RANCHI, Jharkhand — The state elections will be held in Bihar at the end of October, but their fate could well be decided in Jharkhand in Kelly’s Bungalow – a sprawling colonial-era bungalow that has temporarily been converted into a prison for former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Since August this year, the plush residence has also served as the ersatz party office of Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, as prospective candidates have made the journey across state borders in the hope of getting an RJD ticket.
And if the 2020 Bihar results are as inconclusive as they were in 2005, the relative freedom afforded to Yadav in Kelly’s bungalow could tilt the scales given his reputation as a formidable political negotiator.
Yadav’s arrangement, Bihar’s ruling combine of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (United) allege, is a consequence of a tacit understanding between Prasad and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren. True to form, the Jharkhand High Court is now hearing a public interest litigation into whether Yadav’s living circumstances in Kelly’s Bungalow are against the law.
“Leaders and workers from Bihar and Jharkhand gather here every day. They submit their biodata and also meet Lalu Prasad. He is treated as state guest for whom rules have been relaxed. Jail manual is blatantly violated. Kelly’s bungalow has become the RJD office,” said Jharkhand BJP spokesperson Pratul Nath Shahdeo.
Soren was sworn in in December last year, prior to which the BJP’s coalition government in Jharkhand had treated Prasad as an ordinary prisoner and made it impossible for Prasad to run his political party from prison. The results were visible in the 2019 general elections in which the RJD did not win a single seat.
“When the BJP was in power in Jharkhand, on the name of jail manual we were often prevented by the BJP government to meet him. He was treated like an ordinary prisoner in an unfriendly manner by the unfriendly government,” said a senior RJD party member from Bihar. “Remember the actual game in Bihar will start post-election because the NDA combine is going to be unseated in Bihar. In Bihar there is no politics without Lalu.”
With the Soren government showing more leniency, Yadav is proving that his famous maxim — Jab tak samose mein rahega aalu, Bihar mein rahega Lalu – holds good even when he is in prison.
The shadow of prison has hung over Yadav’s political life for decades — implying that the RJD supremo has long been adept at creatively working around the constraints of India’s jail system. His supporters and sympathisers have seen his legal travails as a sign of a vast conspiracy.
When he was imprisoned in the late 1990s, rumour had it that he did not actually spend much time in prison. When he did spend time in his cell, jail authorities in Patna hurriedly upgraded the prison facilities according to an India Today report from the time.
There was outrage in 2017 when an ailing Yadav was forced to take a 16 hour train from Ranchi to Delhi. Yadav had complained of chest pains while in prison in Ranchi and was referred to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. It emerged the ruling BJP had refused to provide airfare for Yadav, forcing him to take the arduous train journey despite a suspected medical condition.
The BJP for its part has maintained that Yadav was, and ought to be treated like, an ordinary prisoner.
In March and April last year for instance, the Ranchi police searched the room at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences where he was lodged for treatment. The government suspected Yadav was secretly using mobile phones to contact people besides people who visit him without permission from jail authority. The search proved futile, but former chief minister Raghubar Das of the BJP was unapologetic.
“We had information that he was using communication devices hence I asked the police to verify this. Acting as a chief minister I never allowed any deviation in the jail manual,” Das told HuffPost India. “It seems that the Hemant Soren and his entire political and administrative machinery have gone extra miles to keep Lalu Prasad in good humour. He is running his party and managing everything.”
Yet the BJP has made inroads into Yadav’s party as well. In 2017 Annapurna Devi, the RJD’s state president in Jharkhand, was one of the loudest voices demanding that Yadav’s prison stay be made as comfortable as possible.
Devi joined the BJP in 2019 and is now a BJP MP from the state.
“RJD was my past and the BJP is my present and future too. I live in the present. This is pointless to ask what I felt and what I feel,” she said, when asked her opinion on Yadav’s current stint at Kelly’s bungalow.
Quid Pro No!
That Yadav is in control and well on top of things was visible last month when the senior RJD member Raghuvansh Prasad Singh sent Yadav his resignation letter. Yadav replied immediately, also through a letter, and declined Singh’s resignation. The letter was rendered moot as Singh died of prolonged illness soon after.
Kailash Yadav, the working president of the breakaway Rashtriya Janata Dal (Loktantrik), said that those criticising Yadav were missing the point.
“Why do they forget that Lalu Prasad is president of the RJD? How can you stop him from discharging his duty as president of the party? He sent his reply only after permission from the jail administration” Kailash Yadav said.
“How do the BJP and JD(U) leaders forget that during parliamentary election and assembly election in Jharkhand, Lalu Prasad had discharged his duty of awarding symbols to party candidates,” he said.
Yet if Soren and the JMM felt that allowing Prasad visitors would result in some sort of political understanding in Bihar, their hopes were cruelly dashed.
Last week senior JMM General Secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya expressed his annoyance and disappointment that Prasad’s RJD had refused to share seats with the JMM in the upcoming Bihar elections.
“While we are known for political decency and helping friends in bad times; the RJD is makkar,” Bhattacharya said, a word loosely translated as ‘cunning’. “In Jharkhand, we revived the RJD. In the 2019 parliamentary election and assembly election we gave the RJD more than it deserved. Its lone MLA Satyanand Bhokta was made minister in the Hemant Soren led government in Jharkhand.”
Yet political watchers say it is unlikely that a miffed JMM will move Yadav back to prison before the final tallies from the Bihar election are in. For now, Yadav’s stay in Kelly’s bungalow is likely to continue and will likely only burnish his legend.
In January 2018, when Yadav prepared for yet another conviction two of his attendants and loyalists Madan Yadav and Lakshman Mahto got themselves implicated in a false case. They surrendered before the court and were sent to Birsa Munda Central Jail when the police had neither started investigation nor any arrest warrant was procured against them.
“This is a classic case of loyalty for the master. To serve Lalu Prasad inside the jail they had framed themselves in a false case lodged by one Sumit on instruction of Madan,” said a senior police official posted in Ranchi. “From the first day the case looked suspicious but we were not aware of their plan. We were surprised to know that they are close attendants of former Bihar CM and they have done it for their master.”
Yadav’s rivals have learnt that you can lock him up, but you cannot count him out.