Growing up, all that I had heard from the mainstream English media and through hearsay was how Lalu Yadav, the former chief minister of Bihar was corrupt and that lawlessness was rampant when he was in charge of the state, directly or indirectly, from 1990-2005.
Bihar had become synonymous with lawlessness and his reign was described as ‘jungle raj’ by many. Movies like “Apaharan”, a 2005 kidnapping thriller starring Ajay Devgn became the definitive film which described the contemporary socio-political scenario in Bihar.
Then came Nitish Kumar. He became the chief minister of the state in November 2005. Under his leadership and his party Janata Dal (United)’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the state was largely able to shed its notoriety for lawlessness that it had acquired under the leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi.
The mainstream media projected a version that Nitish Kumar had successfully managed to change all that had gone wrong during Lalu Yadav’s reign.
Then came the 2015 Bihar elections. Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Indian National Congress got into an alliance to stop the BJP from coming to power. And they succeeded. However, the thing to note was that Lalu Yadav’s RJD managed to secure 80 seats while JD(U) got 71. The vote share of the RJD was 18.4%, while that of the JD(U) was 16.8%. Candidates of both political parties had contested in 101 seats each.
Few questions came to my mind. How was it possible for a leader convicted of corruption in a scam which was worth around ₹950 crore to be so popular amongst the masses? Was it merely a case of good marketing or were there certain things which took place in Bihar from 1990-2005 which makes Lalu Yadav the most popular leader of Bihar in the history of independent India?
If one wants to understand the success of the politics of Lalu Prasad Yadav, one needs to go beyond the conventional understanding of terms such as ‘development’. His rule was not about building schools, hospitals, roads, providing electricity or improving infrastructure in general.
It was largely about three things: Shaking down the caste order which had plagued a feudal Bihari society, social justice for people not belonging to upper caste communities and ensuring security for the Muslim population in the backdrop of the Ram temple movement in the 1990s and its aftermath.
Lalu Prasad Yadav was famous for saying that even if he could not provide ‘swarg’ (heaven), he did manage to provide ‘swar’ (voice) for the weaker sections of the society. And that is what he, as per journalistic and academic accounts did. Academic Jeffrey Witsoe argues that Lalu Yadav’s politics was about an intentional breakdown of state institutions such as the police and the bureaucracy since it was dominated by the upper castes and putting power in the hands of lower-caste politicians (many of them criminal) who could muster enough resources to help the lower castes in their respective constituencies.
Witsoe calculates data from the year 2002: there were 133 IAS officers of the four main upper caste communities – Bhumihar, Brahmin, Kayastha, Rajput, out of the 224 in the entire Bihar cadre. However, there were only seven belonging to the Kurmis, Koeris and Yadavs – the three largest OBC communities.
However, when it came to the representation of lower castes in the legislative assembly, it was a different case altogether. Out of the 234 MLAs, only 54 of them belonged to the four upper castes and 100 were from the three largest OBC communities.
In a report in The Caravan, it is written that the Yadav community in Barbigha, Bihar got a sense of psychological empowerment. Before the coming of Lalu Prasad, Yadavs had to put a shoe over their heads before passing through a Bhumihar (upper caste) house. Earlier, the police refused to register complaints of the people belonging to the Yadav community. But all that changed after Lalu Yadav came to power in 1990.
According to a 1995 news report in India Today, a 45-year-old landless labourer from Sitamarhi district in Bihar talks about how he no longer had to bow down and touch his forehead to the ground when his landlord walked past him. He said, “Now I don’t do this when my landlord walks by… Because Laloo said so.”
Princeton historian Gyan Prakash writes in an article on Al Jazeera, “As chief minister, he walked into Dalit quarters, megaphone in hand. He opened his bungalow to crowds of the poor and unprivileged castes. The privileged castes saw this as disrespecting the office, but Lalu Yadav became a nationwide household name.”
In an article on Scroll, journalist Saba Naqvi describes Lalu’s reign as this, “…The anarchy he presided over was, to my mind, a deliberate shake-down of the old order. The insults to the upper castes, the breakdown of old structures were part of his political and social strategy…”
The sense of psychological empowerment which lower castes experienced after centuries of oppression by upper caste landlords was perhaps the essence of the politics of Lalu Yadav and why people in Bihar continue to aggressively defend and vote for him.
For them, the first emancipation that they wanted was a sense of dignity, self-respect which had been snatched away from them due to the entrenched caste system which dominated Bihari society. And that is what Lalu Yadav by breaking down state institutions, empowering lower-caste criminal politicians and creating a sense of lawlessness managed to give them.
However, it must be pointed out that large section of the benefit did end up being taken by certain castes such as the Yadavs. They became exploitative, the ripples of which are still felt today in Bihar. Earlier this week, in Tejashwi Yadav’s own legislative constituency in Raghopur, people from the Yadav community allegedly burnt down Dalit homes due to a land dispute. According to the 1995 India Today report, Lalu Yadav turned a blind eye when caste massacres were allegedly committed by people belonging to the Yadav community.
But by and large, in many pockets of Bihar, his was an alliance which managed to stitch together a broader coalition involving OBCs, Muslims and the Dalits.
After the Bihar election results were declared in November 2015, a video of Lalu Yadav in a rally asking LK Advani to end his Rath Yatra to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1990 went viral. His government would eventually go on to arrest LK Advani in the same year and Lalu would overnight become a hero to the Muslim community in the state.
In 1989, the Bhagalpur communal riots had resulted in the Muslims deserting the Congress and they had found a replacement in Lalu. While this is the most famous incident of him being a secular leader, there are other instances too.
A journalist narrates in Scroll how Lalu Yadav had picked up a call after midnight by an ordinary resident to quell a communal disturbance in Patna. He would personally visit communally sensitive areas and threaten the police with terrible consequences if riots took place in the region.
Throughout his political career, he has refused to work out any alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. If one goes through his interviews from the 1990s to 2017, he categorically mentions that compromising with the BJP is out of the question for him.
While it is true that his regime brought about a sense of lawlessness in many parts of Bihar, the empowerment of many marginalised groups under his watch is also a reality. Why else would millions throng to vote for a man and his party who is alleged to have been involved in so many corruption scandals over the years?