Ajay Kumar Lallu is a man of few words when responding to questions about himself. He is more at ease talking about his work as a lawmaker, explaining at length the suffering unleashed when the Burhi Gandak river floods, police brutality and other problems plaguing his constituency of Tamkuhi Raj in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Self-effacement isn't his only trait, uncharacteristic for a politician. Lallu, who was re-elected in the recently concluded Assembly elections in UP, has the least assets of all the 403 MLAs who will sit in the Vidhan Sabha. While the richest MLA is Bahujan Samaj Party's Shah Alam, who owns assets worth ₹118 crores, Lallu has declared just over ₹3 lakh in movable assets and no immovable assets.
In an election that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party prevail over 312 seats, the 38-year-old also stands out for being one among the seven from the Congress Party who won. He is one of the two MLAs to get re-elected.
There is skepticism over Lallu's claims that he campaigned largely on the ₹30 lakh worth of party funds. There are of course local supporters who provide funds and material support. He is known to have the backing of RPN Singh, a former Lok Sabha member for the Congress Party from Kushinagar district. But local observers say Singh is an example of social connect trumping money and muscle power. His opponents from Tamkuhi Raj, Jagadish Mishra of the BJP and Bijay of the BSP, had net assets worth ₹5 crore ₹8 crores respectively.
Lallu's constituency in Kushinagar district faces the particular problem of flooding when Nepal releases water, every year. There are many who talk about the lawmaker's work in trying to divert water away from 60 to 70 villages that are otherwise submerged. Others say that like his last name, Lallu is indeed a simple guy.
In a recent phone conversation with HuffPost India, Lallu explained why one doesn't need pots of money to win an election in India. His motto is sampark, samwaad, sangharsh (connect, dialogue, struggle). "People think it is impossible for folks from service class and poor families to join politics unless they make a lot of money. It isn't true and I'm proof of that," said Lallu. "I do the politics of the common man. You have to work hard for a long period of time for people to notice, but people will notice," he said.
People think that it is impossible for folks from service class and poor families to join politics unless they make a lot of money. It isn't true and I'm proof of that.
Data put together by the Ahmedabad-based Association for Democratic Reforms shows that 80% of the 403 newly-elected MLAs are crorepatis, and their average assets are worth ₹5.92 crores.
These figures make Lallu's sentiments sound admirable but impractical. But the twice-elected lawmaker insisted he had run a campaign on public goodwill, which he had accumulated over the past five years, bolstered by party funds, and supplemented it with his monthly salary as a legislator.
"It can be managed, I tell you. I don't know why you have such a hard time believing me," Lallu said, laughing. "It is important that people from the middle class and poor backgrounds join politics to save it from becoming a tool of exploitation."
It is important that people from the middle class and poor backgrounds join politics to save it from becoming a tool of exploitation.
Fuel And Tea
The lawmaker, who hails from the trader community in Sewarahi village, said that his main expense was fuel, since he was mostly on the road and preferred meeting people on their turf instead of gathering them for big rallies. Another cause of expenditure was tea and snacks for the flow of people coming to meet him. The big expense was only when senior leaders visit, and then Lallu has to shell out money for tents, lights, chairs and food.
"I'm not saying that money is not important, what I'm saying is that it is not the most important thing that people believe it to be," he said. "Money can be used to buy things but not people."
I'm not saying that money is not important, what I'm saying is that it is not the most important thing that people believe it to be.
In the 2012 Assembly elections, the first time he ran on a Congress ticket, Lallu recalled the party funds were lesser than in 2017. The first time he stood in the Assembly elections was in 2007. He stood as an independent candidate, spent ₹3,200 on the campaign and lost. "But I did not give up. I kept working for the people, taking up their issues and even getting arrested. Otherwise, why would people elect me in 2012? I was not even an MLA then," he said.
A Pending Loan
Lallu, who has not married yet, believes himself to be a Gandhian. He claims to have no other source of income than his salary as an MLA. He says his family owns a two-acre plot of land in which they grow sugarcane and wheat. His father sells salt. The politician recalled desperately poor times, when they also dabbled in selling agricultural manure and crackers on Diwali.
The only luxury Lallu allowed himself after his victory in the 2012 election was to buy a Scorpio car, which he believed would help him traverse long distances quickly and efficiently. Five years on, Lallu said he is still paying off the loan he took to purchase it.
Lallu, who has an MA degree, got into student politics while studying at the Sewarahi Kisan PG College which is affiliated to Gorakhpur University. He recalled fighting his first election in 1998 on a budget of ₹700, which he lost, and his second election on ₹1,300. The latter was to become the president of the student council. "Then and now, I have fought for issues people really care about," he said.
He recalled fighting his first election in 1998 on a budget of ₹700, which he lost, and his second election on ₹1,300.
Lallu has at least 16 criminal cases pending against him, including for criminal intimidation, causing hurt to deter a public servant and theft. It is with pride he admits to being jailed at least 17 times for challenging the state on issues such as police brutality and leading farmer protests on sugarcane pricing.
As he explained his daily routine, which starts at 5:30 in the morning and ends around midnight, it became clear that Lallu spent most of his time interacting with people. On his biggest accomplishment of the past year, Lallu launched into a detailed account of the various measures taken to keep flood water from reaching villages, and to help tens of thousands of displaced people living on the "bandas."
Lallu ticked off a host of issues he planned to deal with over the next five years, including payments to sugarcane farmers, ration cards, health issues, electricity supply, improving anganwadi facilities, and stemming police brutality.
On why his party had performed so poorly in the 2017 elections, Lallu said, "The Congress is failing to communicate its ideas to the people while the BJP is selling them dreams."
The Congress is failing to communicate its ideas to the people while the BJP is selling them dreams.
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