Laloo Prasad Yadav, the seemingly simple-minded rustic from Bihar, was the toast of Pakistan when he visited that country at the invitation of the South Asian Free Media Association last week. There were far more suave and sophisticated, far more educated, members among the 30-odd Indian MPs who participated in the three-day conference in Islamabad organised by the association, but the focus was always on the former Bihar chief minister.
Ordinary Pakistanis and the elite alike could not get enough of this self-confessed simpleton. He was mobbed by fawning men, women and children at airports, hotels, bazaars and conference halls in Pakistan. They wanted to be photographed with him, shake his hand or get his autographs on pieces of paper hurriedly rustled up from somewhere.
President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged the Laloo phenomenon in Pakistan when at a meeting with the South Asian Free Media Association delegation he told Laloo, 'you are such a hit in my country.'
The most remarkable thing was that contrary to his carefully cultivated image of a simpleton, Laloo displayed uncanny common sense throughout his triumphant trip to Pakistan. He never struck a false note, never said anything that might displease mandarins of the Indian Foreign Office and not once did he ruffle the feathers of his Pakistani hosts. His charm offensive won everyone around, though he very cogently represented India's case on Kashmir and other issues which have for long bedeviled relations between the two neighbours. Mixing his earthy humour with robust common sense he conveyed his message.
When someone reminded the Pakistan president that the leader of the Mutahida Majilis-i-Amal, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, too had paid a successful visit to India recently and asked him whether he would like to exchange the Pak Opposition leader with Laloo, Musharraf played safe. Amidst loud laughter from everyone present he said, 'You keep Rehman in your country for six months and we will keep Laloo in ours for half-a-year.'
Nobody felt more resentful of Laloo Yadav's popularity in Pakistan than some Congress MPs. While some hid their feelings, the Congress MP from Bangalore, Margaret Alva, let fly at the organisers for what she considered was a slight to her status in the Indian polity. This display of bad behaviour came at the meeting with Musharraf. Minutes before the general showed up, she angrily pointed out to senior Pakistan ministers that she belonged to a party which had 110 members in the Lok Sabha while they accorded pride of place in the seating arrangement to Laloo Yadav whose party had but only seven MPs. Musharraf's ministers, including Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, did not know what to do.
Noticing the embarrassing dilemma for the hosts, a very gracious Laloo Yadav and his fellow RJD MP, Prem Gupta, voluntarily gave up their chairs and moved towards the ones earmarked for Alva and her party colleague. Even though Laloo did not earn as much as a polite thank you from Alva, he won over the hearts of everyone present in the ornate hall in the Presidential Office with his magnanimous gesture. As he told everyone around, in the bargain he got "a better seat" since the one given to him earlier had him sitting at Musharraf's side while now he faced the general.
The Indian delegation included a 'model couple' which evoked sneering comments from fellow delegates. Former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan -- now president of his minuscule Lok Janashakti Party -- went to Pakistan with his wife and brother Sukdeo Paswan, a member of the Lok Sabha in his own right. While the junior Paswan never opened his mouth at the three-day conference, what Ram Vilas said was embarrassing. Mrs Paswan attracted considerable notice too with her expensive sarees and jewels -- not repeating them from one meal to another! Many Pakistanis wondered if she was a former film star and were speechless on learning that her husband was a self-confessed leader of the Dalits whose full-time vocation was politics.
In sharp contrast to Laloo Yadav, Paswan was often indiscreet, choosing to inflict on the other delegates his self-assumed greatness. He boasted for the nth time that he held the world record for having won his parliamentary seat twice with record margins and that he had given up a ministership in the Vajpayee Cabinet to protest the communal carnage in Gujarat. He also told a Pakistan television channel that some of the terrorists operating in Kashmir were not foreigners, but locals, a claim contrary to the Indian position.
President Musharraf is so sure of himself that he welcomes any opportunity to interact with the media. Weather-beaten bureaucrats in his government are by nature chary of the media and try to protect him from prying questions. So it was in Islamabad when his minders sought to keep most of the Indian media out of the meeting with Indian MPs. Later, when somehow the media smuggled itself in, the minders insisted they 'observe' the exchange of views between the MPs and the general in silence.
When the general was told of these restrictions by a visiting Indian newsman, he immediately declared that they were free to ask him whatever they wanted to. Instead of the one hour he was was originally meant to spend with the Indian MPs and media he spent well over two hours, answering all their questions and supplementaries freely. Remember the last time an Indian dignitary met the media and fielded all its questions?
Did Laloo Prasad Yadav's presence detract from the serious business at the SAFMA conference? Which was to discuss threadbare the questions of Understanding, Confidence-building and Conflict resolution between the two South Asian nations. By common consent, Laloo's presence made the conference a page one affair. Usually such conferences are scantily reported -- and in some obscure corner of the newspapers. This conference made headlines on Pakistani television and in its newspapers on all three days. Though Laloo's presence was a common thread, the seriousness of the issues discussed was also brought out in the reportage. Admittedly, without the blessings of the powers that be in Islamabad, such a conference would not have been possible.
Laloo being Laloo -- despite his serious vein at the conference and his articulation of the Indian case in a very cogent and earthy manner -- could not help regale delegates and other invitees with his trademark wit and humour. At the inaugural ceremony, when a BJP MP read out the message from Prime Minister Vajpayee and a Congress MP read out Sonia Gandhi's message wishing the conference success, Laloo brought the house down when he ended his cleverly worded extempore speech, saying "Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi ne bhi is conference ko goodwill message bheja hain" (Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi too has sent a message of goodwill to the conference).
SAFMA Secretary General Imtiaz Alam had a problem pronouncing Laloo's surname, insisting on calling him Laloo Prasad Yaadein instead of Yadav. That annoyed Laloo. When his turn came to speak, he corrected Alam, saying that being called Yaadein instead of Yadav was new for him though back home many Indians called him Laallo (meaning simpleton). Later when an Indian newsman asked if he had heard the joke about him solving the Kashmir problem, the RJD boss readily admitted that indeed he had. According to the joke, Laloo offered Kashmir to Musharraf provided the general also accepted Bihar as a bonus. No, thank you, the general said :-)) and told Laloo to keep Kashmir with India.
Virendra Kapoor was a member of the media team that accompanied the Indian parliamentary delegation to Pakistan last weekImage: Uday Kuckian