Rarely is a politician cherished across the political spectrum as Raghuvansh Prasad Singh was, for, he was a fine human being first and then a politician. But whether as a person or as a politician, he was humble, likeable and approachable.
With his socialist background and deep knowledge of rural and agrarian India, Raghuvansh Prasad of Rashtriya Janata Dal, was allotted the crucial Ministry of Rural Development in the division of portfolios during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s first term at the Centre. That was the time UPA-1 worked out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, (NREGA) 2005, which gave a livelihood guarantee to the poor in rural India.
The portfolio afforded Raghuvansh Babu (as he was popularly known) an opportunity to work with the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi. Subsequently, the Congress President and Member of Parliament made her fondness for him known by thumping her desk loudly whenever he intervened during debates in the House.
Raghuvansh Prasad was member of Lok Sabha from Vaishali in Bihar for five consecutive terms between 1996-97 and 2009. He lost in 2014 and again in 2019. Recently he lost more, when his party of 32 years announced its plan to admit his bête noire, Rama Singh, into its ranks, upsetting the veteran leader. Formerly of the Lok Jan Shakti Party, Rama Singh had broken Raghuvansh Prasad’s winning streak in Vaishali in 2014 general election.
When his protests were ignored, Raghuvansh Prasad put in his papers with the party of which he was a founding member, and took the final bow. In a hand written note from his hospital bed to party Chief Lalu Prasad, he said, “I have stood by you for 32 years and you have sidelined me. No more.”
Three days later, he breathed his last from Covid-19 related complications at the Delhi All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, aged 74. Some say his action came too late, when he was unwell and vulnerable.
A PhD in Mathematics, Raghuvansh Prasad would never sign an official paper before reading it in full even in a room full of media persons. He had an open house for those of us covering the Ministry of Rural Development or the RJD, and while he was particular about keeping Cabinet decisions close to his chest, he would share ministry decisions with a select few.
One such achievement he was excited about in 2008 was how he had persuaded the government and the Planning Commission for larger fund allocation to upscale MGNREG scheme from 320 districts to all of the 625 districts in the country.
“Hum iss proposal ko Cabinet mei pesh karne jaa rahe hain, aur aane wale Parliament satra mei announce kar denge. (We are bringing this proposal to the Union Cabinet [chaired by Prime Minister] for approval and will announce it in the forthcoming session of Parliament,’’ he shared informally.
However, in a subtle fight between coalition partners over the ownership of the programme, his thunder was stolen by Rahul Gandhi who went with a petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking to raise the MGNREG scheme coverage to all districts in the country and for better implementation of the programme. Naturally, the proposal was agreed to and the credit went to Mr Gandhi for what the Ministry had already worked out under Raghuvansh Prasad.
Asked about this later, Raghuvansh Prasad hid his disappointment and circumvented the answer: “Theek hai. Unhe laga ki unhe announce karna chahiye, toh unhone kar diya. (It’s okay. They [Congress] thought they should announce it, so they did),” he said. Even though this was an off-the-record interaction, not once did he speak against the Congress or Gandhi, such was his decency.
He was the Union Rural Development Minister from 2004 to 2009 and steered the flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme into becoming NREG Act, 2005. Later the Act was renamed MGNREGA.
Always politically correct, Raghuvansh Prasad would silently listen to journalists’ outpourings on how instead of an inexperienced Rabri Devi, he should have been made the Chief Minister of Bihar in 1997 when incumbent Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav went to serve a jail term in fodder scam.
However, Lalu Yadav has never been apologetic about the dynastic rule in his party which prevented Raghuvansh Prasad from attaining his full potential and rising to the top position. Even now when Yadav is serving a jail sentence, Raghuvansh Prasad, though party vice-president, had to play second fiddle to his sons, Tejashwi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav, in the party.
Raghuvansh Babu’s famous ‘dahi-chura’ (yogurt and flattened rice) parties on Makar Sankranti (harvest festival in January) were very popular and his list of invitees swelled over the years to include print and electronic media, bureaucrats and ministerial colleagues from Bihar. He would personally escort every guest to the laid out buffet and not allow anyone to leave without at least having `gajak’ (dessert made from jaggery and sesame seeds) on the festive occasion. There was no formality and no security hindrances at such do’s. He was such a perfect host that the spread would not just comprise `dahi-chura’ but also include north Indian delicacies for the uninitiated.
One hardly ever saw him lose his cool. He was always smiling and welcoming and maintained an open house for journalists at his Ministry office in Krishi Bhavan. In fact, he had earmarked afternoon time for “milna ho toh” (“if you want to meet”), a rarity now. And, while he did not talk much about his own ministry, he would share nuggets about other departments.
As for political news: Such was his understanding of the political nuances, so well-informed was he and so affable, that he was amongst the most sought-after politicians amongst the media.
Such politicians are rare to come by. He deserved better and more.
The author is a New Delhi-based senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.