By A.J. Philip
Today’s villain may be tomorrow’s saint. History is replete with instances of this kind. Even in one’s own lifetime, a person may appear differently to different people. Railway Minister Lalit Narain Mishra was one such person. For many, he was a rising star in Bihar politics who had his eyes set on Raisina Hills in New Delhi.
However, for some, Mishra was the one who corrupted journalists in Patna. Stories abound about his largesse, shown to newsmen. One story has it that he sent a suit length to the residences of senior journalists with his personal greetings. Everybody thought that no one else had received it.
A few weeks later, Mishra threw a party where all the recipients of the suit pieces were invited. They all wore a new suit, made with the same striped fabric. In short, they exposed themselves as influenceable, if not purchasable. Let me hasten to add, the story may be apocryphal.
I never had an occasion to meet Mishra. As providence would have it, his granddaughter Varalika Mishra was one of my students at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. She had inherited some of his facial features.
His death in a bomb blast at Samastipur raised many eyebrows. Till today no one is sure who planted the bomb under the rostrum, although some Anand Margis were arrested and convicted. One person who got minor injuries in the blast was his younger brother Dr Jagannath Mishra (82) who died after a protracted illness at a hospital in the Capital on August 19.
It may not be politically correct to say that the younger brother filled the vacuum created by the assassination of his elder brother but the fact is indisputable. Many saw his appointment as Chief Minister as a placebo.
Soon, Dr Mishra emerged as the strongman of Bihar. He knew how to please the public. Like Chief Minister A.K. Antony who won over private school teachers by asking the government to pay their salaries, a decision considered foolish, Dr. Mishra nationalised private schools causing a huge financial burden to the state exchequer.
In his second term, he took another populist measure. He declared Urdu as the second official language of the state. His fellow Maithil Brahmins were upset because they wanted a better status for their mother-tongue but he began to be called “Maulana Jagannath“. He remained the darling of the minorities until Laloo Prasad Yadav replaced him from that coveted position.
Journalists remember Dr. Mishra for the Bihar Press Bill he enacted. I remember taking part in a procession that stopped at all the newspaper offices in Patna. It was truly a draconian measure. Accounts differ on what prompted him to bring forward the Bill modelled after the one in Tamil Nadu. A newsmagazine had reported that he had slaughtered a goat and had a bloodbath to propitiate some god or goddess.
Whatever the reason, he became the fall guy for the whole journalistic fraternity in the country. The Bill was waiting for the Presidential assent when Dr Mishra realised that prudence dictated withdrawing it. Thus, he was able to retrieve his image to some extent.
One fine morning, he had the realisation that the Centre had not been treating the state well. Whether he wanted to float a regional party or not, his thunderous speech in the Assembly did not go well with the Centre. The result: Dr Mishra had to pave the way for Chandra Shekhar Singh, who lost the Chief Ministership when he could not get elected to the Assembly within six months of becoming CM.
Dr. Mishra fancied himself as an economist. He was never tired of saying that he guided so many research scholars while he was still active in politics.
I am not sure how many got Ph.D under his guidance. Some say 20, some others say 30! Once, Dr. Mishra was bitten by the egalitarian bug. He dropped his caste name, calling himself Jagannath. A few moths later when elections were announced, he took back the tail of Mishra. I had a few occasions to meet him, mostly in the company of my friend and journalist Ambikanand Sahay. I had written an editorial attacking him on a particular issue. I am not sure whether it was on the Press Bill. It was not a signed piece but Dr. Mishra had his informers in the newspaper.
The day it appeared, a person, supposedly close to him, threatened me on phone of dire consequences. I can’t believe that he did it with Dr. Mishra’s knowledge.
He became Chief Minister three times. It was a period when power was the preserve of the upper castes. The Congress was not prepared to make a leader of eminence like Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav as the Chief Minister. Instead, a Chandra Shekhar Singh was imported from the Rajya Sabha!
Dr Mishra was a widower. Once his wife Veena was admitted to the Patna Medical College Hospital. At that time, there was a popular demand that only Biharis should be given jobs as government nurses. Dr. Mishra even accepted the demand when someone raised the issue in the Assembly.
The Matron of the PMCH was a Malayali. The Chief Minister called the Matron to his wife’s room in the private ward. He made a request: “Please post only Malayali nurses to look after my wife”. When the Matron told me this story, I remembered his promise in the Vidhan Sabha.
Dr. Mishra will be remembered as a great dissident also. He did not allow fellow Congressmen like CS Singh and SN Sinha to have a comfortable stay as Chief Minister. The arrival of Laloo Yadav as his successor and the Mandal politics marked the end of Dr Mishra’s era in Bihar politics. He could never regain his political clout. His was a journey from somebody to nobody. It was during Dr Mishra’s regime that the fodder scam began. It remained unnoticed till it was busted during the regime of Laloo Yadav. There are many who believe that the scam had his patronage.
As someone who has studied the scam, I am convinced that it was a local-level cheating case. It is difficult to believe that it had the patronage of either Dr Mishra or Laloo Yadav. While Dr. Mishra escaped almost unhurt, Laloo Yadav remains what I call a “prisoner of conscience“.
Caste can at times be an advantage and at other times a disadvantage. This was true in the case of both the predecessor and the successor.
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