Yes, we clan: The sibling rivalry in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home

(First published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 August 2015.)

Photo via Twitter/Tej Pratap Yadav

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s official residence in Patna, 7 Deshratna Marg, is heavily guarded. People from across Bihar wait to be called in. They want their grievances addressed. Mobile jammers disable their phones, and men in uniform have a tough time controlling the crowd that is desperate to get in.

Only three houses away, at 10 Deshratna Marg, lives Lalu Prasad Yadav. Access here is easy. People seem to enter and leave with ease. All you have to do is name the person you want to meet. Lalu Yadav doesn’t give appointments to journalists. They simply walk in.

Lalu Yadav, though, can’t jump over those three houses that separate him from power quite as comfortably. Convicted in the fodder scam, Lalu is debarred from contesting elections till 2024.

The mantle is thus all set to fall on his children. Lalu ran his party single-handedly for 19 years. Now, the 67-year-old leader is taking his party down a path that most other parties in Indian politics traverse, the dynastic way. Having agreed to “drink poison” and be the “younger brother” to chief minister Nitish Kumar, Lalu’s big focus in this year’s Bihar assembly elections is to bring his two sons into Bihar’s political mainstream.

Rabri Devi and Lalu Yadav have nine children, two sons and seven daughters. Six daughters are married and are not politically inclined. His first offspring, Misa Bharti, has so far been the family’s most prominent next-generation political face. Her two brothers, Tej Pratap and Tejaswi, have recently also put forth their stakes in the succession battle. Misa fought and lost the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Patliputra. The 2015 assembly elections will see Tej and Tejaswi contesting for the first time.

“Will my children graze buffaloes?” Lalu Yadav said in his inimitable style, launching Tej Pratap Yadav at a rally in early July.

Ventriloquist’s act

Tej Pratap is unwell, his private secretary tells me when I ask for a morning appointment. “I could come in the evening,” I say. It is seven in the evening. Patna’s skies are awash with dark clouds and its streets are spotted with large hoardings of Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. I enter Tej Pratap’s air-conditioned room and he’s lying underneath a blanket, a lackey pressing his feet. As soon as he sees me, he hushes away the masseur, sits up and asks me to go out and remove my shoes. There’s a portrait of Lord Krishna on the wall behind him. Being a Krishna-bhakt is something Tej has come to be identified with. It is said that somewhere in the house there is a portrait of Krishna, which when inspected closely reveals that the face isn’t that of a beneficial god. It is Tej himself.

After the customary greetings and introductions, Tej’s private secretary speaks. “I am Uday Shankar,” he says. “Officially, I am PS to Rabriji, but I look after Tej.” As will soon become clear, this is an important admission because Tej is close to Rabri. With his mother’s secretary managing him, he is clearly not savvy enough to be his own person.

I ask Tej Pratap Yadav how he is preparing for the upcoming elections. Uday Shankar replies, “We are taking our ideology to the people. We are removing the obstructions that came our way last time. Earlier the Muslim and backward vote used to get divided.”

Tej is sitting on his bed, while his secretary and I are sat in white plastic chairs. Dressed in tight jeans and T-shirt, the skinny 27-year-old politician looks at me intently, presiding over the happy activity of someone else giving answers to questions directed at him. It is Uday who tries to impress me with the talk of microfinance and madarsa modernisation. Despite his interventions, he says at one point, with no irony, that I wouldn’t enjoy interviewing anyone as much as Tej.

I look at the scion and ask what’s different in their strategy this time. Uday Shankar replies, “We didn’t have a war room last time, and social media was not so important.”

This amusing process is repeated for the next half an hour, with Tej speaking very little. When I ask if social media was really that important in rural Bihar, Tej replies, “In villages these days, everyone uses Facebook on their Chinese phones. Whether someone dies of hunger or a cow gives birth, there are bound to be Facebook photos. Hi-tech zamana hai.”

Enthused about the alliance of his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, with the Nitish-Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), he says that the two parties will contest 100 seats each and that all was well between the leaders of the two. While seat allocation is yet to be done, two seats are fixed: he will contest from the Mahua seat and his brother Tejaswi from Raghopur, both in the Vaishali district. It’s an area just across the Ganga from Patna, a Yadav stronghold, washed away by the Modi wave last summer.

Why is Misa not contesting? She lost the Patliputra Lok Sabha seat, her first election, in 2014, but surely she should be contesting this election? “She will be our star campaigner,” Uday replies.

I ask them about the Modi wave. Uday replies, “But see what happened in Delhi.” Tej looks at Uday and asks, “How many seats did the BJP win in Delhi?”

“Three,” Uday replies.

Uday says the party is changing with the times. “We are trying to be media-friendly. In a few days, we are organising an interaction between Tej-ji and the media, in which we’ll ask the media what we should do, and then put Tej forward.”

This brings us to the succession question, which is now so predictable that the siblings have stock replies ready. So who will be Lalu Yadav’s successor in Bihar politics? Tej smiles and says, “Laluji won’t do a rajyabhishek, he is no king to anoint a successor. The people will decide with their votes.” What if the people vote for all of them in their constituencies? What if Misa wins her Lok Sabha seat in 2019?” For once, even the private secretary doesn’t have an answer.

