Sentenced in a corruption case by a CBI court, and currently recuperating in a Ranchi hospital, RJD supremo Lalu Prasad is ostensibly present in this election only in photos of his that occupy prime space in RJD flags at party or Mahagathbandhan rallies. Ostensibly.
RJD leaders say his stamp is everywhere - in the emergence of son Tejashwi Yadav as heir despite family grumblings, in the seat distribution within the alliance, in ticket allocation, in the beeline that leaders made to his hospital bed in the run-up to the polls, and even in his absence that has robbed Bihar of the flavour the leader brought to its elections. Since he founded the RJD in 1997, this is the first time Lalu is not campaigning.
Whether through his tweets or blogs on social media, or constant mention of him, RJD ensures Lalu's presence in elections. In a recent blog written from hospital, Lalu discussed how each of his supporters had to be a Lalu to take on BJP and RJD.
In his autobiography From Gopalganj to Raisana, released two seeks ago, a timing that seemed too much of a coincidence, Lalu appeared to anticipate not being allowed to campaign (his bail pleas were rejected all the way up to the Supreme Court), as well as indicate how he would go around it. 'I decided to play the role of a political warrior against feudal and communal forces within the limitation of the law of the land,' Lalu says in the book, that he co-authored with journalist Nalin Verma. 'I'm not worried in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections as next generation leaders have taken over and are working hard to shape a new India.'
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As part of this passing-the-baton exercise, one of Lalu's most decisive steps was to throw his weight behind Tejashwi, which hasn't wavered in the face of elder son Tej Pratap Yadav's public rebellion. No attempt was made to accommodate Tej's nominees for two seats, Jehanabad and Sheohar. At the 'united family' residence, on 10, Circular Road, Patna, from where a sulking Tej has moved out, Tejashwi now holds fort.
In what is virtually the RJD's election office, party candidates meet Tejashwi here, including with appeals to campaign for them.
The ticket allocation, including by RJD allies, too has Lalu's fingerprints, keeping in mind his tested Muslim-Yadav vote bank, as well as the potential votes of extremely backward classes and non-Yadav OBCs. While Muslims and Yadavs, who still stand behind the RJD, make up 32 per cent of the electorate, the EBCs and other OBCs comprise 40 per cent - making them together an unsurmountable combination.
Party leaders say that despite Congress president Rahul Gandhi having publicly snubbed him once over his corruption taint, Lalu ensured an alliance with the party. The Congress, which won three Lok Sabha seats in 2014 from Bihar, was allotted nine, apparently again at his behest, while another 12 were shared with new allies - leaving the RJD with 19 (it won four in 2014).
The tie-ups reflect the need felt by the RJD to attract new vote banks apart from Muslim-Yadavs. While Jitan Ram Majhi's Hindustani Awam Morcha and Mukesh Nishad's Vikassheel Insan Party, with a base among EBCs, have been given three seats each, Upendra Kushwaha's Rashtriya Lokshakti Party with clout among non-Yadav OBCs has got five. The alliance has also backed a CPI(M-L) candidate in one seat, with Lalu making it clear to leaders of allies that they must ensure that their respective caste votes are transferred to the Mahagthbandhan.
None of this, of course, makes up for the absence of Lalu the campaigner, his ability to connect with the masses, and to pin his opponents down. In 2014, it is still recalled, when then prime minister-aspirant Narendra Modi had called him a "shaitan (devil)" during electioneering, Lalu had got back by asking people to chase away "the Brahma Rakshas (upper-caste demons)".
Says Verma, his co-author, "While other leaders are repetitive, Lalu always has something new and mesmerising to say."
RJD national spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari, who was among the first to spot Lalu's potential, recruiting him for the youth wing of the Socialist Party back in the mid-'60s, says, "Democracy is a system that the deprived and underprivileged stand to gain from by challenging and displacing those exercising power and privilege. Lalu in that sense is a great tutor for the masses and is certainly missed."
Lacking any such mass campaigner in the state ranks, it is only natural that the NDA hopes to benefit from Lalu not being able to canvass. Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Modi, though, insists, "Lalu is micro-managing party election from jail."
Anyway, the NDA realises that, having entered electoral politics back in 1977, winning his first Lok Sabha election at the age of 29, evolving from a grassroots leader seeped in the socialist schooling of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan to a national leader giving voice to the OBCs, Muslims and EBCs, seeing through 10 Lok Sabha and state elections, and making a surprise comeback as recently as the 2015 Assembly polls, if Lalu has proved one thing, it is that he is a survivor.
So when in his book he predicts the BJP will not be able to make it to a second term - 'Both Modi and Nitish will suffer heavily in Bihar' - guess who isn't dismissing it?