On a sultry September day in 1990 in Patna, a year before India embraced the idea of economic liberalization, Lalu Prasad Yadav came up with one of his curt one-liners when asked about the role of kingmakers in his party (then Janata Dal). “I don’t care who plays Kautilya, as long as I am Chandragupta”, the new chief minister of Bihar had quipped.
Twenty seven years later, ironically, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief’s role as the kingmaker in Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance is becoming shaky as investigative agencies are tightening the noose around him and his family in various cases of corruption and financial irregularities. What, however, Lalu- watchers are quite sure about, is that he and his supporters would respond to the latest crisis with their time tested strategy–playing the victim card. Often the poster child for being targeted for upholding causes of social justice and secularism. With his expedient blend of avowedly Lohiaite brand of socialist politics with electorally rewarding appeasement cloaked as secularism, Lalu has been ensuring that venality and corruption become irrelevant to the narrative of his political appeal.
The invocation of Lohiaite politics in Bihar, with its earlier brief spell seen in the 1970s under Karpoori Thakur (1924-88), couldn’t have come at a worse time than in the 1990s under Lalu. At a time when most of the states in the country were keen on finding ways to leverage opportunities brought by liberalization for pushing economic growth, Bihar was witnessing the counter-narrative of stifling enterprise with the empowerment of muscle men of a particular caste in the name of uplifting backward sections and thriving crime as an industry.
A tinge of retrospective lament creeps in when one realizes that the 1990s will go down as the decade which precipitated Bihar’s free fall in growth and human development. Coming out in 1992, social scientist and journalist Arvind N Das’s slim classic The Republic of Bihar had argued that statistics showed, “In many matters Bihar’s position is not far below the average”. ( However, such proximity to the national average wasn’t to argue against the fact that on a number of other significant indices, the state was at the bottom of the table). The figures, as Das put it, suggested that Bihar would be India’s ‘test case’ too. The same decade ensured that from ‘test case’, Bihar slid to India’s worst case scenario. In fact, it catalyzed Bihar’s plunge to a policy basket-case.
As a beneficiary of post-Mandal churning in the politics of the Hindi heartland, Lalu’s indifference to the imperatives of governance and development wasn’t surprising. Electoral politics of the land empowered a new generation of leaders who, in turn, subverted democracy to create post-independence political dynasties solely aimed at empowering their families.
While Lalu managed to run a proxy government with his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister (1997- 2005) and his sons Tejaswi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav as deputy chief ministers in the incumbent grand alliance government, his fellow Lohiaite, Mulayam Sigh Yadav has made socialism a family fiefdom having multiple claimants in the family now led by his son and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. The bid to placate all such claimants often lead to other channels of aggrandizement, as the recent round of raids on properties of Lalu’s daughter and son-in-law allegedly show. Mulayam, it seems, is paying a political price for the mismanagement of distributing the benefits within his family. Lalu has been luckier that way, except for the fallout with his brothers-in-law, Subhash and Sadhu.
The sheer disdain for governance, particularly law and order, and irrelevance of development were essential to Lalu’s political survival. This was aimed at erecting an oligarchy of local strongmen and loyal civil servants with stakes in the sustenance of the system. Apart from the state aversion to liberalization, it was the functioning anarchy, as a commentator had put it, which deterred even the most unwelcome set of entrepreneurs to set foot on Bihar. As the empowered strongmen spawned crime syndicates, extortion became clinical in form of ‘rangdaari tax’.
In fact, in the absence of legitimate avenues for investing capital, kidnapping and other forms of criminal activities became a site of investment for the rich and powerful. Lalu developed the knack for deflecting any question regarding the development as an elitist concern which had little to do with people. It was also a time of violent elections in the state when polls would claim a lives in poll-related violence. His run-ins with the Election Commission’s drive to introduce voter-I cards in the 1995 assembly election seems interesting in light of his grouse against electronic voting machines now.
The saleability of developmental deficit found intriguing expression in Lalu’s public interactions. For instance, in a public rally, attended by this writer, Lalu said, “Roads are dangerous things. If your village gets roads, police can easily reach your houses”.
With the advent of 21st century, the rest of the country was witnessing sweeping changes brought about by information technology to economy as well as a paradigm shift in work culture and governance. It was also a time when the president of the ruling party in Bihar thought that ignorance was indeed bliss, and such elitist fads had nothing to do with the state. In 2001, Lalu ridiculed the then Vajpayee-led NDA government’s drive to promote information technology in governance. He asked, “Ye IT-YT kya hai ?Kya computer doodh deta hai?” (What’s this IT? Does it give milk?). The irony of the remark wasn’t missing as one of his daughters had married an IT professional who had once worked at Infosys. The irony isn’t missing now either as he is one of the most active politicians on Twitter, and unsurprisingly, so is his son and Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, Tejaswi Yadav.
