As Lalu loses LS seat, a look at Bihar's god with feet of clay

Did the intellectual romanticism associated with his identity politics cloud our judgement of the real Lalu?

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Ajay Singh | October 22, 2013


As he stood convicted and got incarcerated in Ranchi jail, Lalu’s story of rise and fall is symptomatic of a malignancy that afflicts the body politic in India.
As he stood convicted and got incarcerated in Ranchi jail, Lalu’s story of rise and fall is symptomatic of a malignancy that afflicts the body politic in India.

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 as bad as he is made out to be? From 1990 to 2009, he was an unquestioned darling of the media, particularly the mainstream English press. His ability to coin new political idioms that provoked social conflicts was interpreted as his unique ingenuity emanating from his touch with social realities. In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, he coined slogans that pitted one social group against another. But for vast sections of the media, Lalu was virtually a Teflon-coated politician on whom nothing would stick.

One of my interesting encounters with him took place in 1992, when riots broke out in Sitamarhi. He was at his rustic best and appeared unfazed by the events. “Those killing Muslims belonged to upper castes, particularly Bhumihars,” he told me within a day of the start of riots. “We will teach them a lesson,” he added with the casualness of a dilettante. But opinion makers in Delhi found intellectual avengement in the infallible village rustic giving it back in good measure to the dominant upper castes.

That he was the master of all he surveyed in Bihar was evident by his eccentricities, which grew in nature with the passage of time. There are many anecdotal accounts of his deviant conduct but a few illustrations would suffice to prove the point. Flying in a chopper, he could ask the pilot to make an unscheduled landing in a field so that he could mingle with villagers. He violated rules but he was least bothered about that, and a media that was eating out of his hand made a virtue out of his every antic. 

In the winter of 1992, he went to a locality inhabited by Mushars (a scheduled caste community known for eating mice) and forced their children to bathe in cold water from idling fire tenders nearby. Some of the children fell sick, but that was hardly his concern. “You will not understand. This is like the cultural revolution of China,” he told me later.

Those who have known Lalu since his student days would testify that opinion makers always misread or read too much into his antics. Bihar’s former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi, who worked with Lalu in the students’ union of Patna university, once recounted his cavalier attitude even as a parliamentarian. In 1977, when some members raised the cry of “shame, shame” in Lok Sabha, Lalu also joined the chorus and started shouting, “aloo, bhanta shame”, referring jokingly to a Bihari dish made of potato, brinjal and beans.

Saryu Roy, another former close friend of Lalu, says he was never serious on any issue. “But he was a great communicator.”

His communication skills came to the fore during the Patna by-election of 1991when he popularised the new election symbol, cup and plate. What had happened was that the election commission had ‘seized’ the symbol of the Janata Dal and allotted a new symbol for its candidate. Lalu campaigned hard and emphasised that the new symbol was a recognition of the upward mobility of backward castes and dalits who will sip tea in a cup and plate instead of the earthenware. Needless to say, his candidate won the election hands down, trouncing Congress candidate CP Thakur (who later joined the BJP).

Basking in unqualified media adulation, Yadav was emboldened to brazen out patently illegal and criminal conduct of his associates. 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 conviction of Jagannath Mishra along with him in the fodder scam confirms this.

The origins of the fodder scam can be traced back to 1977 when Lalu’s mentor and respected socialist leader Karpoori Thakur was the chief minister. Thakur, an alert politician, was quick to distance himself from scamsters who tried to get close to him. But successive chief ministers like Mishra, Bindershwari Dubey and Bhagwat Jha Azad either ignored the fodder mafia or collaborated with it. By the late 1980s, the fodder mafia was financially so strong that its influence cut across party lines. It was patronised in equal measure by then chief minister Mishra as well as Lalu, the leader of opposition.

Lalu had the option to cut the strings of this mafia but he capitulated to this political and systemic legacy that was perpetuating an exploitative social hierarchy in Bihar. Ironically, Lalu was the outcome of a revolt by social forces against this exploitative order itself. But it did not cast its shadow on Lalu the saviour of the backwards, primarily because the fodder scam was still well concealed from public knowledge.

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 against established social heirarchies. Bihar was considered a basket case where any hope of recovery was distant if not absent altogether.

Lalu emerged in such a scenario of fear, frustration and despondency. His rise was seen as a sign of rejuvenation from the state of political morbidity. He was seen as an effective antidote to the poison that had been festering in the social and political life of Bihar – a hero of the social underdogs.

Was Lalu a 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. In the elections within the legislative party for the post of CM in 1990, 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.

If he had a vision for Bihar, Lalu never showed it during his stint as chief minister. Far from it, in fact – he regarded a backward and socially conflicting Bihar as necessary for his political objectives. But opinion makers in those days 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 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.

No doubt, Lalu rode on a wave of unprecedented popularity and expectations in the 1990s, and emerged as a political colossus difficult to be displaced. Even at the height of the Ayodhya movement, he kept his support base intact. The dalits, OBCs and Muslims stood solidly behind him in the vain hope that he would turn the state around to their benefit. They gave him a 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 singularly tragic is the fact that Lalu mistook the unqualified support of people, particularly from socially and economically marginalised sections, as his natural right. He frittered away the historic opportunity of leading the state out of its hopeless mess. In 1996, he found himself hemmed in from all sides by a slew of corruption charges on the fodder scam slapped against him in various courts. But he was cocksure of getting away with blue murder till he was finally nailed on October 3 this year.

For the man who declared in 1990 that he would rule Bihar for over two decades, Lalu ironically finds that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme – abhorrence and demonisation in place of unqualified adulation – within no time. In the 1990s, opinion makers ignored his acts of indiscretion and projected him as a leader who can do no wrong. So powerful was his honeymoon with the media that his stint as the railways minister during 2004-09 was rated as a display of his outstanding managerial skills. He got himself invited to IIMs and Harvard to lecture on his newfound skills.

That he did not realise the inevitability of the wheel of justice grinding gradually became evident when he tried to subvert the October 3 decision by petitioning the supreme court questioning the neutrality of the CBI judge in Ranchi. His petition was rejected after strong counterarguments from senior advocate Shanti Bhushan. A dejected Lalu did not give up and tried to bring around the UPA government to bring in an ordinance to mitigate his plight in the event of his conviction. But all his efforts came to a naught when the ordinance that could have saved his Lok Sabha seat proved to be a nonstarter in the face of popular resistance and stiff opposition by Rahul Gandhi.

As he stood convicted and got incarcerated in Ranchi jail, Lalu’s story of rise and fall is symptomatic of a malignancy that afflicts the body politic in India. He was neither the deity that he was made out to be in the 1990s nor the demon that he is being made out now. On the other hand, his politics was intricately linked to the capricious past of Bihar where politics and governance were held hostage to criminality, sycophancy and corruption. Lalu was no exception. He was a leader who could have risen to great heights but chose his own fall from grace.

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