Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

The `lathi' rally organised in Patna by Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal fell short of the party's record in terms of numbers and was no historic event. Yet it showed that although Laloo Yadav may be down, he is certainly not out.

in Patna

AS has happened with regard to all similar efforts by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, to mobilise his cadre, the `lathi' rally on April 30 invited the wrath of the articulate middle classes of Patna. After all, the rally brought normal life in the city to a halt. Shops remained closed, for the shopkeepers feared that keeping them open would amount to an invitation to loot them. Even the several thousand men who manage to make a living by ferrying a cross section of the city's population on their cycle-rickshaws were forced to take the day off.

Those who were brought to Patna for the rally by Laloo Yadav's party managers were not ordinary village folk. They had experienced subjugation for years because they were born into certain castes and hence denied some of the rights that are integral to democracy. They had also participated in Laloo Yadav's project of reversing roles in the social and political sense. They were part of this change in the social order that occurred after Laloo Yadav became the Chief Minister in 1991. And when a number of people who managed the rally found this social transformation to be an opportunity to avenge injustice inflicted on them in the past, it hardly made sense for the urban rich to keep their shops open.

The crowd was large. Close to a lakh of men and women, all of them wielding lathis on a hot summer afternoon, was indeed a huge turnout particularly in times when the political discourse is being largely reduced to games and manipulations in the drawing rooms in distant Delhi. But going by the standards set by Laloo Yadav himself, the crowd was not all that large. He had, after all, managed to have five times the size of the latest crowd in 1997. And in a State where political participation is as much a habit or even a way of life (in the same way as chewing kaini is), the April 30 rally seems to be a message to Laloo Yadav that from now political rhetoric alone will not work in Bihar.

Those who came from far away to express their sense of belonging with the leader who set them free from the tyranny of the landed gentry did enjoy every minute they were there, despite the scorching sun. They burst into a cheer the moment Laloo Yadav ascended the specially erected, 7.5 metre-high dais decked in marigold flowers and draped in green cloth. A large number of the participants were even prepared to take a few lathi blows from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans deployed all over the place while trying to break down the barricades put up around it. They were, after all, the youth for whom the Laloo era in Bihar politics had meant the empowerment of the backward castes in general and Yadavs in particular. It was in the not-so-distant past that students belonging to the backward castes were forced into submission before their fellow students in Patna and elsewhere, and this fact has not been wiped out from their memory.

The Laloo era, hence, meant their empowerment, even if that is in a limited sense. Yadavs, who constitute a substantial chunk of the peasantry in Bihar (as well as in the rest of the Gangetic plains) were liberated from the tyranny that marked the Bihar countryside until even a decade ago. And this liberation has, so to say, bonded them with Laloo Yadav in such a fashion that they will not easily desert their messiah at least in the immediate context. Hence they did their bit to make the lathi rally a success.

The ruling RJD and its managers had spent at least a month to put the crowd together. The entire Cabinet, along with the two rising stars in the RJD, Anirudh Prasad Yadav alias Sadhu Yadav (an MLA) and Subhash Yadav (an MLC), who are both Chief Minister Rabri Devi's brothers, had travelled across Bihar for weeks to exhort the RJD's rank and file to reach Patna on April 30 and to impress upon them the significance of carrying a lathi to Patna. Some of the party managers had kept huge stocks of lathis in Patna to be handed over to the rallyists brought from distant places. Azad Gandhi, an MLC who is wanted by the State police in connection with a recent case of abduction of a businessman, was moving about all over Patna the day before the rally. He even called a press conference to declare that he had procured a few hundred lathis from as far away as Meerut.

The organisers had not just ensured the availability of lathis. Most of the 20,000-odd private buses, which serve as the principal means of transport across the State, were pressed into service. While the Opposition in the State accused the RJD of having used force in this regard and alleged that the bus operators were forced into making their vehicles available to ferry rallyists, the truth is different. Of course, the rallyists were there only because they were ferried to the State capital free of cost. It is also true that the RJD managers did not have to pay the fleet operators. But the fact is that RJD leaders themselves own most of these buses. The nexus between bus operators and the political establishment is not new in Bihar. The only difference now is that the old order in which Congressmen were in command of the sector has given way to the new, in which those who happen to be important men in the RJD control it.

Meanwhile, senior officials of the Bihar State Road Transport Corporation (BSRTC), which has a fleet strength of just 270 buses were huddled in a meeting a couple of days before the rally. They were worried over the fact that a number of their buses had been "captured'' by RJD chieftains in various parts of the State. According to a senior official in Patna, passengers were pulled out and the buses taken over by the organisers of the rally. The BSRTC's administrator had to seek Laloo Yadav's intervention to get the buses released; wherever this became possible, they were taken to the depots and parked there.

