Lalu Yadav was out propitiating the gods on a riverine island in the Ganges off Patna the afternoon the CBI announced it was ready to charge-sheet the Bihar chief minister in the fodder scandal. A Nagababa had been specially summoned from Varanasi to perform a Naga Mahayagna in the name of Lalu Yadav at the Sabalpur Diara, a small archipelago half an hour by boat from Patna. Lalu Yadav and his clan and cronies had been on Sabalpur Diara from early in the morning.

The yagna had gone off well – what greater proof of it than that the Nagababa from Varanasi had blessed the chief minister profusely? Nagababas are prone to fits of temper and violent cursing. But not this one. He had been pleasant, even happy, throughout the ceremonies and rituals and in the end, he had specially anointed Lalu Yadav with gangajal and milk.

The chief minister was in a blithe frame of mind when he returned home to 1 Aney Marg and switched on the television in his bedroom. That is when his fuse blew.

The day’s top news was that the CBI was on the verge of charge-sheeting him. Joginder Singh was on every other news channel with the biggest statement he would make during his tenure as director of the CBI: “I have satisfied myself with the evidence we have in the fodder scam. On the basis of what is available with us, we are ready to charge-sheet Lalu Yadav, chief minister of Bihar. We are proceeding with the formalities of charge-sheeting him in the case.”

Lalu Yadav immediately dialled the prime minister – his prime minister – and indignantly asked him what was up. “Kya ho raha hai yeh sab? Yeh sab kya bakwas karwa rahe hain aap? Ek PM ko hata ke aapko banaya aur aap bhi wohi kaam karwa rahe hain?” (What is happening, what’s all this nonsense? I removed one PM to make you the PM and you too are doing the same thing!) Gujral mumbled something from the other end about being helpless but Lalu Yadav banged the phone down midway through the prime minister’s reply.

That must have left Gujral a bit rattled. It had not even been a month since he had taken over as prime minister and he had a crisis on his hands; Lalu Yadav was furious and that interrupted phone call was certainly not the last he had heard on the subject from the Bihar chief minister. Anwar Ahmed, who was with Lalu Yadav at that time, recalled, “Saheb was livid. He felt totally let down by Gujral. He was pacing up and down the room. At one point he asked me if he would have to resign if he was charge-sheeted. I was unsure. He called up Chandrashekharji in Delhi.”

That night – the night of 27 April 1997 – Lalu called up nearly every United Front leader he could contact – Chandrababu Naidu, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, Sharad Yadav. They were all of the same opinion: if Lalu Yadav was charge-sheeted, he would have to resign. The next day, he issued a public statement flaying the CBI director’s statement and making his intentions clear to the leadership of the United Front as well.

“The CBI’s decision to charge-sheet me is motivated and malafide. Only two days ago, the CBI told the Patna High Court it needed more time to study the documents against me and now suddenly they have decided to charge-sheet me! This is not acceptable to me. In any case, I will not resign even if charge-sheeted. I have a mandate from the people of Bihar. The CBI has no right to snatch it.” Trouble was on the way for the United Front and for Prime Minister Gujral.

Over the next month or so, Lalu Yadav continued efforts to escape the fodder noose. But the CBI was moving inexorably towards charge-sheeting him. Even if he wanted to bail out the Bihar chief minister, Gujral could not. The courts were keeping a hawk’s eye on investigations and Gujral’s allies in New Delhi were determined to prevent him going out of his way to help Lalu.

Indeed, they were looking for ways to jettison Lalu Yadav from the coalition.

Even if charges had not been proved against him, he was widely seen to be corrupt. He had become a liability. The Communists, in particular, would not be seen in Lalu’s company; along with known Lalu adversaries in the Janata Dal like Deve Gowda, the Communists began mounting pressure on Gujral to part ways with him. But Gujral continued to do the tightrope – he would neither bail out Lalu Yadav nor throw him out of his government.

A natural opportunity for a break presented itself. On 17 June 1997, the Bihar governor, AR Kidwai, granted permission to the CBI to charge-sheet the chief minister and a week later, formal charges were pressed against Lalu and fifty-five others in the fodder scandal. Lalu was charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act and on several other counts, including criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, forgery for cheating, falsification of accounts and forgery of valuable securities.

The messiah stood tainted. But he also stood firm on not quitting office. “Why should I?” he asked, “Has anything been proved against me? Have I been found guilty? Why should I quit because someone has hatched a conspiracy against me?”

His own party – the Janata Dal – was now demanding that Lalu resign. Several leaders from Bihar, including Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav, issued statements against him. But Lalu would not budge. His intransigence created a no-holds-barred battle within the Janata Dal.

Elections to the partypresidentship were due in July and Sharad Yadav, now cleared by the courts of the hawala charge, decided to contest the polls against Lalu. He went to court against the polling officers appointed by Lalu and won his case; Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Lalu Yadav’s nominee, was thrown out by the Supreme Court and the late Madhu Dandavate was appointed the polling officer instead. Irate, Lalu announced a boycott of the poll. His break with the Janata Dal was near complete.

On 4 July, Prime Minister Gujral called a dinner meeting of all constituents at his residence. Lalu came too. And though cornered by the CBI and his dwindling support in the Janata Dal, he still tried to bargain. “Ask Sharad Yadav to withdraw from the race for party president and I will not split the party,” he told the prime minister. Gujral was in no position to even broach the offer to Sharad Yadav. He was aware how bitter everyone in the Janata Dal, and indeed the United Front alliance, was with Lalu.

He made another proposal to Gujral that night which too the prime minister was in no position to accept: “I will quit as chief minister of Bihar, let me remain president of the Janata Dal, it will be a face-saving thing for both sides.” But everybody knew Lalu was going to lose the chief ministership anyway; it was not a chip for him to bargain with any longer.

The next day, on 5 July 1997, Lalu Yadav split the Janata Dal.

The new Rashtriya Janata Dal anointed Lalu president. It had the support of eighteen of the party’s twenty-two Lok Sabha MPs. Six MPs from the Rajya Sabha too came over. The new party was not part of the United Front coalition but ministers belonging to the Rashtriya Janata Dal – Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Kanti Singh – remained part of the United Front government. That was Gujral’s deed of friendship to Lalu Yadav; or was it something he did in return for the favour Lalu Yadav did him by keeping mum on the truth behind his Patna address in his Rajya Sabha nomination papers?

Gujral came through the episode with rather a wimpish image. He did nothing to protect “friend” Lalu Yadav but he did nothing to apply the law on him either. He could have pressed Lalu Yadav to quit after he was charge-sheeted but he did not. Instead, he kept lending an ear, by turns, to his threats and his peace proposals. He even removed Joginder Singh from directorship of the CBI as a last-minute bid to pacify Lalu and prevent a split in the Janata Dal.

Perhaps Gujral feared that if the Janata Dal broke up his own government would go. That did not happen but Gujral paid another price for it – he played out the farce of retaining Lalu Yadav’s ministers in his government even though his party was not!

But on the eve of Lalu Yadav’s arrest, Gujral’s allies in Delhi forced him to act. As the hour of the Bihar chief minister’s arrest approached, the Lalu Yadav camp threatened violence. The Patna Raj Bhawan was besieged by angry demonstrators; Kidwai’s effigies were burnt. He feared for his life and he called up the prime minister. The rampaging cat had to be belled. Gujral did it, but through one of his officials. A phone call was made to Lalu in Patna that he now had no option but to resign because he was about to be arrested and put behind bars.

Excerpted with permission from The Brothers Bihari, Sankarshan Thakur, HarperCollins India.