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Raghuvansh Prasad Singh: A saint among the tainted

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By Mohan Sahay

It was difficult to remain unscathed in a political party like Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav, which was mired in corruption cases and rabid caste politics in Bihar. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who passed away on September 13, maintained his integrity till he breathed his last.

One of the few surviving socialist followers of Ram Manohar Lohia, Raghuvansh Babu, as he was affectionately called, led a simple life. Even when he was a Union Minister in the UPA-1 government led by Manmohan Singh, his official bungalow on Ashok Road sported minimal, bare furnishing.

It fell to him as the minister for rural development to lead the roll-out of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). While a scheme to build toilets in villages had been on for decades, he fleshed it out as a nationwide scheme, the Nirmal Gaon Yojana. The modest man could not give it the national salience its flamboyant successor, the Swachch Bharat Mission managed to secure.

He has been with Karpoori Thakur, another veteran socialist leader and a former chief minister of Bihar. After Karpoori Thakur’s death, he opted to join forces with Lalu Yadav, who formed Rashtriya Janata Dal, following multiple splits in the Janata Dal.

At times, he was at pains to explain his presence in RJD, with its leader charged with corruption and even jailed in the fodder scam. Once, when I suggested that he quit RJD, he said, “Kya Karen? Kahan jayen? Mere liye koi aur constituency hai nahin. Congress aur BJP mein main ja nahin sakta”. (What shall I do? Where I will go? I don’t have any other constituency. I can’t go to Congress or BJP).

He held a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Mathematics and was a Professor at Langat Singh College in Muzaffarpur before plunging into full time-politics.

Despite belonging to an upper caste – he was a Rajput – he practised backward caste politics with Karpoori Thakur (a backward caste leader and a man known for his honesty and integrity).

Vaishali in Bihar was his constituency, which he represented in the Lok Sabha. In Bihar, where caste is a major factor, he narrated an interesting incident. While canvassing for votes in elections, he visited a village in Vaishali that was dominated by upper caste Bhumihars. In Bihar, Rajputs and Bhumihars are traditional rivals.

When he went to the village, people there welcomed him and extended all courtesy to a man known for his clean image and tireless work for the poor and the downtrodden. Villagers offered him chair and treated him with snacks and tea, listened to him attentively as he pleaded to the villagers to cast their vote in his favour.

Some elderly present in the crowd were frank enough to tell him in local dialect, “Ahan to admi theek chhi, par votwa na deb” (You are a good man but will not vote for you). It was a simple caste equation in Bihar. Yet, he won his Lok Sabha seat from Vaishali in 2004 and in 2009, but lost his seat in 2014 and in 2019.

He expected that his party, the RJD, would send him to the Rajya Sabha this year, but Lalu and his son Tejaswi repeated Prem Chand Gupta for the Rajya Sabha, because Gupta has been a financier and fund raiser for Lalu. The second seat that RJD won went to some obscure businessman of North Bihar.

Raghuvansh Prasad Singh was broken by the treatment given to him by Lalu and his son. He was further hurt when Lalu admitted to his party fold a leader who always opposed him in politics.

In Parliament, whether he was in the Opposition or in the government, Raghuvansh Babu always received good coverage in newspapers particularly English dailies of Delhi.

Once Lalu asked him, “Raghuvansh Babu kya baat hai yeh Angrezi akhbar to hamare picchhe pada rahta hai aapka khoob tareef karta hai” (Raghuvans Babu how come the English newspapers, that are after me, heap praise on you)?

To which Raghuvansh replied, “Kya jane. Log hamare paas atey hain aur baat kar ke chale jate hain, Kya likhte hain aur kya chhapte hain hum kaise kahen” (How would I know, they come to me talk and go. What they write and what they publish I don’t know”.

While in Delhi as an MP or as a minister he would invite journalists of Delhi to his Ashok Road residence on 14th of January every year without fail. It was the day of Makar Sankranti. Journalists would be treated to Dahi Chura and Tilkoot. Among the invitees would be even those journalists who had retired or quit the newspaper they represented. It was not that once a journalist was out of reckoning he would ignore him or her.

The last days of his life were filled with pain at the treatment meted by the RJD run by Lalu and his son. From the hospital bed at AIIMS in Delhi, he sent a hand-written note to Lalu, who is serving a jail sentence in Ranchi, saying that it was no longer possible from him to continue in the Party. Lalu wrote back that he would not let him go. His last letter written also from his hospital bed was to Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister requesting him to do development work in Vaishali which had rejected him in two consecutive Lok Sabha polls. He was a saint among politicians.

(The author is a senior journalist in Delhi. Views expressed are personal)

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