As a consequence, road transport to and from Patna had to be put on hold until "normality'' was restored. The district administration in Patna seemed to oblige Laloo Yadav's political project by closing down the two bridges that lead out of Patna to the northern and northwestern parts of the State - the Mahatma Gandhi Sethu and the Koilwar bridge - from the afternoon of April 29. The administration announced in the local newspapers that such a measure was necessary to decongest the two arterial roads leading to Patna on the eve of the rally. The official advertisements in this regard described the April 30 show as raila. It is an expression coined by Laloo Yadav to denote the fact that his rallies are different from those organised by his rivals.

The arrangements for April 30 were not restricted to transport. The sprawling lawns of the official residences of the Ministers and "important'' legislators such as Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav were converted into camps for the rallyists and huge shamianas were erected all over. They vied with each other in making such arrangements. This, after all, was one way to display both their clout and their loyalty to the leader. During the days before the rally, Laloo Yadav himself was busy visiting each of the premises and assessing the level of commitment of his chieftains. The size of the tents, the mattresses laid out in them and, most important, the dishes spread for the rallyists, were all scrutinised.

There were elaborate arrangements made to provide food to the rallyists too. The chieftains had also drafted musical troupes from as far away as Mumbai to regale the rank and file through the night before the rally. The father-son duo, Shakuni Choudhury and Samrat Choudhry (who had lent their muscle to the Samata exercise at the time of that political party's inception), for instance, boasted of having made the most elaborate arrangements in this respect.

Yet another major camp was on the Patna Veterinary College campus, where Gopalpur MLA R.K. Rana, a close associate of Laloo Yadav from his college days, lives. Rana had quit his job in the State Animal Husbandry Department to contest the 1995 Assembly elections. Incidentally, his resignation came within days of the first revelations with regard to the illegal withdrawal of funds from the treasury involving the Animal Husbandry Department. He is now the first accused in the case. Rana is also charged under various provisions of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA). A series of raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department have revealed that Laloo Yadav's close associate from the days of the JP movement had assets worth Rs. 7.56 crores. Rana was general secretary of the Patna Veterinary College Students Union in the 1970s and Laloo Yadav was an important leader of the movement against corruption launched at that time.

Having become part of Laloo Yadav's inner circle or in their capacity as chieftains of the RJD, they could not have left anything to be desired in the matter of the arrangements. They knew Laloo Yadav more than anyone else.

The arrangements were being monitored also from the outhouse on the premises of Chief Minister Rabri Devi's official residence. Laloo Yadav has been operating from the outhouse ever since he vacated the Chief Minister's post in the wake of his imminent arrest in July 1997 for his involvement in the fodder scam.

The most colourful camp, however, was the one at Subhash Yadav's residence. Subhash along with Sadhu Yadav are the two most powerful persons in the Bihar context now after Laloo Yadav himself. Subhash Yadav's brother-in-law, Pappu Kumar Yadav, who is wanted by the police in connection with a case of abduction, was moving about freely making arrangements. The police continue to maintain that he is not traceable, just as in the instance of the MLC Azad Gandhi. The two are wanted in the same case. The two, along with Surendra Yadav (a member of the Rabri Devi Ministry until he was instructed by Laloo Yadav to quit after his name figured in the first information report) are accused of having abducted and tortured an official of a nationalised bank in Patna. The three of them are known to be part of Subhash Yadav's inner circle.

But none of them, including Rabri Devi's brothers, were bestowed the privilege to utter even a few sentences from the stage on April 30. Their job was done once the crowd reached Patna. They had only to wait for the evening and ensure that the rallyists were ferried back. After Laloo Yadav arrived at the venue of the public meeting at least two hours behind schedule, the few privileged men - the party's Members of Parliament - started terming the rally as the first step towards having Laloo Yadav as the next Prime Minister. The Bharatiya Janata Party has to be banished from the Centre, they all stressed and told the crowd that the day is not far when their beloved leader would become the Prime Minister.

The larger political context, including the implications of the economic liberalisation programme, the critical position into which the State's finances have been pushed after the formation of Jharkhand State and the adverse impact of the Centre's policies were explained by Excise Minister Shivanand Tiwari and the RJD leader in the Lok Sabha, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. And even as they explained the complex issues involved, the crowd began to become restive. After all, they were waiting there, unmindful of the heat, only to be regaled by their only leader. The state of Bihar's finances and the implications of the World Trade Organisation regime were not matters that really interested them.

