February 22, 2020
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Presiding Over Chaos

With Laloo in jail, chief minister Rabri Devi is mourning, leaving the state in a shambles

Presiding Over Chaos

MILDLY described, it's a unique experiment in parliamentary democracy. With husband Laloo behind bars, newly-elected chief minister Rabri Devi is in mourning, preferring to stay indoors and supervise domestic chores—declining to take up any official work. Her brothers, Sadhu and Subhash, the men with absolute powers, and Laloo 'loyalists' in the new Cabinet are taking decisions on her behalf, then persuading her to scribble on the dotted line. Add to this the ongoing battle of attrition between the judiciary seeking to uphold some democratic norms, a rogue executive riding roughshod over them, an impotent legislature watching from the sidelines, and the ensemble is complete. Bihar is in disarray.

On August 1, the day of the state-sponsored bandh, this spectre loomed large on the state's political horizon, suggesting the pattern of things to come. While lumpen elements, masquerading as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) workers took to the streets in the state capital, holding residents to ransom, and the district administration looked the other way, there appeared to be no sign of any governance. Hired hoodlums with green headbands went on the rampage while a parallel battle was fought in the Patna High Court. The crunch came near the high court premises where lawyers on their way to work were stopped and beaten up for "failing to defend Lalooji" and made to do pushups amidst catcalls.

An agitated team of lawyers met the chief justice B.M. Lal who, in turn, summoned chief secretary B.P. Verma and director general of police S.K. Saxena to his official chamber. The chief justice demanded an explanation from the inept administration.

 The message was loud and clear for Verma and Saxena, both of whom are facing contempt proceedings for not cooperating with the CBI in arresting Laloo Yadav when arrest warrants had been despatched on July 26. Within the next hour, a Rapid Action Force (RAF) battalion, twiddling its thumbs since the morning because it had received no directives from the largely collaborative district administration, had moved into the town and 'workers' swearing to spill blood on the streets for Laloo disappeared without a trace. Touted as a natural success—a 'spontaneous', if excessive, response from an emotional people—the bandh was broken in no time with the indirect assistance of courts.

Says Shivanand Tiwari of the Samata Party: "Look at the chief minister's residence and you will know what is happening." In one corner, brother Sadhu Yadav is holding a durbar; at another portion Subhash Yadav is holding fort while the chief minister Rabri Devi huddles inside the palatial building, managing the children. The Cabinet is being effectively looked after by trusted Laloo aides Raghunath Jha, virtually second in command, and Jagtanand, both 'upper caste' ministers who have accepted Rabri Devi as their leader with no hint of rancour. Jha can barely conceal his excitement: "I think her elevation as chief minister is a gift to India's 50th anniversary. It could not have come better than this.''

Which is not what everyone in the state is saying. Already, there are signs that the two brothers are well in control. Says a district magistrate on tour in Patna: "I have personally been called up by Sadhu twice in one day with unreasonable requests. I cannot follow them and hence am waiting for transfer orders."

ON the day when the CBI special court issued its arrest warrant, the local investigating team got an inkling of what it would mean to arrest Laloo. For two days before the former chief minister formally offered to surrender in the special court, the chief minister's residence was thrown open to the people. Large groups of party workers, MLAs and supporters thronged the house, making it difficult for the CBI to arrest Laloo. When CBI DIG R.N. Kaul wanted to speak to the chief secretary, he was told that the officer was not available. When Kaul got in touch with the DGP, he was told it would take some time. 

Frustrated with the administrative stonewalling, the CBI moved the Patna High Court late at night with a request that the army from the nearby Danapur cantonment be called in to "clear and sanitise" the chief minister's residence prior to the arrest. The top army brass at Danapur was stunned by this unusual request in an unusual situation, but focus soon shifted to the high court which, in a strange move, passed an oral order okaying army assistance. Ironically, Laloo sorted the mess himself by a dramatic declaration that he would surrender. Predictably, every senior leader in Parliament led by Chandra Shekhar have lambasted the CBI's decision to seek military help in what was basically a law and order problem. Of course, they glossed over one important fact—that there is a complete administrative breakdown in the state.

If that was not enough, Rabri Devi decided to expand the Cabinet to a whopping strength of 75, including some highly disparate elements: history-sheeters (see box), Laloo-baiters et al. Says one indignant official: "How do you find accommodation and cars for all of them?" And if they all want to do a Bhola Ram Toofani, then the administration is in trouble. For the three years the animal husbandry minister—also co-accused in the Rs 950-crore fodder scam—was in power, he functioned exclusively from his residence.

In this charged atmosphere, the conflict between the executive and the judiciary is likely to worsen. On July 30, when Laloo finally surrendered in the specially designated court of S.K. Lal, the scene was marked by chaos.

While there were stringent curbs on entry in the court premises, the Patna district magistrate and a Laloo acolyte, Rajbala Verma, had no qualms about allowing a band of party workers inside the court. After the judicial verdict against Laloo, the supporters shouted slogans against the judge. Next day, the judge told the open court that he had been threatened and sought additional security.

The days ahead are crucial for the Laloo brigade. First, a contempt notice will be heard against the chief secretary and DGP for their role in protecting Laloo against the CBI arrest warrant. Laloo himself appears in court on August 6 when one of his remand cases comes up for hearing. Even in his hour of crisis, Laloo is playing his political cards as only he can. He appointed old friend and MP Ranjan Yadav as working president of the RJD. Ranjan Yadav himself plays down talk of his reported differences with the former chief minister. "There are no differences. I have been given a task and I am going to set the organisational house in order. I am going to call a meeting of party leaders to discuss the latest situation."

But political life without Laloo is not going to be the same. As long as the doughty chief minister with an unquestionable mass appeal was in charge, he was the only power-centre. In his absence, there seems to be little doubt that there will be a jostling for stakes. Laloo's family visited him at his place of confinement in Phulwarisharif on the outskirts of Patna, imbibing a few more lessons on the rough and tumble of politics from the master strategist. Only, these may not be enough to tide over the crisis.

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