Man of the match?

The other siblings, Tejaswi and Misa, don’t have an answer either. While there is bonhomie amongst the siblings, there is a passive aggressive tension that surrounds the question of leadership. “Laluji’s successor is every Bihari youth,” Tejaswi said in Tej’s presence in a rally in 2013, using the sort of rhetorical flourish Tej is incapable of.

Until recently, 25-year-old Tejaswi was the 12th man in the Indian Premier League’s Delhi Daredevils team, but he never did get to play. In 2013, he gave up cricket to give all his time to politics. Lalu Yadav made it clear to the world that Tejaswi’s age – he wasn’t 25 yet – was the only reason he wasn’t contesting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. No such explanation, however, was given for Tej, who was eligible for the Lok Sabha.

When Lalu Yadav was sent to Ranchi’s Birsa Munda Central Jail in September 2013, it was Tejaswi who travelled with him from Patna to Ranchi. When Lalu was released on bail two and a half months later, Tejaswi brought him back. When Lalu reached home late, he said that just as Ganesh had looked after Parvati when Shiv was away, Tej had looked after his mother. Tej was given the charge of organising celebrations for Lalu at 7 Deshratna Marg while Tejwaswi was bringing their father home.

Those in the know will tell you that Tejaswi’s aggressive rise has made his sister Misa and mother Rabri promote Tej.

Lalu’s conviction, as a result of which he can’t contest elections for six years, has come as a blessing for Tejaswi. He used his father’s time in jail to impress party workers and core voters. Lalu Yadav isn’t greedy for power, he’d say, Lalu Yadav is the name of an ideology, the ideology of the poor, regardless of caste. It helps that between cricket and politics, Tejaswi has become a little plump, drawing comparisons with his father.

Projecting himself as the social media-savvy young face of the party, Tejaswi was throwing tea parties for his Facebook friends when Tej was still busying himself with his version of the Krishna-leela. Tejaswi also runs his father’s Twitter page.

Tejaswi’s fawning Wikipedia entry declares him to be Lalu Prasad Yadav’s “political successor”. The other two siblings don’t even have Wikipedia entries.

Revolution’s child

No amount of political savvy, though, is going to make Tejaswi overshadow Misa Bharti just yet. Misa has an unassailable advantage – she is 13 years older than Tejaswi.

Though a daughter in a patriarchal society, being the eldest child has allowed 38-year-old Misa a vantage point from which she has seen her family’s struggle to power. The sons have no memory of this. She was 15 when her father first became chief minister. Her political ambitions are said to have first been emboldened in 1997 when Lalu Yadav went to jail and her mother Rabri Devi became chief minister.

Having topped her MBBS exam, she likes to be known as Dr Misa Bharti. Her driving force, backroom campaign manager, social media manager and husband is Sailesh Kumar. He controls access to her, and these days he hasn’t been taking calls from journalists. In March this year, Misa went to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of government to attend a talk on “new politics in the age of new media”. After the talk, she went up to the podium and got herself photographed. The photograph was posted on social media with the claim that she was invited there to deliver a talk on youth and politics. When Harvard University rebuffed her claim publicly, Misa Bharti pretended she had never made the claim. Such has been the public backlash against her that since then she has gone off the radar.

Misa, though, isn’t one to give up. She’s famous for her name, given to her by her father who was in jail during the Emergency under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). The political nomenclature of 1977 is a matter of pride for her. She’s the product of revolutionary times, she says.

“Ye sirf meri beti nahi, ye aandolan ki beti hai,” Lalu Yadav said while campaigning for her first election in Patliputra in 2014.

Giving her that seat resulted in Lalu’s long-time associate, Ram Kirpal Yadav, rebelling and joining the BJP. The Modi wave saw him sail through. Misa isn’t keen to contest the assembly elections as a way of showing that she’s at the Lok Sabha level, in a league above her brothers. Since there’s still time, her father may still persuade her.

Misa, like Tejaswi, is well spoken and fluent in English. But if Tejaswi is urbane and suave, educated in Delhi, Misa comes across as someone who connects better with the masses.

Misa spends more time in Delhi than Patna because her two daughters go to school in the national capital. One of her daughters has had to undergo a complex heart surgery. While balancing her political career with family responsibilities, Misa has a firm eye on Tejaswi’s rise.

When Tejaswi’s image began to appear with Lalu’s in posters and he began to trail his father, Misa knew trouble was brewing. One day, Tejaswi went and sat in his father’s office as a signal to the world. Then one afternoon, when father and son were both away, Misa came and occupied that chair. The battle for Lalu’s legacy has only just begun. In most North Indian political parties, the battle for political succession hasn’t been this complex, because most leaders don’t have so many children. That only three of Lalu’s nine children are fighting for his legacy must be a matter of relief for him.

The tussle at 10 Deshratna will determine whether Bihar is ready for its first real woman leader. More importantly, it will also run parallel to the tussle for the survival of a Yadav party. As Mandal politics has exhausted itself, Lalu’s children need to prove they really have a new idea for the future of Bihar’s Yadavs, for Bihar and themselves.

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