothers-in-law Sadhu and Subhash Yadav had begun to monopolise power and resources in Bihar. Nitish Kumar parted company with Lalu, but Sharad Yadav still needed the then Bihar Chief Minister’s goodwill to remain politically relevant. As Lalu Yadav drove out everyone who could remotely be considered a rival and made Bihar his personal property, Sharad Yadav crafted a plan to project himself among Yadavs as an intellectual option to Lalu’s buffoonery, although he had none of the latter’s charisma.

He stuck close to Lalu up till the point that the CBI formally charged him with corruption in the fodder scam and these charges began to sully his public image. In July 1997, Lalu broke off with the Janata Dal after a leadership tussle, and formed the Rashtriya Janata Dal. In 1998, he contested and won the Lok Sabha seat of Madhepura.

Sharad Yadav saw this as a good time to distance himself from Lalu, who was rapidly losing popular support in Bihar. In 1999, primed by the confidence that defeating Lalu would catapult him to greater heights in the state’s politics, he contested against Lalu for the Madhepura seat. Much of Delhi’s media was speaking of Lalu’s imminent downfall and the implosion of his myth. Sharad Yadav was portrayed as ‘the intellectual leader’ of Yadavs.

The constituency in east Bihar was a Yadav stronghold, and the contest was keenly watched for what its outcome would say of an entire community’s preferences. Sharad Yadav was considered the David up against the Goliath of Yadavs, and a victory he knew would assure him a powerful role for the long term. He also knew the value of theatrics, and to register his apprehension with the Election Commission that Lalu would fix the results, he sat on a high-profile fast. Sharad Yadav won the election, and suddenly, Madhepura was on the country’s political map.

But Sharad Yadav could not keep up the momentum. The self- styled Chanakya lost that seat in 2004 when Lalu contested Lok Sabha seats from Madhepura and Chapra (the latter against Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the BJP); Lalu became the UPA Government’s Railway minister and later gave up the Madhepura seat. It was clear Sharad Yadav needed a new vehicle to carry him onwards, and he had burnt his bridges with the most popular leader of Bihar’s Yadavs.

Sharad Yadav moved with the cheese, as they say, to Nitish Kumar’s camp soon after and thus began his Janata Dal (United) phase. He used his proximity with Nitish Kumar and George Fernandes, who had by then signed up with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to carve out an influential role for himself in the Government of AB Vajpayee. The man who’d once supposedly built a bulwark against the BJP’s quest for power was now an ally. In 2002, when BJP-ruled Gujarat erupted in riots, he did not utter a word against the ruling party.

Sharad Yadav was the NDA convenor, and as a co-founder of the JD-U, later opposed Nitish Kumar’s decision to part ways with the alliance over the BJP’s choice of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Few recall now that it was under Yadav’s watch that the Janata Dal was pushed to the electoral margins in a state like Karnataka, where socialist stalwarts like Ramakrishna Hegde, SR Bommai and JH Patil once held sway. Or that it was thanks to Yadav that Vijay Mallya, now safely ensconced in London with thousands of crores in loans left un-repaid to Indian banks, got his initial toehold in the Rajya Sabha.

Over time, it was clear to most that Sharad Yadav could not win a Lok Sabha election without riding piggyback on the appeal of a mass leader. He was painfully aware of this, decades after launching his political career from Jabalpur. The Gops of Madhepura were no longer inclined towards him. Fortunately for him, Nitish Kumar felt duty-bound to give him a berth in the Upper House virtually in compensation for his sense of loss on the party’s exit from the NDA.

Today, after rediscovering his long-lost ideological opposition to the BJP, and aware that he cannot ask Modi and party President Amit Shah to help secure his political future, Yadav has launched a loud assault on Nitish Kumar for returning to the embrace of the very NDA that he once urged him not to leave. This leaves Yadav with little option but to accept the ‘chhatra chhaaya’ (generosity) of the same Lalu who he dumped with such alacrity when he felt the need to do so.

Stripped of his position as the leader of the JD-U in Parliament (the party has nine Rajya Sabha and two Lok Sabha members) and relegated to the back benches of the Upper House, Sharad Yadav is currently in a sulk. The path he’s chosen for himself now is unlikely to be an easy one. Having broken ties irrevocably with the BJP, Yadav is believed to be cosying up to his other once-upon-a-time bete noire, the Congress party, in the hope that it would hand his son-in-law an electoral ticket in Haryana, the state where he once counted for plenty as the ‘real power’ behind Chautala.

Ideologically, Sharad Yadav Esq has turned from one shade to another all through his career, covering almost the entire vignette of politics, and now finds he has nowhere left to go— except to a tottering party. There is no honest space on his wall for a picture of JP anymore. Little wonder that the ghosts of socialists past appear to have smirks of cynicism.