Bihar’s socio-political landscape is still replete with stories of Karpoori Thakur, who faced stiff upper caste resentment for implementing 26 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), when he became the state Chief Minister (CM) in 1977. The political decision cost him his job, but the social division was to play a big role in the emergence of another towering leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav.A byproduct of the popular 1974-75 JP movement, Lalu became Bihar’s CM in 1990. He quelled protests triggered by a move to grant reservation to OBCs, this time by the Central government. The social division became even sharper. Vast chunks of population felt liberated and new breeds of politicians, bureaucrats and criminals rose in the post-Mandal era. Bihar came to be known as a byword for violence, poverty and corruption.Politicians had espoused the cause of the poor, but Lalu was able to merchandise the dream of subaltern empowerment, dwarfing the Opposition with the energy of his populism and his ability to manipulate people and events. He turned his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) into a private limited concern by sheer force of personality and political indispensability.But, in 2000, the Yadav strongman had to install wife Rabri Devi as CM when he got mired into Bihar’s fodder scam, relating to fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 1,000 crore from government accounts in various districts in the name of cattle fodder and medicine spends. But commands would flow from him and were obeyed. Lalu’s next major setback came in 2005 when his old friend Nitish Kumar ended RJD’s 15-year rule and became National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) CM in Bihar.In the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Lalu’s party was decimated in his state. In 2013, a fodder scam case conviction got him five years in jail, disqualification from Parliament and a ban on contesting elections. He soon got bail.In the 2015 Bihar elections, something extraordinary was needed to block Prime Minister Narendra Modi from winning the state for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Lalu chose to forget his bitter rivalry of 20 years with Nitish and formed a mahagathbandhan that also included Congress. Lalu was back in business. But it did not last too long. In July this year, Nitish dumped the grand alliance and formed a new government with BJP’s support. It appeared Lalu was back in political wilderness.But he remains a force to reckon with, a man who can still bugle the support of a substantial following. He became a key player in India’s “secular” politics by stopping BJP leader LK Advani’s ‘rath yatra’ in Bihar before Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992. He still retains some of the “credentials”. Soon after Nitish made the shocking alliance switch, Lalu had a premonition of his second conviction in the fodder scam. Fearing uncertainty may grip his party and Bihar’s politics, he firmly positioned his son and political heir apparent, Tejashwi Yadav, as the leader of non-BJP forces at an anti-BJP rally in August this year.On December 23, a special CBI court in Jharkhand (part of Bihar before the state was bifurcated) convicted him and others in a second fodder scam case. Those close to Lalu say, the leader has been dreading the month of December, since he was arrested for the first time in the 1970s when he was leading a student agitation in the same month. In 1997, the CBI filed its chargesheet against him in December.Political analysts say, the incarceration of the veteran leader, who has kept the party relevant on the national front through frequent interactions with everybody from commoners to top leaders of like-minded parties, will leave a vacuum in Bihar’s politics. But RJD insiders say that, unlike the last time, Lalu has positioned Tejashwi as the de-facto number two in the party. A recent RJD national executive meeting even passed a unanimous resolution that the next election would be fought under Tejashwi’s leadership.However, others wonder if the former Deputy Chief Minister has the political experience to keep the herd together. There have been signs of dissent in the party, although muted, since its grand alliance with Nitish’s JD(U) came apart. There are also chances of Tejashwi coming under renewed attack from rivals over graft charges levelled against him in an alleged land-for-hotels scandal.Lalu is already barred from contesting elections till 2024. But unlike his first conviction in 2013 which affected his party’s fortunes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, RJD spokesman Manoj Jha believes, the latest will hardly have any impact as mechanisms have been put in place. Analysts, however, point out that in case Lalu does not get early bail, it will be a tough task for Tejashwi to lead an anti-BJP front in the 2019 general elections. The junior Yadav is also facing serious trouble in the hotel case. The Enforcement Directorate has registered cases against several members of Lalu’s family under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). Lalu’s daughter Misa Bharti and wife Rabri Devi also figure in the cases.The result of the last Assembly elections showed that RJD’s Yadav-Muslim support base has remained intact, but Lalu’s absence from the political scene will be a big boon for the JD(U)-BJP alliance.With the probe agencies showing a remarkable alacrity in proceeding against his family, it becomes quite a possibility that RJD may have to find its leadership outside the Lalu clan, to keep its political base intact, which is unlikely to be affected by his second conviction.Many in Patna believe that while charges against Lalu could be true, raking those at this political juncture reeks of some sort of vindictiveness. “Why else would the central investigative agencies go after only BJP’s political rivals and leave aside many other corporate corruption scandals? Why is there no action against scams like Vyapam,” asks Jha.But in Bihar’s emerging political landscape the biggest challenge facing RJD is to remain a strong Opposition. They party will face a stiff challenge in coming polls, both in terms of seat-sharing with allies and selecting candidates.Insiders feel Lalu’s conviction may not immediately affect the party’s functioning, considering that it has a solid organisational structure – helmed by Tejashwi and supported by senior leaders. But his absence could jeopardise the chances of 18 political parties, including the Congress, coming together to form a grand alliance against BJP in the parliamentary elections.Meanwhile, Congress president Rahul Gandhi seems to have forged a bonhomie with Tejashwi. Rahul hosted Tejashwi over lunch at a restaurant in Delhi last November, indicating that he was not averse to continuing with him.It is still to be seen whether Rahul, riding the moral high ground during the Gujarat Assembly elections campaign, will distance himself from the Lalu camp or forge ties with the new crop of the RJD leadership.FODDER FOR THOUGHT1996Rs 1,000-crore fodder scam unearthed when massive embezzlement of funds from the government treasury in Chaibasa (now in Jharkhand) is detected and the animal husbandry department’s office there is raided.1997Mired into the fodder scam, Lalu installs wife Rabri as Bihar CM. But commands from jail would flow from him and obeyed. Released on bail in four months.WHAT WAS THE SCAM?Fraudulent withdrawal from government accounts in various districts in the name of cattle fodder and medicine spends. WHEN DID IT HAPPEN?When Lalu was at the helm in the 1990s.1998A case of disproportionate assets registered against both Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi.2005Lalu’s next major setback when his old friend Nitish Kumar ends RJD’s 15-year rule and becomes NDA’s CM in Bihar. 2006Lalu and Rabri acquitted of charges in the disproportionate assets case filed by CBI.2013Convicted in a fodder scam case, Lalu sent to jail for five years, disqualified from Parliament and banned from contesting elections. He isreleased on bail within three months. In the 2009 and 2014 LS polls, his party is decimated in his state.July 2017Nitish dumps grand alliance and forms a new government with BJP’s support. Dec 23, 2017Special CBI court in Jharkhand convicts him and others in a second fodder scam case. Sentencing on January 3, 2018.

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The Curious Cases of Lalu Prasad Yadav