What, obviously, was a policy priority was having safe sanctuaries for organized crime while Lalu downplayed any talk of the abysmal developmental indices and the anarchic governance as elitist ploys. Apart from crime, what thrived was the milking of state resources by the Lalu-led oligarchy. The multi-crore fodder scam, which forced Lalu to resign as chief minister only to be replaced by his wife in 1997, revealed the brazen scale of the looting of state coffers for personal aggrandizement. This was also a time when, on the electoral planks of social justice and secularism, Lalu turned a moment of ignominy into a political triumph in establishing the family-run party Rashtriya Janata Dal the same year.
What continued to nourish his confidence in his political fortunes was his belief in the electoral strategy of the Muslim-Yadav vote bank. His support for local Muslim strongmen like mafia don and RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin, which were once again in the headlines because of a recent exposé of taped jail conversation by Republic TV, was complemented by symbolic gestures like the arrest of LK Adavni for his popular Rath Yatra at Samastipur in October 1990.
In Lalu’ electoral landscape, minority appeasement has always been pivotal to RJD’s power equations in the state. It’s this factor that has made the party cultivate and harbour influential Muslim leaders like Shahabuddin. The Shahabuddins of the world, who hold sway among the Muslim voters of the state for their carefully crafted image of armed feudal benefactors, always fit with Lalu’s famed Muslim-Yadav electoral formula.
In a state where Muslims constitute 16.9 per cent of the total population (1.7 crore in absolute numbers) and Other Backward Classes account for 46 per cent (Yadavs – around 11 per cent) of the population, the formula was electorally effective in post-Mandal politics. Whenever RJD managed to consolidate that formulaic base, it reaped electoral dividends, as seen in the last 2015 assembly polls.
In a different piece for this website, the writer had argued that Shahabuddin is not the lone beneficiary of Muslim-Yadav strategic patronage. Mohammed Taslimuddin, the current RJD MP from Kishanganj, has dozens of cases ranging from extortion to murder against him. That never stood in the way of the RJD ensuring he become Union Minister of State in Agriculture Ministry in the UPAI government. To facilitate his legal-hassles free stay at the seat of power in Delhi, the RJD-led Bihar government had withdrawn criminal cases against him in 2004.
Taslimuddin comes from the Seemanchal region in north-east Bihar which has a large Muslim population. The four districts constituting the region – Kishanganj, Katihar, Araria and Purnia – have Muslims constituting 68 per cent, 44.5 per cent, 42.9 per cent and 38.5 per cent of the total population respectively (the figures are based on the 2011 census). His utility as a force multiplier in the electoral politics of the region is something RJD has been keen on retaining.
Evidently, Lalu’s social justice plank also hasn’t looked beyond the empowerment of a certain section of Yadavs. The emergence of Kumar as a formidable political force in last decade-and-a half shows that even post Mandal, social engineering under Lalu was confined to one OBC group. Kumar has been clever enough to expand that to the other electorally significantly caste groups along with reinventing the narrative of governance and development. He had a low base to begin with, as the state had been fast ‘withering away’, in a cruel twist to Marxist prognosis.
Kumar, being the astute politician that he is, knows that his Patna University student union colleague and fellow Lohiate from the anti-emergency agitation days would have political survival anxieties which run contrary to his own political ambitions. In what is a bid to avoid apparent inconvenience in a marriage of convenience, Kumar is determined to keep the RJD chief’s intervening hand away from matters of governance by giving signs that he is keeping his options open in asking the Bharatiya Janata Party’s support for his government. By doing so, Nitish may be putting a lid on his national ambitions in near future, but may end up assuring a smooth run in Patna.
What, however, should still be the saving grace for Lalu is his pragmatic realization that victimhood is still a profitable political narrative. Apart from the opposition parties at the centre buying his theory of being persecuted by the Modi government with cases of alleged corruption, a few commentators in the media, such as this piece in Scroll, are reinforcing the story he wants to tell his voters.
A generation of workers, traders and students who left the state in the 1990s and a far greater number of people who stayed back to witness the functioning anarchy know that such political narratives may still work in the state. Beyond the targeted groups in electoral battles, even a section of opinion-makers are gullible consumers of victimhood tales that has sustained the Lalu phenomenon. The youth of the 1990s knew that an escape from the state was one of the first options parents had for them. They also know that if Lalu is convicted again, his arrival at the jail will be accompanied with all the pomp of a social justice crusader. He prefers elephants for the purpose.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26.