Sucheta Dalal :Lalu the unknown
Sucheta Dalal

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Lalu the unknown  

June 7, 2006

Discovering hidden aspects of the colourful politician’s style of working and personality


The dramatic success of Indian Railways, which posted a record profit of more than Rs10,000 crore this year, has drawn attention to a surprising aspect of Mr Lalu Prasad, a colourful politician and a darling of the media. Even in this era of 24 hours news channels and ever present media, the image we get of our political leaders is not complete. There are aspects of well known leaders which are not so well known.


This question came to mind a few weeks ago while I was participating in a in-house workshop for ethical counselors of the house of Tatas. Mr Irani, who followed my talk to the counselors, substantiated the points I made about the challenges to the reputation of an enterprise and ethical issues in business. He then narrated an inside story about the unknown facets of the one and only Lalu Prasad of Bihar.


Mr Lalu, by accident or design, has been projected as a sort of a country bumpkin but a populist leader who has had a stranglehold over power in Bihar for 15 years, while the average tenure of chief ministers before him has been nine months. When Mr Lalu became CM in 1990, he observed that he was the king of Bihar and that houses like the Tatas in Jamshedpur, which considered themselves independent would be brought under state control and put in their place. This certainly created anxiety among Tata management.


Mr Irani, hence, took the earliest opportunity to seek an appointment with Mr Lalu and found him surrounded by cronies and hangers on. When Mr Irani requested a few minutes alone with him, the CM, promptly, asked his chelas to leave. Irani then told told the CM, “Sir, it is our company policy not to pay money to political leaders. Nevertheless, if you want anything of public interest to be done, like putting up a school, hospital or other such facilities, we will be glad to do so.”


It so happened that on the same day, Mr Irani accompanied Mr Lalu to the Civil Hospital in Patna. He found that the hospital was in a miserable condition, particularly the children’s ward. Promptly, without even consulting top management, Mr Irani announced that the Tatas would build a separate children’s ward, subject to the condition that it would be maintained by them, even though it would have government doctors and be a part of the civil hospital. The CM agreed and so did the Tata board. At a cost of Rs 1.2 crore a children’s ward was set up in Patna, within a year.


After narrating this incident Mr Irani, went on to say that before Mr Lalu became CM, he received telephone calls from the CM’s office practically every week, if not every other day, asking for some favour or recommendation. However, in the 15 years that Mr Lalu has been CM, there has not been a single call from him requesting a favour.


This was not all. Apparently, Mr Irani once accompanied Mr Lalu on a trip to Singapore. It was one of Mr Lalu’s earliest trips. The CM while in Singapore tried to address those whom he met in English and apparently had some difficulty doing so. Mr Irani took Mr Lalu aside and told him, “Sir, when the Chinese Prime Minister comes here, he speaks in Chinese and it is translated. The same thing with the German Chancellor. So you may talk in Hindi and I will arrange to get it translated.” The rest of the visit went very well. In fact, it went so well that when Mr Ratan Tata later visited Singapore, the CM of Singapore told him, “Of all the Indian political leaders who have come to Singapore, the most impressive was Mr Lalu Prasad. All the ministers who met him are uniformly in praise of him.”


And there is yet another angle to Mr Lalu. Even though he personally did not ask for any out of the way concessions, some local officials would apparently approach the Tatas for favours. When Mr Irani brought this to the CM’s notice during one of his visits to Jamshedpur, Mr Lalu apparently told all officials, “Look at this. This is an Udupi Restaurant. You cannot order chicken curry here.” That probably settled the issue.


Human beings have really complex personalities. The media is supposed to reflect the varied aspects of a person, but it is not always possible to do so. Even those politicians who hog the headlines have unrevealed aspects of their personalities.


• In the last decade, N Vittal, the former CVC emerged as the voice of our collective conscience. This is his weekly take on public life in India.


This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on June 5, 2006.


-- Sucheta Dalal