Addressing the media on Tuesday after the JD(U) and RJD, together with allies, staked claim to form the new government, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav simultaneously thanked JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar and his father and RJD national president Lalu Prasad for “safeguarding secularism”.
“It was Lalu Prasad who stopped L K Advani’s rath (in 1990). Now that we are together, we will not allow the BJP to fulfil its nefarious designs,” Tejashwi said.
Till the 2015 Assembly elections, the last polls in which he actively campaigned, Lalu never forgot to underline his role in halting Advani’s yatra – always drawing cheers in response. With that arrest, Lalu sealed his place in India’s political imagination beyond Bihar as the leader who didn’t stick to mere platitudes and actually stopped the temple movement, which when it fructified two years later changed the course of India’s history.
Already disechanted with the Congress after the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, and apprehensive of the rising drumbeat of the BJP’s Ram temple movement, Muslim voters had switched lock, stock and barrel to the RJD. The Muslim-Yadav combination that Lalu forged then continues to earn the RJD rich dividends, including in the 2020 Assembly elections, where it won the maximum number of seats. Tejashwi is now trying to make it ‘MY Plus’, but there are Muslims still in the RJD’s maths.
Looking back at October 1990
It was only seven months after Lalu took over as Bihar CM for the first time, at the head of a Janata Dal government. The Janata Dal was also in power at the Centre at the time, and Lalu was apparently not Prime Minister V P Singh’s first choice for the CM post.
L K Advani, the BJP president at the time, seeking to ride the Ram Janmabhoomi wave, decided to press his advantage knowing that the Janata Dal government at the Centre depended on the BJP for support. There were ample hints by the BJP that should Advani’s ‘rath’, with its planned route from Somnath to Ayodhya via Bihar, be stopped anywhere, it could withdraw support to the government.
This correspondent dealt with the episode in detail in his book Ruled vs Misruled: The Story and Destiny of Bihar (Bloomsbury, 2015). As the book notes, V P Singh was undecided on the matter, and had held numerous deliberations on how to retrieve the situation – as well as save his government.
“UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav (also a Janata Dal leader), who did not enjoy the best of relationships with (V P) Singh… challenged Advani to enter Ayodhya. Yadav was determined to score politically to cater to his vast Muslim constituency.” In October 1990, the Mulayam government had opened fire to stop kar sevaks headed for Ayodhya, and hence taken a march in the so-called secularism sweepstakes.
It was against this backdrop that Lalu stepped in, his eye on the 17% Muslim population of Bihar. “The very thought of latching on to… Muslim constituency post 1989-riots by arresting Advani, was irresistible for Lalu.”
He reached a tacit understanding with V P Singh to go ahead with the arrest after Advani entered Bihar.
The first plan was to arrest Advani in Dhanbad (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand). However, this was cancelled because of the sizeable BJP and RSS influence in the region. Lalu was also hesitant as the Dhanbad Deputy Comissioner (DC) was Afzal Amanullah, the son-in law of firebrand Muslim leader Syed Sahabuddin. Advani’s arrest on instructions of a Muslim IAS officer could provoke communal violence, the government felt.
Advani moved on to Gaya and then Patna, where he received a warm welcome. Again, Lalu held his hand as the BJP had a good support base in Patna. Plus arresting Advani in Patna could have ended up giving the BJP’s new Hindutva mascot a media platform to exploit.
The final call was taken after Lalu went to Delhi to meet V P Singh. Mulayam was not kept in the loop. “V P Singh, who had already been dubbed as Mandal messiah, had decided to risk his government to follow up Mandal with foiling Kamandal in his bid to become prime flag-bearer of secularism as well. But the script suited the Bihar CM the most,” this correspondent wrote in the book.
Only a few were in the know about what was to transpire. As Advani’s rath crossed the Ganga towards North Bihar, he faced the first Janata Dal protests. The Dumka District Collector received orders to keep a guest house ready for an “important guest”, without details.
On October 22, Advani reached Samastipur at night, telling the late Pramod Mahajan, who was by his side, to wake him up only if a government official came calling. The BJP had an inkling of Lalu and V P Singh’s confabulations.
Cooperative Registrar R K Singh and senior IPS officer Rameshwar Oraon were told to head to the Samastipur Circuit House where Advani was staying. On the intervening night of October 22 and 23, 1990, Darbhanga Range IG R R Prasad was also asked to reach Samastipur.
“The Samastipur Circuit House was besieged with paramilitary and other forces and looked like a fortress. Communication lines to Samastipur were snapped… R K Singh and Rameshwar Oraon reached the Circuit House and woke up Advani.”
Before leaving with the officials, Advani wrote a letter to President R Venkatraman, informing him that the BJP was withdrawing its support to the National Front government headed by V P Singh, and handed it over to party secretary Kailashpati Mishra. At Advani’s request, Mahajan was allowed to accompany him.
A helicopter flew the two of them from an airstrip to Dumka, from where they were taken by road to the rest house at Massanjore on the Bihar-West Bengal Border.
Lalu remained CM till 1997, when the fodder scam conviction caused him to step down. The BJP jumped to 161 seats, and emerged as the single-largest party, in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. While that BJP government would last only 13 days, and another one in 1998 only 13 months, A B Vajpayee would head an NDA government for full five years after the 1999 polls, with Advani as Deputy PM.
R K Singh, the official who arrested Advani, is now a Union minister in the Modi government. IPS officer Rameshwar Oraon, who accompanied him, is a Congress minister in the Jharkhand government. Amanullah’s wife Parveen Amanullah was earlier with the JD(U) and is now in the Aam Aadmi Party.