As the helicopter hovers, the crowd, having waited two hours in the sweltering heat, scrambles for a glimpse. Amid the pandemonium, men raise slogans praising Tejaswi Yadav, the 29-year-old with facial hair stubble and an intense look who descends from the chopper and makes his way to the stage. To witness the shoving and jousting, this could be a rock concert. But Tejaswi — as he is widely known — is no rock star. He’s a political neophyte who’s battling to keep alive a storied Indian political legacy. He’s also the face of the opposition challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bihar, the country’s most densely populated state of 104 million people.
Tejaswi is the son of one of India’s most charismatic politicians — the rustic, potbellied, paan-chewing Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has worn the twin badges of being notoriously corrupt (a charge he denies) and consistently secular (which he proudly accepts) for three decades. When a series of convictions in corruption-related cases sent the 70-year-old father to jail in 2017, many commentators wrote political obituaries of the family that has dominated the state’s politics since the late 1980s. But in by-election after by-election since, Tejaswi has stepped in to lead his father’s party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), to victory.
Now, he faces his biggest test yet: India’s national elections, where Bihar’s 40 seats in the lower house of 543 seats (only three states send more legislators to parliament) could help determine the country’s next government. Ahead of the elections, Tejaswi stitched together an alliance with the main opposition Congress and two smaller regional parties. To critics, that was an admission of his frailty. To supporters, that coalition-building success was a demonstration of maturity beyond his years, which includes the recognition that even from jail, his father remains the RJD’s trump card.
Tejaswi introduced a WhatsApp number for people to document road conditions. What he received instead were almost 40,000 marriage proposals.
“Who stops a son from meeting his father?” he asks the crowd here in Khagaria town, recounting how he was barred from meeting Yadav on a recent jail visit, before pivoting to target Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “BJP is trying to destroy the country’s constitution.”
Tejaswi may have been born with a political silver spoon, but he knows failure. A former cricketer, he represented the neighboring state of Jharkhand but played only one match at the national level. He was picked by the Delhi franchise in the Indian Premier League, cricket’s richest series, but never played a game. Tejaswi first showed his interest in politics in 2013, when he began accompanying his father at rallies. But it was in 2015 that he immersed himself fully in the family profession when he became Bihar’s deputy chief minister under a coalition government with the Janata Dal (United), a major regional party.
That stint lasted only two years, with the JD(U) breaking the coalition and tying up with the BJP instead in 2017 to form an alternative government in Bihar. That coalition will once again triumph in the ongoing national elections, says Amrita Bhushan, the BJP’s Bihar state secretary. “Tejaswi has no major political experience. He is just using the name of his father to win the people of Bihar this election. I have no doubt we are winning,” she says. “If you ask anyone, you will see that no one in Bihar likes him.”
That’s clearly untrue, based on the response to his rally. On stage, someone tries to put a garland around his neck, but Tejaswi stops the man midway, takes the garland from his hands and instead pats his shoulders to acknowledge the gesture. When he reaches the microphone, women supporters crush me as they lean forward. “Tejaswi has taken the party to another level. He has taken the reins in his own hands and is driving RJD in the right direction,” says Shrikant Yadav (no relation), an RJD member. “We have total faith in him.”
His popularity — especially among women — also got a boost when, as deputy chief minister, Tejaswi introduced a WhatsApp number through which people could directly send the government pictures and messages about Bihar’s road conditions. What he received instead were almost 40,000 marriage proposals.
To be sure, not everyone in the RJD has welcomed Tejaswi’s rapid rise. Recently, RJD member Ali Ashraf Fatmi accused Tejaswi of being rude to him. Party veteran Abdul Bari Siddiqui is widely believed to be unenthusiastic about the RJD’s decision to make Tejaswi its face. And at the rally in Khagaria, one man, Ravish Kumar, tells me many in the crowd have “come to see the helicopter, not him.”
But Yadav has made clear that Tejaswi is his pick, and in Bihar’s feudal politics — where the father is worshiped by members of the RJD, a party of socially and economically marginalized communities — that endorsement matters more than any other. Yadav served as Bihar’s chief minister almost continuously from 1990 until 1997, and his wife, Rabri Devi, led the state from 2000 to 2005.
Like his father, Tejaswi is direct in his political language. In Khagaria, he takes on Modi for pledges the prime minister made before his 2014 election that every citizen would get about $23,000 and 20 million young people would get jobs. “Where are those promises?” Tejaswi asks.
Tejaswi’s family has a history of stopping the BJP in its tracks. In September 1990, the BJP’s then-leader and Modi’s mentor, Lal Krishna Advani, had set off on a cross-country chariot ride to galvanize support for a Hindu temple in place of the Babri Masjid mosque in Uttar Pradesh, escalating religious passions and turning India into a tinderbox. But while Advani’s chariot was traveling through Bihar, Yadav quietly had the BJP leader arrested in the middle of the night to avoid a riot.
This time, though, Yadav is the one behind bars. He had once boasted: “As long as the samosa has potato, Bihar will have Lalu.” The samosa — a popular savory — is still stuffed with potato. So Lalu’s son now must deliver on the promise.
Read more: The ‘Berlin wall collapse’ Modi is counting on to win 16 million votes.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.