2018, Bihar, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished

The thing about Lalu Prasad is that he is a man of more parts than most others on display possess. One of those parts has been convicted and may well be ordered to prison, the part that got greedy and fell to fodder felony. Some of the other parts remain more happily located – as preponderant colour on the floor of the Bihar assembly; as irreplaceable boss of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the state’s largest single banker of votes; as essential exhibit in the gallery of the most compelling and durable of our public entities. Nobody is taking Lalu out of there in a long time; popular imagination is a sovereignty membered by the unlikeliest heroes.

Bihar has never been at a loss for those who set out to make something of it. In the narrow firmament of Bihar’s consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, samaritans and messiahs. Sri Krishna Sinha, Anugrah Narain Singh, Krishna Ballabh Sahay. Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur. Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and annually enacted rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or survive as disregarded busts routinely s**t upon by birds in chaotic town squares. For all the retrospective repute they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.

Eighty per cent of Biharis still have no access to toilets, partly also because those meant to be making those toilets have been busier making money over them. What passes in the name of education is nothing short of scandalous; Bihar’s premier university cannot fill out basic criteria for an upgrade. Its most reputed medical facilities often lack for rudiments – a saline drip, a sterilized bandage, a functional X-ray device, an urgently required LSD. No more than 20 and few decimal per cent receive regular electricity at home. A mere seven per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty five per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided Bihar’s lurch towards development has been. You could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only ten per cent had bank accounts and 80 per cent used hand-held telephones.

For the last quarter of a century, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have presided over those spoils, briefly in league but for the better part at loggerheads. Bihar is still out adorned in its badge of deficits, brandishing that begging bowl for special category status. Nobody has bothered looking in the direction of that bowl. Meantime, careers have flourished and reputations built, foundation stone by derelict foundation stone. Some years ago, the state government sponsored a listing of Bihar’s leading lights and luminaries, such as they are. Bihar Vibhuti, the compendium was christened, and last heard, it had run into two volumes, each thick as a brick. There is fair evidence to suggest that the collective achievement of Bihar’s countless vibhutis has been that they came to drop; Bihar is a bonfire of those vanities.

For his sheer phosphorescence of persona and emboss of intervention, Lalu is a standout character of that cast. He burnished the stage with native brilliance and wove a loyalty that remains enduringly seduced; but he also enthralled his adversaries by lavishly tarnishing himself.

Lalu is a rare sighting; Bihar, at any rate, hadn’t seen his like, nor will in a while. An almost animal alchemy of charm, cunning and chutzpah. Some find it convenient to keep him reduced to his frequent resorts to buffoonery but if a buffoon is all that Lalu is, he would have been easier to put away. Frustratingly for critics, he is more than merely the sum of his frivolities and foibles. His impact on the socio-political dynamics of Bihar is not merely undeniable, it is essential, deep and, most likely, indelible. He kindled a social and political consciousness in huge sections that had remained hectored to the margins, and gave them a sense of stakes. His backward revolution was flawed and stunted, but it acted as a release valve on pent-up pressures that had been building up in Bihar’s iniquitous and exploitative social structure for hundreds of years. If he hadn’t arrived on the scene when he did, his north Bihar home ground, the great laboratory of his social surgery, would probably have exploded into violence like parts of central and what used to be south Bihar. He gave social frustration political vent. And in an era of sweeping communal turmoil, he afforded the Muslims of Bihar a secure and unshakeable canopy that they rightly remain indebted for.

It is handy to blame Lalu for all that ails Bihar. The truth is a preceding menagerie had long been on the job. In many respects more sin lies pinned on Lalu than he ever had the time or the talent to conjure. In the cognitive realm of upper castes in Bihar, Judgment Day’s justice would probably be a manacled Lalu being dragged to the gallows. He stands convicted, after all, for that other great crime no court will take cognizance of – he undid upper caste hegemony and installed his own, he unleashed a caste-war. But did he? The caste-war had already been raging. Only, it was a one-sided war; the upper castes did all the pillaging, the nether castes lay pillaged. Lalu stood up and said no more, he took the battle to the barricades. Casteism in Bihar was never a Lalu-generated phenomenon; he was its flaming product.

At the peak of his powers in the mid-1990s, Lalu seemed invincible behind that fort he had swiftly crafted with the masonry he pulverized. But secure forts come with a statutory warning seldom heeded – they can promote profligacy and pamper their habitué beyond measure. Lalu went heady on power, let arrogance and hunger get the better of him. He had arrived pregnant with magical promise but he delivered a hell replete with derelictions and worse. Consequences followed; there was a price to pay. It is probably a tribute to his political vigour and endurance that Lalu still owns a credible chequebook to sign.

Who for, is a good question.

He will most likely never contest another election. So who for? The answers lie about him. The problem could be there are too many, all of his own making. The Lalu household eddies with competing ambitions. Wife and former Bihar chief minister, Rabri Devi, may have publicly signed off the public stage, but three of the nine children – eldest daughter Misa, and sons Tej Pratap and Tejashwi – have all come up to the table, or been brought there courtesy little other than the happy accident of birth. Tejashwi, the youngest among them, has been anointed successor, but of the future who knows? The father’s mantle is well worth a grab, it is substantial even in its erosions. Lalu stands interned but that cannot mean Lalu’s politics is over. In 2015, two years after he had been stripped of the benefits of popular mandate and public office, he barnstormed Bihar and bagged the biggest kitty of seats in the assembly. He is for nobody to wish away; he remains an effervescence not entirely evaporated. There are far more parts to this man than have become the subject of adverse judicial pronouncement.

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