Interview with Lalu Prasad.
A personality trait of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad that both his adversaries and his admirers agree with is that beyond his seemingly temperamental and theatrical public performances the man retains a cool, composed and calculating political mind. When Venkitesh Ramakrishnan met him on February 2, hours before the first round of polling in the Bihar Assembly elections began, it was this side of the RJD president's personality that was predominantly on display.
Lalu Prasad proclaimed that he had reasons to be especially happy that evening. The two boys, whose kidnapping was a matter of intense media debate and Opposition political campaigning, had returned home. This, he said, marked the collapse of the only emotive issue that the Opposition had raised during the entire campaign. Lalu Prasad spoke about a variety of issues relating to Bihar in general and the elections in particular. Excerpts from the interview:
On the eve of the first round of polling, what is your assessment of the electoral situation?
With the return of the [kidnapped] boys, the Opposition has lost the only emotive issue it had throughout the campaign. Still, some sections of the media and a few political pundits are painting a picture of the RJD's doom. All of them will have to eat their words when the results come out. The RJD combine is steadily moving towards a clear majority.
But the return of the boys has set off another debate, that the return was organised just prior to the polls to help the RJD and that the kidnappers are hand in glove with you.
This is nothing but political depravity. For weeks you campaign that the government is helpless before kidnappers. And when the kidnapped boys return you say it is all stage-managed. I have reasons to believe that the kidnapping was organised by sections of the Opposition, including leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Lok Janshakti Party, to malign the RJD and its government. It has been confirmed by the police that the ransom call to one kidnapped boy's family was made from a BJP leader's mobile phone. I will have some sensational revelations to make in due course.
The collapse of law and order under the RJD regime is a major election issue. Even Congress president Sonia Gandhi has expressed dissatisfaction over the State's lawlessness and lack of development.
Soniaji has only been saying what I have maintained throughout the past few years. She has talked about the need to improve the law and order situation and about enhancing Bihar's educational standards, health system and administration. I, too, have been saying all this. But the RJD regime in the past 15 years has been engaged in a constant struggle against powerful vested interests, which have infiltrated even the bureaucracy and the police. Add to that the subversive actions of the mafia dons guided by forces like the BJP and the LJP. It has always been an uphill task. Yet, you cannot overlook the fact that Bihar has not had a single communal riot in 15 years, while States like Gujarat witnessed communal genocide.
What about development? Don't you think a leader of your level of mass following should have evolved ways to overcome vested interests in administration and developed alternative systems to advance the State?
Lalu Prasad is not a king. He has to work within the parameters of our constitutional system. It is not that my colleagues and I have not been trying. And we have succeeded in some measure. Dalits, the minorities and other oppressed sections are treated with respect now, in contrast to the situation that prevailed before we came to power. But there is no doubt that much more can be done. I am seeking a mandate for that in this election. The next RJD government will initiate a series of measures, including those against mafia and criminals, many of whom are with the BJP and the LJP. Anybody who expects to improve law and order by aligning with mafia-infested parties like the LJP is living in a fool's paradise.
Your reference is obviously to the Congress, which is supported by the LJP in all the 80 seats it is contesting. What actually went wrong with the Congress?
It is a free country and parties are entitled to have their "free for all" contests. So, if the Congress wants to contest 80 seats, how can I oppose it? But, I would add that the situation has come about on account of sections of the State Congress unit. They misled the Congress high command and Soniaji about the political situation in Bihar and persuaded them to fight the elections independent of the RJD-led combine. I had tried to tell these State leaders that this was not the time to build up organisation and that the danger of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and communalism should be fought jointly. They did not listen.
Do you reckon that the Congress' Bihar experiment will upset the unity of secular forces and the UPA government at the Centre?
There are secular parties and secular parties. There are vote katwas (splitters) like Paswanji's LJP and Mulayam Singhji's Samajwadi Party, who are ultimately helping the RSS and the BJP. But our alliance with the Congress at the Centre is strong and sound. Even here, I have maintained my dignity and respect for Soniaji's party. The RJD is not contesting in any of the seats held by the Congress.
There is a perception that in the context of all these developments the traditional vote base of the RJD, especially among Muslims, is dwindling.
This vile campaign makes its appearance during every election. These campaigners include sections of the media and some political pundits. They say every time that Muslims are disillusioned and are deserting the RJD. I see this as a welcome development. For, this campaign inspires the RJD cadre to move more alertly and ensure the success of party candidates.