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The insecure clown prince?
December 24, 2004
In 1977, shortly after the Indira Gandhi regime announced that a general election was to be held, the Opposition parties decided to hold a joint rally in Delhi. This meeting, addressed by leaders newly released from prison, was an enormous success. This was in spite of the Congress' efforts, the then information and broadcasting minister going so far as to order Doordarshan to broadcast the hit film Bobby in an effort to keep people at home.
I didn't know it at the time but it was, I think, the last time that I would have the privilege of attending a genuinely popular rally. Future meetings on that scale -- at least those that I attended -- always seemed to benefit from misuse of government machinery. (Even V P Singh benefited from the fact that Haryana -- which surrounds Delhi on three sides -- was ruled by his comrade Devi Lal in the heady years of the campaign against Rajiv Gandhi.)
Would the 'mammoth' rallies that our politicians like so much actually succeed in the absence of official machinery? It is a bit hard to believe that ordinary citizens would disrupt their lives to march off to a political meeting. Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan was probably the last man to evoke that kind of fervour. It is ironical, therefore, that one of the Loknayak's disciples has answered my question. Laloo Prasad Yadav cancelled his proposed meeting almost on the heels of the Election Commission ordering the railways to stop all special arrangements for the Rashtriya Janata Dal rally in Patna.
I don't think the railway minister would have been terribly worried about the Election Commission's FIR accusing him of electoral bribery. He has faced down other, potentially graver, corruption charges in the past. (Although there has never been any case when there seemed to be televised proof!) But once the Election Commission decided to crack the whip, the rally was cancelled. (And Patna's walls seem to have become a lot cleaner since the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss also ordered his workers to quickly clean up any posters they might have glued on public buildings before the Election Commission observers arrived.)
This is not the first time that Laloo Prasad Yadav has been at loggerheads with the Election Commission. The story of his conflict goes back to 1995. The redoubtable T N Seshan was the Chief Election Commissioner in those days, and the Election Commission had ruled that photo identity cards were essential tools in the fight against bogus voting. The Election Commission took the extreme position that there would be no polls in a state if the cards were not distributed.
Then as now, Bihar was a by-word for poor administration and electoral malpractice. Pushed to the wall by the Election Commission diktat, Laloo Prasad Yadav was forced to admit that the task simply could not be completed in time. Seshan being Seshan, the Election Commission refused to give in. As a general election was due in the summer of 1996, this raised the prospect of the country's second largest state -- this was before the creation of Jharkhand -- being left out altogether. The matter was then sent up to the Supreme Court.
The apex court decided to give the Bihar chief minister the benefit of the doubt, ordering the Election Commission to go ahead and include Bihar in the poll schedule. This was fine as far as it went, but the Supreme Court made one slip in the process -- it failed to take a commitment from the government of Bihar about a final date for distributing the photo identity cards. Will it surprise anyone to hear that today, over nine years after this tussle, Bihar has still not completed the process? Nor is there any indication that the Rashtriya Janata Dal is remotely concerned about doing so.
I suspect that the latest fight is headed the same way. The Election Commission can fulminate as much as it wants but I doubt that it will halt Laloo Prasad Yadav in his tracks. That confidence is probably what has emboldened the Rashtriya Janata Dal to raise what may be the most mindboggling defence ever: 'He was not taking even a single rupee, he was just giving it away, so that cannot be counted as bribery!' I leave it to the Supreme Court -- where the case is almost inevitably heading -- to untangle that.
There is every indication that Laloo Prasad Yadav & Co will win another term. But the episode underlines the fact that the clown prince of Indian politics is just a bit insecure about his standing with the voter. Does he really need to distribute money and order the railways to run special trains to ensure that there will be a 'massive' turnout at his rallies? If yes, what does that say about his record as master of Bihar?
The Loknayak's meetings were successes in spite of the best efforts to sabotage them by the government of the day. His disciple it seems cannot ensure their success without the same government machinery.