Lalu: a case of subaltern aspirations gone astray

He could have risen to great heights but chose his own fall from grace


Ajay Singh | October 3, 2013

Hindsight may be 20/20 but it often tends to distort the past. That appears to be the case with those who are now busy demonising former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav after his conviction in the fodder scam.

There have been aggressive displays of righteous indignation by opinion makers about Lalu's ability to manipulate the system for nearly 17 years to stave off his conviction. And an imprisoned Lalu, whose gift of earthy gab came in handy for him in many predicaments so far, is not available to defend himself.

Is Lalu that bad as he is made out to be? Perhaps a cursory reading of the documents related to the fodder scam would bear out the fact that Lalu inherited the legacy of corruption from some of his illustrious predecessors, the previous Bihar chief ministers. The conviction of Jagannath Mishra along with Lalu in the case is confirmation of the reality.

Lalu's fault lies in his capitulation to this political and systemic legacy that was primarily responsible for establishing and perpetuating an exploitative social hierarchy in Bihar. Ironically, Lalu was the outcome of a revolt by social forces against this exploitative order. He was seen as effective antidote to the poison that had been festering in social and political life of Bihar.

You need to jog your memory a bit to recall that in the 1980s and 90s Bihar went through a violent phase of politics in which massacres on caste and communal lines were endemic. The state's economic progress was almost negligible while subalterns were voting with their feet in large numbers to make their living. Bihar was considered a basket case where any hope of recovery was distant if not absent altogether.

Lalu's emergence in such a scenario of fear, frustration and despondency was seen as a sign of rejuvenation from the state of political morbidity. In the wake of VP Singh's rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors issue, Lalu emerged as a hero of social underdogs in Bihar. He trounced his rival Ram Sunder Das, a veteran dalit leader and former chief minister, to emerge as a popular leader in his own right.

Was Lalu visionary then? Those who know the dynamics of politics and its attendant machinations would testify that his strength was his skill in manipulating the situation to his advantage. He was installed as chief minister by a deft manipulation by his close confidants and the redoubtable Mulayam Singh Yadav, then UP chief minister, who found him more amenable than others in Bihar. Lalu honed his political skills in the Mandal phase which triggered social hostility in the state on an unprecedented scale.

In those days, opinion makers considered him to be an authentic voice of the subaltern. They saw in his studied buffoonery and uncouth behaviour a genuine expression of social underdogs. When Lalu promoted violence and social hostility, his apologists in the intelligentsia tried to theorise it as a result of historical correction by social forces suppressed for centuries. Interestingly, none of these diagnoses of the ailment that afflicted the body politic of Bihar was incorrect. The problem was with the antidote.

Riding on a wave of unprecedented popularity and expectations in the 1990s, Lalu emerged in Bihar as a political colossus difficult to be displaced. Even at the height of the Ayodhya movement, he kept his support base, comprising largely of social underdogs, intact. The dalits, OBCs and Muslims stood solidly behind him in a vain hope that he would turn the state around to their benefit. They gave him carte blanche for three successive terms in the fond hope that he would invert the exploitative social structure and make it more congenial and egalitarian.

What is ironically tragic is the fact Lalu mistook the unqualified support of people, particularly from socially and economically marginalised sections, as his natural right. Ironically, it was for a man who prided himself for being reared in utter poverty. In his private moments, he started describing himself as ‘Raja of Bihar’. And this was why he never forsook the legacy of the past and continued with the practices of governance which were responsible for pushing Bihar into the backwaters.

As a result, he inherited the legacy of a capricious past in the form of the fodder scam. Like his Congress predecessors, he started relishing the venal and corrupt ways of politics and patronised a culture of sycophancy and criminality. That he did not realise the inevitability of the wheel of justice grinding gradually became evident when he chose to install his wife Rabri Devi instead of his able political colleagues as the chief minister following his implication in the fodder scam in 1997. By the turn of the millennium, the social forces that catapulted him to the centre stage started showing disinterest in his antics.

Lalu was so possessed by his past grandeur that he did not let go of his habits. He considered Bihar as his fiefdom and promoted his family members. This was quite tragic given the fact that Lalu's emergence in the politics was seen as a revolt against the state's agrarian feudal order of the upper castes. As of now, the man who was perceived in the 1990s as the saviour of the toiling people of Bihar confined himself to be the leader of his own family. Lalu's conviction in the fodder scam is indeed one of the worst tragedies of Indian politics where genuine aspirations of the subaltern class run risk of going astray. He was a leader who could have risen to great heights but has chosen his own fall from grace.



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