2015, Bihar, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate

Excerpt Four from my book is a swivelling snapshot of what power and its sudden loss can do. Here’s Laloo Yadav at the height of his reign, and after losing it

It was a private coronation with a public message. Sometime in mid-1995, twenty-two years and nine children into their marriage, Rabri Devi decided to change her manner of referring to Laloo Yadav. She began calling him Saheb. All these years she had done with a ­common enough pronoun: eeh, the untranslatable third ­person singular Bihari wives are wont to use for their ­husbands. When they had got married in 1973, Rabri Devi had neither sense nor cause to call her husband Saheb. She was a village girl of fourteen and probably unaware of the weight of words. And Laloo Yadav was no saheb. He was, in fact, serving time at the other end of the social order, among those the sahebs lord over. He was a lowly employee of Patna Veterinary College, a clerk who brought tea to tables and carried files from officer to officer. Eeh sufficed.

Through several lightning leaps up the ladder of rank and fame, Rabri Devi had found no reason to alter Laloo Yadav’s domestic description.

Then, quite suddenly, after the assembly elections of 1995, she went on an urgent hunt for alternatives. Her husband had won a remarkable victory in the face of heavy odds, not least of which was the messianic Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, out with rockjawed determination to grab glory by enforcing a blemishless election in Bihar, the graveyard of free and fair polls. Seshan had choked the state with para­military forces. He had postponed elections four times. He made daily threats of countermanding the process ­altogether at the sight of the slightest misdemeanour. The campaign had become a duel between the chief election commissioner and the Bihar chief minister. Laloo Yadav had been relatively unbothered by the Opposition but Seshan had worried him. This scourge is meant to ensure people vote but he is going on postponing their opportunities to vote,” he would complain aloud at his daily morning durbar, issuing colourful threats that sent his audiences in raptures. “Seshan pagla saand jaise kar raha hai, maaloome nahin hai ki hum rassa baandh ke khataal mein band kar sakte hain (Seshan is behaving like a raging bull, he does not know that I can tame him and tie him up and lock him among the cows in my shed). The night Seshan had faxed his fourth postponement order to the chief minister’s office from Delhi, Laloo Yadav had been a bit of a raging bull himself. He had called up the state’s chief electoral officer, a copybook bureaucrat called R.J.M. Pillai, and blasted him as only Laloo Yadav could. “Ei ji Pillai, hum tumra chief minister hain aur tum hamra afsar, ee Seshanwa kahan se beech mein tapakta rahta hai?” (Pillai, I am your chief minister and you are my officer, where does Seshan keep dropping in from?). Before Pillai could begin to stutter at the other end, the chief minister had let loose the second burst of fire. “Aur fax message bhejta hai! Ee amir log ka khilaona le kar ke tum log garib log ke khilaaf conspiracy karte ho? Sab fax-foox uda denge, election ho jaane do” (And he has the temerity to inform me on fax! You people are using expensive toys to conspire against the poor? I’ll send all your fax machines packing, let the elections be over).

Continue reading “The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate”
2015, Bihar 2020, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

I often get collared for criticising Bihar, but I do that only because of my investment in Bihar and Biharis

Or, why the “Naya Bihar” story still awaits the courtesies of its people

Excerpt Three from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to Elections 2020

Someday soon these men will slip out of these pages and become greater or lesser. There are no last words on lives; they end in ellipses, often suffixed with a question mark. The protagonists of this volume are a work in progress; when the last word has been written, a trail would already have leapt off it. There will be more to tell. Part of the charm and challenge of this pursuit has been the chase itself.

Laloo and Nitish together make a seamless continuum of the narrative of contemporary Bihar. Two of its great sons, who embossed the state with their imprint on either side of the millennium. One made a story of hope wantonly betrayed, the other ventured its unlikely kindling in the mire of collective cynicism and resignation. They make a strange diptych, Laloo and Nitish, a fracture of the same bone, separated by radical contrasts yet locked on the hinges by an uneasy sameness. For far too many reasons, understanding Laloo is critical to understanding Nitish, and very often the opposite is equally true. One significant change they have together wrought on Bihar is that, like in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, upper-caste dominance of politics has become a thing of the past. In the twenty-five years since Laloo came to power in 1990, the transfer of power hegemony from the minority upper castes to backward and Dalit representatives has become complete; that process is in irreversible stability.

When I wrote The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar in 2000, Nitish Kumar was barely necessary to the narrative; he made sundry appearances, very often roaming the footnotes. By the time the book was revised and reincarnated in 2006 as Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav, Nitish occupied the better part of two new chapters. In 2006, Laloo was gone, swept aside by a dam-burst of unfulfilled aspirations; Nitish had begun to step ahead, squeezing Laloo out to the footnotes of the new Bihar story.

But should we call it that yet—The New Bihar Story? A part of me hesitates. A part of me celebrates. I am attached to the Bihar story because I was born a Bihari and proudly remain one. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be Bihari. I can begin to exult in small things—a length of pucca road, a stable hour of electricity, a school that has students and teachers in it, a health centre that isn’t padlocked. But the cheer always comes stained with concern. How far will the new road penetrate into the dark and flung corners of Bihar? How durable is any of this?

Continue reading “I often get collared for criticising Bihar, but I do that only because of my investment in Bihar and Biharis”
2015, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

Patna: Return to Good Riddance

The second excerpt from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to elections in Bihar. This one on my beloved hometown, and a few other things new visitors to Patna might want to keep in mind and see for themselves.

Patna is not a nice place to be. I was born in Patna, it’s where I came to formative consciousness. While my father waited upon my birth in the corridors of Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), material for a series of reports on the state of healthcare in Bihar’s premier hospital gathered around him. They were published in Indian Nation, the most read local daily of the day. One of his reports was written around the photograph of a dog scurrying away from the maternity ward of PMCH with an umbilical chord in its jaws. Many years later, when I was researching my book on Laloo Yadav’s Bihar, I saw stray cows pulling sheets off comatose patients on rusted gurneys.

About the first story I reported from Bihar was about a man called Bir Bahadur Singh. He was an independent MLA from Bhojpur in central Bihar, a big fellow with a straggly beard and moustache-ends that sat like coiled centipedes on his cheeks. He wore colourful bandannas and dark glasses and loved having pictures taken with his guns and his private guards. He would look into the lens as if the first thing he intended after the picture was taken was to shoot the photographer. One late evening Bir Bahadur Singh walked into a four-star hotel in central Patna with a band of roughs. They had brought along a goat which Bir Bahadur’s sidekicks proceeded to slaughter in a corner of the lobby. The party lounged while the goat cooked in the hotel kitchen; they had scared the lobby empty, it was theirs while they wanted it. They feasted, and a few hours later, they rolled out in an acid-cloud of burps. That is what my early story was about. Patna is an education; it still is.

Continue reading “Patna: Return to Good Riddance”