Laloo Yadav, however, found it an occasion to control the crowd too: apart from admonishing those who were hooting, Laloo commanded the CRPF jawans to mind the gathering. He would make it a point to grab the microphone every now and then to remind his followers that people across the world were glued to their television sets watching the rally and to tell them why they needed to remain attentive.

The battle cry, as Laloo was about to leave Gandhi maidan, did not involve merely the political issues in Bihar. His agenda for the rally was not even restricted to the national level imperative for the party, and that is defeating the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The rally as it was conceived was also about sending signals to the U.S. establishment and President George Bush against the invasion of Iraq. Laloo did mean it when he asked his followers to behave for he was convinced that April 30 will be remembered as the day on which the battle against imperialism began in right earnest. And hence, Laloo Yadav chose the Mahatma as his role model and the familiar image of the Mahatma with a stick (or a lathi) in hand. The lathi, Laloo Yadav stressed, is the symbol of the battle against the Empire. It also symbolises non-violence, he said, joining issue with his political detractors.

"They petitioned the Governor and sought an injunction against the rally and spread the word that we will resort to violence,'' Laloo Prasad said, and wondered whether in carrying a "lathi'', Mahatma Gandhi too was guilty of provoking violence. The lathi, he boomed, is used to kill snakes and scorpions and ward of wild animals. This made the crowd let off a loud cheer. The lathi, he added, would now be used against the trishuls distributed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the pistols that the Shiv Sena chief is handing over to his faithful. Laloo Prasad asked his followers to make it a habit to carry a lathi wherever they went. He told them not to get distracted by the urbanised culture that looked down upon the rustic peasant. The older generation among them could see in Laloo Yadav the tradition that their late leader, Karpoori Thakur, a former Bihar Chief Minister, represented. They are, after all, rooted in the conviction that their leader was bold enough to internalise their own language, culture and way of life into the mainstream political culture against the other trend they witnessed when leaders sought to distort the language and culture of politics.

THERE were justifiable worries on the eve of the rally that thousands of lathi-wielding men walking down the narrow roads leading to Gandhi maidan could lead to a law and order problem. The deep-rooted animosities between the social groups that constitute the ruling party and the Opposition combine, it was feared, would add to the trouble In Bihar, as in some other States of the region, a large number of people are known to possess country-made firearms.

But there was hardly any violence on rally day, at least not within the city. This could be attributed to the simple reason that business establishments were closed throughout the day. Shops and stores were closed and the cycle-rickshaws (it is the most popular means of transport in the city) were off the roads. The rallyists did not need them and the middle class population in the city did not stir out of their homes.

There were, however, a couple of deaths in the context of the rally. An RJD functionary, Raj Kumar Yadav, was gunned down on the eve of the rally while he was attending to the needs of rallyists from his village in one of the ministerial bungalows in Patna's R-Block area. The killing, according to officials, had to do with a previous dispute. The incident did not lead to any flare-up.

The murder on the day of the rally of Satyanarain Sinha, who had unsuccessfully contested the byelection in the Danapur Assembly constituency, did leave the atmosphere unsettled. According to BJP sources, he was done to death by an RJD functionary. While the police attributed it to previous enmity, the BJP and others in the NDA insisted that the murder was carried out in the context of the rally. They apprehended that the lathi rally would vitiate the atmosphere further.

In the wake of Satyanarain Sinha's killing, several vehicles ferrying RJD activists to Patna were set on fire. There was tension all over. Laloo Yadav himself was worried about it and he attributed it to a conspiracy to sabotage the rally. As was to be expected, he blamed the Opposition parties for it.

All these things, however, were not the concerns of Chief Minister Rabri Devi. Apart from lamenting about the step-motherly treatment that Bihar received from the Centre, the Chief Minister restricted herself to the script that she has resorted to ever since she began addressing public meetings: saying that the Opposition had resorted to describing Bihar as a "jungle raj'' and asking the people to teach them all a lesson for having called them junglees, or animals. This did not really seem to be a very rousing theme and that fact probably prompted Laloo Yadav to conclude the rally with a parody from the hit film song of yesteryear from the film Junglee.

The crowd did enjoy every moment of the rally. Yet, looking at the relatively small number of people who could be gathered despite all the arrangements that had been made, it was clear that Laloo Yadav no longer has the magic wand he had until 1997.

Then the RJD had mobilised over five lakh people and the sprawling Gandhi maidan overflowed. But then, Laloo Yadav lost in his traditional parliamentary constituency in the 1999 elections and even the Assembly elections held in February 2000 exposed the RJD's shrinking vote base. The party's strength in the Assembly came down from 180 to 120 in that round. In the final analysis, the lathi rally seemed to suggest the same story. Laloo Yadav is indeed down. But he is certainly not out.

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