What absence of Lalu Prasad Yadav meant for Lok Sabha elections 2019?

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File photo of former Bihar Chief Minister and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav / PTI

Poll marathon has just ended in India and post-poll excitement has just begun. After a high decibel election campaigning, caretaker Prime Minster Narendra Damodardas Modi landed in a modern-era cave in Kedarnath for some man ki shanti, while opposition parties are still haranguing about EVMs and VVPATs. Exit polls have done their job of taking the biggest democracy on a ride and Election Commission (EC) is still looking into poll code violations by Modi.

The seven-phase election has ended, and it’s quite clear that Lok Sabha election this year was different from previous elections. Simply put, it turned out to be an extremely boring and lethargic electoral exercise, as compared to previous elections. One important factor that made the elections less ‘interesting’ was the absence of popular leader Lalu Prasad Yadav. Infact, during the last two-decades, after the formation of RJD, this is the first time Lalu could not campaign in the elections. Sentenced in a corruption case by a CBI court, and currently recuperating in a Ranchi hospital, RJD supremo’s absence was felt throughout the elections.

As Lalu remained confined to Ranchi, prime-time slots and special ‘interviews’ in media, conveniently passed on to Modi. Infamous for his ‘Mann ki baat’, Modi ruled the front pages of newspapers, not just with news, but more with advertorials and advertisements. ‘Breaking News’ became irrelevant for TV channels as they couldn’t match the high frequency diatribes of Modi. There is little doubt that only Lalu could have surpassed Modi in terms of media presence and limelight. Lalu has mastered the art of media management and he also knows how to ‘deal’ with mainstream English media, who has always presented him as a bit of buffoon and extremely corrupt to its urban middle class audience.   

This election was also unique – being an issue-less election. Opposition parties, be it Congress, BSP, SP or CPI – all failed to put forward strong election issues. Left, with its coterie of film stars and activists, couldn’t see beyond Kanhaiya’s election and Gandhi siblings, despite their best efforts, couldn’t give prime-time worthy political jumlas. Even BJP ‘failed’ to highlight crucial issues of global importance like ‘Chai’ and ‘Ram temple’ in the elections. Devoid of any relevant national issues, the elections were reduced to a fist fight between Modi and Rahul. An issue-less election, made Modi relevant and hot-favourite for media and film stars. Canadian film star Akshay Kumar even tried to win some brownie points in PM’s company but couldn’t get anything beyond mangoes.

While ‘Hindutva’ remained high on the political agenda of BJP, opposition could not even rake up communalism as an issue. Lalu’s presence could have altered the situation completely. There is no other political leader who can match Lalu’s ability to raise issues of national importance in the language of common people. ‘Secularism’ could have been a major political issue had Lalu been actively engaging in these elections. He shares a deep suspicion of the RSS, and has done stupendous work for communal harmony in Bihar. It was commendable that during the Lalu regime, Bihar remained riot-free at the time of the Babri demolition and later. In the era of flexible political ideologies and malleable principles, Lalu perhaps is the only national leader who, throughout his political career, refused to enter into any alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.  There is no other leader who could have fought against communalism with genuine passion and political commitment in these elections.

During the entire election phase, political rallies remained lacklustre. No leader from the opposition could effectively and emotionally engage with the electorate. This created additional space for Modi’s theatrics. India has not seen a better communicator than Lalu Prasad Yadav and no one can substitute Lalu in terms of campaign style or connecting with the audience in their own language. He has a deeper linkage with poor people and an unmatchable appeal. Lalu’s reputation as one who challenged deep-rooted caste structures and upheld secularism has earned him far more credit than the disrepute his conviction in the fodder scam brought him. That’s what justifies Lalu’s charisma, which could have been used as a masterstroke.

Lastly, the mahagathbandhan would have been on a more powerful ground had Lalu played an active role in it. He has a good understanding and appreciation of coalition politics, and in the current political scenario, he could have steered it safely amidst the sloppy waters of elections.

Lalu Prasad Yadav is distinct, unconventional and still relevant in Indian politics. His presence would have made these elections a memorable affair, not just for the media but for the country and its people.

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