Jagannath Mishra, three-time Bihar chief minister and a former Union minister — terms which earned him a mix of accolades and criticism — died on Monday at his home in New Delhi. He was 82. He was suffering from multiple medical ailments, including cancer. He will be cremated with full state honours. He was survived by three sons and three daughters.
Though Doctor Sahib, as he was fondly referred to, had stepped out of the spotlight while leading a retired life, Jagannath Mishra was never short of political wisdom and sharp analysis. Many in media and politics recall him as an affable man with a deep understanding of politics and abiding love for Bihar and all its people.
Dr Mishra, younger brother of former Railway Minister Lalit Narayan, was also the last Congress chief minister in Bihar. In December 1989, as Congress stared at an electoral setback following gruesome riots in Bhagalpur, Rajiv Gandhi had picked Mishra as Bihar chief minister in an attempt to salvage the state. Mishra ruled Bihar for 95 days in his last stint as Bihar chief minister but could not stop Janata Dal storm to power in Bihar in March 1990.
When the Congress lost power in Bihar, Jagannath was inducted as Union agriculture minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government in 1995. In 1999, he joins Sharad Pawar in opposing Sonia Gandhi on her foreign origin issue. Later, he left the Congress to join the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar, becoming the director of LN Mishra Institute of Management — a cabinet minister’s position.
His son Nitish Mishra became a cabinet colleague first of Nitish Kumar and later of Jitan Ram Manjhi. Mishra also broke away with Nitish Kumar by siding with his erstwhile disciple Jitan Ram Manjhi in the latter’s war with Nitish Kumar. But his move failed, leaving him to lose political significance.
For someone who began his career as a professor of economics in Bihar University, Jagannath Mishra touched many political peaks in his career. He took over as Bihar’s chief minister after the assassination of his brother in January 1975.
Lalit Narayan Mishra was attacked with a bomb while inaugurating a broad gauge railway track between Samastipur and Muzaffarpur in north Bihar on January 2, 1975. He was declared dead in Danapur railway hospital the next day. Jagannath Mishra, who too had been severely injured in the incident with multiple splinters piercing his legs and thighs, survived to achieve many political peaks in his career.
Remembering him as a “famous leader and educationist,” Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar paid tributes to Dr Mishra saying he made an invaluable contribution to the politics of Bihar and India. “His death is an irreparable loss in the field of politics, society, and education,” Nitish Kumar said in a statement.
In his heydays, Jagannath Mishra had emerged as the most powerful Congress leader in the late seventies and eighties. He was known as a very popular mass leader, with ears to the ground and hands of political pulse of Bihar. Prior to emergence of Lalu Prasad on the political landscape of Bihar, Jagannath Mishra was the most popular leader among the minorities for making Urdu as the second official language of the state in 1980.
A man with sharp intellect and a perfect practitioner of populism, Jagannath won over the hearts of lakhs of teachers by taking over hundreds of private primary, middle and high schools across the state in 1977.
Dr Mishra also had a fair share of controversies in his political careers. One of his most infamous actions was seen in July 1982, when his government pushed the Bihar Press Bill, which prohibited the publication, sale and possession of any printed matter that was “scurrilous” or “grossly indecent” or “intended for blackmail.”
Though Dr Mishra claimed he supported the free press, his moved was criticised as draconian and dictatorial and also an attempt to gag the press. The move was responded with unprecedented protests from newspapers, as journalists staged a protest on the streets. A year after, the then Bihar government withdrew the bill, which was not given the presidential assent till then.
Dr Mishra was also convicted in the infamous fodder scam case. He, however, was granted bail. Dr Mishra always blamed former Congress president Sitaram Kesri for having his name deliberately included in the scam.
While historians and political scientists will continue to debate whether he could have done better or rose higher, it is true that Dr Mishra has left a rich legacy and will always been remembered as someone who cared for Bihar.