LAST DECEMBER, Lalu Prasad was convicted in the second of the five fodder scam cases against him. The Rashtriya Janata Dal president had been jailed eight times earlier in connection with cases related to the scam, and each time, he had managed to bounce back politically. This time, though, the situation was different. The RJD was out of power in Bihar after the breakdown of its grand alliance with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), and the government at the Centre was perceivably hostile to it.
A shrewd politician, Lalu had realised, months before his conviction, that it was time for a generational change in his party. He began by letting his sons, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav, lead the offensive against the Nitish Kumar government with their Janadesh Apman Yatra in August last year. The brothers launched the yatra with a rally in Champaran, from where Gandhi had launched his satyagraha against the British Raj.
Two months later, the RJD’s organisational elections were announced. With more than a year left for him to complete his term as party president, Lalu was named ‘president for life’. And, RJD leaders unanimously passed a resolution proposing that Lalu’s younger son, Tejashwi, lead the party under his father’s guidance.
Lalu, 70, has spent the past few months alternating between jail and hospital. He is battling serious health issues, including extensive damage to his kidneys. The RJD, though, appears to be in the pink, thanks to Lalu’s political foresight. Tejashwi, 28, has come of age as a politician, even as the party has consolidated its core support base of Yadavs and Muslims. With the JD(U) tying up with the BJP, and the Congress appearing feeble, Muslims in the state have no choice but to support the RJD. The situation has helped the RJD win three byelections this year.
The public sympathy for Lalu is also helping. “The people of Bihar are angry with the manner in which their leader has been treated,” said RJD veteran Jagdanand Singh. “They will teach our political opponents a lesson in the elections.”
Tejashwi, who was deputy chief minister in the JD(U)-RJD government, and is now leader of opposition in the assembly, is leading a relentless campaign against Nitish. The theme of his attacks is how Nitish has treated his father, implying that the chief minister had a hand in sending Lalu to jail. Tejashwi has also bolstered the anti-Nitish bloc by getting on board Jitan Ram Manjhi, a prominent dalit leader who recently severed ties with the JD(U). Efforts are on to woo other disgruntled allies of Nitish, such as Upendra Kushwaha, a leader of the Other Backward Classes. At the national level, Tejashwi is the RJD’s face in the efforts to stitch up an anti-BJP alliance.
Supporters say that, with his electoral successes, Tejashwi has given a befitting reply to his critics, who used to deride him, saying, “Baccha hai, matric fail hai [He is just a kid who couldn’t pass the matriculation exam]”. “Tejashwi has displayed wit and the ability to respond quickly,” said RJD legislator Bhai Virendra. “In the assembly, Nitish Kumar has no reply to his questions.”
People who come to listen to Tejashwi’s speeches call him ‘chhota Lalu’, even though he lacks his father’s rustic ruggedness. Political observers say Tejashwi has modelled himself more on Nitish than Lalu. Also, unlike his father, Tejashwi is concerned about his image. Lalu had no scruples about sharing the stage with people who had criminal cases against them, while his son takes care to distance himself from such individuals.
JD(U) leaders, however, say Tejashwi is a bubble waiting to burst. “He has inherited both the good and the bad from Lalu,” said party leader Neeraj Kumar. “If he has inherited the support base of Lalu, he is also burdened by the memory of lawlessness during Lalu’s reign.”
Tejashwi may hold sway in the RJD now, but he faces challenges from within the family. Tej Pratap and sister Misa Bharti, who is the eldest of Lalu’s nine children, are waiting in the wings. Tej Pratap, 29, is said to be uneasy with Tejashwi’s hold over the party, and is not at peace with Lalu for having chosen his younger brother to lead the party. Recently, he made his dissatisfaction known with a tweet about how he was Yudhishtir to Tejashwi’s Arjun, willing to leave the kingdom for the younger brother.
Not as articulate and politically savvy as Tejashwi is, Tej Pratap is known to be religiously inclined. He likes to dress up as Lord Krishna and is known to play the flute beautifully. His wife, Aishwarya, whom he married in May this year, belongs to a political family. She is the granddaughter of former Bihar chief minister Daroga Prasad Rai and daughter of former minister Chandrika Rai. Aishwarya, who is said to be astute and ambitious, may not want her husband to remain sidelined.
Misa, who gave up her career as a medical doctor to enter politics, is also said to be extremely ambitious. Apparently, she had envisioned herself as Lalu’s successor before Tejashwi and Tej Pratap entered politics. Her electoral debut came in 2014, when she contested and lost the Pataliputra Lok Sabha seat. Had she won, say observers, she would have had the upper hand in the RJD.
Lalu’s role is crucial in ensuring that Tejashwi remains unchallenged. He insisted that his birthday on June 11 be turned into a public show of unity between the two brothers. An ailing Lalu chose to rest at his wife’s official residence in Patna that day, as he watched, on television, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap cutting a mammoth cake together to celebrate his birthday. He also ensured that the three siblings presented a united front at the iftar party held at Tejashwi’s official residence.
“Laluji is firmly behind Tejashwi,” said an RJD leader. “Even Rabri Devi believes that he is best suited to lead the party. He will be chief minister if the RJD wins the next elections.”
Though Tejashwi is at the helm, Lalu continues to have the final say in decision-making within the party. When he was lodged at Birsa Munda Jail in Ranchi, Lalu received and relayed messages to the party through his confidant Bhola Yadav. It was through Bhola that Lalu sent an emotional letter to RJD leaders and workers, asking them to stay united. “His never-say-die spirit is unmatched,” said Manoj Jha, party MP. “That makes him get up even now, communicate with his people and mobilise them.”
It was Lalu who fine-tuned the RJD’s message in the run-up to the bypolls in the Araria Lok Sabha seat and Jehanabad assembly constituency. The party won both the seats in March this year. “As long as Lalu lives, even in jail, he will continue to direct the proceedings in the RJD,” said analyst Binoy Shanker Prasad. “Since the party is his family asset, the members and other nominated leaders will take orders from him.”