BIHAR Chief Minister Rabri Devi has a lot on her mind. The problem of governing Bihar is not quite it. She frets about the fate of her nine children who miss their father and complains of the "conspiracy" against her husband. And as for the nation bickering about an uneducated housewife becoming chief minister, she dismisses such critics with quiet confidence: "Jab sahib ka ghar itne saal sambhal liye to sahib ka state kyon nahin sambhal payenge (I've managed sahib's home for many years, why can't I manage sahib's state?)". Bhabiji's statement takes her prompters by surprise. She rejects their cues yet again and declares her political agenda: "Roti, kapda aur makan".
The self-styled prompters are uncomfortable. They may soon become redundant. The 38-year-old, hazel-eyed Bhabiji is no hapless fumbling fool. She's impatient with unsolicited help while she deals with the media. "Sahib taught people here to walk and talk. They are with me. And I'll look after them," the new politician promises.
She makes sure, however, that the newfound leader in her doesn't overshadow the mother. So, just hours before the Supreme Court's decision on Laloo's bail application, she thinks little of throwing a bunch of ministers discussing their portfolios out of a room because she wants it for her sons' tutorials. Masterji has come in to give them lessons—so leave, they are told. And no matter of State, no political hurlyburly can be allowed to interfere with her children's schedules.
Loath to have political diplomacy manipulate all her personal responses, she makes Kanti Singh, Union minister for coal, wait three hours before turning down the latter's request to meet her.
Kanti was rumoured to have a close relationship with Laloo, and Rabri Devi is now making extra sure she suffers under the new Raj. She's been a wife too long to cease being one just because of a swearing-in ceremony.
Hardly surprising, then, that as hysterical protesters took to Patna's streets after Laloo's arrest and her freshly sworn-in ministers quibbled over portfolios, Chief Minister Rabri Devi was ensconced in her plush home. The leader wasn't seen in public for about two days. No hastily-arranged conferences with the administration on how to contain the situation. No reassuring speeches for hysterically sloganeering Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party workers. No statements for the news-hungry media from all over the country flocking to her Anne Marg residence. Only a deadpan declaration from her august office: "Rabri Devi is not meeting anyone now. She's consoling her children."
Her maternal duties over, she readied herself to carry out her husband's will. August 1 saw her enter the chief minister's office without Laloo for the first time. A trip to the Mata Sheetala Devi temple began her day. Her daughter Rohini took credit for having chosen the bright yellow Bengal cotton saree that Rabri Devi donned for the occasion: "Mummy looks good in bright colours."
Bright and bold, Rabri Devi lent herself to the cameras on her day out at office and left for home in less than two hours. Much like the only other day she had been to work before. "Madam had barely stayed about two hours. Her husband guided her as she signed about 20 files and photographers clicked her at work," recalls Ghulam Tahir, deputy secretary at the chief minister's Secretariat. Maintaining a diplomatic silence on Rabri Devi's capabilities to run the office, the bureaucrat makes a feeble attempt at registering Rabri Devi's contribution to government that day: "She did say something on the lines of not tolerating any violence against women to a group of senior bureaucrats she addressed."
"Agreed that Bhabiji will take some time to learn the intricacies of governance. Just wait a bit. They thought Indira Gandhi was a dumb doll when the syndicate threw her into politics. Look what happened," observes Raghunath Jha, Bihar's minister for parliamentary affairs. Overwhelming in their influence in the new regime, Rabri Devi's rogue brothers Subhash and Sadhu Yadav feel didi knows enough already. "The ministers and the bureaucrats will all work to make Bihar run—didi has seen her husband deal with them for years now," quips Subhash.
And for years she has also kept house for her husband. "I managed home when he did politics. It was his order. Now he wants me to manage politics. I will," she reiterates. She emphasises the fact that she still keeps an eye on what is cooking in the kitchen. She cuts up an entire cabbage and half a cauliflower for the benefit of the photographer. "My children have always had me at home, so I make sure they don't miss me now that I have to go to office," she says, cuddling little Tarun.
Odd though it seems to have a chief minister surrounded by her brood as she talks to the media, Rabri Devi's commitment to her family wins her the unconditional support of many a woman in her party. Quarry worker-turned-MLA Bhagwati Devi's voice chokes with emotion as she speaks of having a "true Indian woman" as the head of the state executive. "If Maneka and Sonia can become leaders, why all this fuss over Bhagwati, Phoolan and Rabri?"
Because, unlike Bhagwati and Phoolan, Rabri Devi has not got into politics on her own steam, retorts Opposition leader Sushil Modi of the BJP. "Laloo kept her firmly indoors. She hardly ever participated in his political life. Didn't campaign for him, didn't entertain political people, didn't attend too many functions. Married at 14, Rabri Devi was pregnant for a good nine years in her life. Poor woman, she hardly had the time to take lessons in politics from Laloo," Modi says.
Madam's simplicity and innocence, feels district magistrate Rajbala Verma, is what will see her through ultimately. "She insists that there be no violence in the bandhs and the andolans that happen in support of Lalooji," she says. But with 74 squabbling cabinet ministers, seething political rivals and without Laloo's guidance, Rabri Devi's innocence might not really help her. And then, of course, there is the politics in Delhi. "I'll think of Delhi only once I sort out Bihar," says Rabri Devi, explaining that she will start intensive tours of the state in the next few weeks. "Nothing wrong can happen to sahib or me as long as the janta is with us," Rabri Devi emphasises. "I have managed my home efficiently and now I will manage my state efficiently."
Big promises. But they come from a steadfast woman who, as the meagre bio-data issued by Rabri Devi's office claims, is "a true patriot and a pure symbol of Indian womanhood."