Mr Comeback keeps his footing despite scandal, poor results

Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, once famously said that he would remain a force in Bihar as long as samosas, a popular Indian snack, were filled with potatoes.

Known for such one-liners and a quirky sense of humour, Mr Yadav, 67, who over the last decade was written off as a spent political force, has scripted a comeback.

His party won the largest number of seats - 80 of the 243 - in the state assembly, and is part of the winning coalition led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Mr Yadav, a charismatic grassroots politician, was the perfect foil to the more serious Mr Kumar.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attacked Mr Kumar, it was Mr Yadav who provided the drollest comebacks, even receiving a reprimand from the Election Commission for calling BJP president Amit Shah - who had called Mr Yadav a thief - a "man-eater".

At the victory press conference last week after the results were announced, Mr Yadav did not hold back, warning Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP he was coming to get him.

Mr Yadav is opposed to Mr Modi because of ideological differences, with Mr Yadav a socialist and Mr Modi having Hindu nationalist roots.

"I will go to every part of the country and campaign against him," said Mr Yadav, vowing to start in Varanasi, Mr Modi's constituency.

While Mr Yadav is tainted by corruption, his alliance with Mr Kumar and a campaign centred on regional pride are seen to have consolidated his traditional votebank, which includes Muslims and members of the Yadav caste.

Born to poor farmers and the second of six brothers, Mr Yadav's foray into politics started in Patna University where he, along with Mr Kumar, was part of the student movement led by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan against corruption in public life and price rise.

From student politics, he graduated to state politics and was chief minister from 1990 to 2005, surviving scandal and poor governance.

When a corruption scandal involving embezzlement of government funds worth 380 million rupees (S$8.2 million) meant for cattle fodder cut short his term as chief minister in 1997, he installed his wife - a homemaker and mother of his seven children - as proxy and continued to rule till 2005.

A standing joke was that when a visiting Japanese dignitary told Mr Yadav he could turn Bihar into Japan in three years, Mr Yadav responded saying he could do one better - turn Japan into Bihar in three days.

His term, dubbed the "jungle raj years", was associated with lawlessness, poor governance and corruption. Yet, his rule socially empowered the once downtrodden Yadavs and kept Muslims safe from communal incidents, even during the heights of communal tension in the country, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu right-wingers in 1992 that led to countrywide rioting between Hindus and Muslims.

It is this combination that has given Mr Yadav a second lease of life.

He still cannot hold an official post because of his corruption conviction in 2013, but his two sons are expected to get prominent posts in the state Cabinet.

Some believe he has learnt lessons from the past.

"Lalu will have to reinvent himself," said political science professor Bidyut Chakrabarty at the University of Delhi.

"If Lalu behaves irresponsibly or insists on certain issues and go against Nitish and development, he will ruin himself with voters."

Nirmala Ganapathy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Mr Comeback keeps his footing despite scandal, poor results'. Print Edition | Subscribe