Peasant Surprise
by Walter Hauser*

The Telegraph (Calcutta), 21 May 1996, p. 8
[*The author is professor emeritus of modern Indian history, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.]

Bihar's elections showed social justice is for the voter to define and the politician to implement.

Many rich ironies have surfaced in the political drama played out in New Delhi in the days since the elections, none perhaps more poignant than those involving the president of the Janata Dal and the sitting chief minister of Bihar, the honourable Laloo Prasad Yadav. Not yet 48 this remarkable man has served as chief minister of India's second largest state longer than any of his predecessors other than Shri Krishna Sinha, who assumed that office as early as the first Congress ministry in 1937,and remained chief minister without interruption from May 1946 until his death in 1961. Yadav's six years in office is already an exceedingly impressive record of political longevity.

He was named leader of the Janata Dal legislature party following the 1990 assembly elections and became chief minister in March of that year. In the parliamentary elections on May and June 1991, the Janata Dal won 32 seats outright. With the support of its National Front-Left Front allies, the Communist Party of India with eight seats, the Communist Party of India(Marxist) one, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha with six, and one independent, it controlled 48 of the 54 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party won five seat sin that elections, all in Jharkhand, and the Congress, one seat in Begusarai. This was a political dominance for the Janata Dal and its National Front-Left Front partners almost unknown in Indian electoral history.

The dramatic electoral dominance of 1991 was confirmed in the legislative assembly elections of 1995 when the Laloo Prasad Yadav-Janata Dal wave literally swept aside all opposition with an absolute majority of 165 seats in an assembly of 324. With its CPI and CPI(M) allies, which had 26 and six seats respectively, the Janata Dal thus controlled 196 seats and with 41 seats, the BJP trailed far behind as the main opposition. The Congress had 30, the JMM 16, other Jharkhand par-ties six, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) six, the recently formed Samata Party five, independents 13 and other parties 10.

On the surface this appeared to be both an enviable and an unassailable position of power, and Yadav's own image of invincibility was confirmed by his being named all India president of the Janata Dal. One of the many ironies in this history is that it was only then that the New Delhi media took serious notice of Yadav and almost immediately began to see him as a potential candidate for prime ministership.

For five years he had been widely dismissed by the urban press as a rustic buffoon, speaking not only the language but using the idioms of the poor. Yet now he was seen as a prime minister in waiting. Of course, both images were flawed, the first because it ignored the absolutely brilliant skills of a complex and consummate populist political campaigner and vote getter, the second because it ignored what are widely considered to be his limits as an administrator and his apparent failure to apprehend the very idea of systematic development and change, leave alone to engage in its implementation. In the meantime, with Yadav's new image as a major political player, ambassadors and diplomats soon found their way to Patna to meet this political wonder of the common man, and the chief minister assured one and all that his second term would be one not only of social justice for the poor, stability and communal harmony, but economic growth and development. And trips to southeast Asia and the United States, and the Patna conference of the non-resident Indians, who signed memoranda of understandings galore, seemed evidence enough to the New Delhi press that the benighted Bihar had finally found a leader to match their potential. There was scarcely a weekly news magazine or newspaper supplement that did not carry a feature story of the redoubtable Yadav as campaigner and man of the people. Laloo bhaiyya was described as the raja, the messiah of the poor, the desh ka neta who would carry the message of social justice, self respect, and economic redemption for the poor of Bihar, to New Delhi itself. Indeed, Dilli chalo, became both the symbol and substance of the chief minister's campaign message in 1996.

His public self assurance carried through the final day of campaigning on May 5, as did the press reports suggesting that the voters were indeed mesmerised by their Laloo bhaigga and were solidly behind him, the complaints of people along the way about roads, electricity, pensions, pakka houses, and the saris and dhotis he had promised everyone below the poverty line, notwithstanding. Of course, Yadav promised everything in good time, explaining that in the meantime he had already repealed toddy tapping and fishing taxes, among other achievements meant to benefit the poor.

By campaign's end, he appeared in virtually all constituencies which had not yet gone to the polls, making as many as seven or eight campaign stops a day, at one hour, and sometimes 30 minute intervals, moving by helicopter, then finishing, as he did at Kurtha in Jehanabad constituency of central Bihar on May 2, with village stops along the way in his garib chetna rath. This converted bus was used literally and figuratively as the vehicle to project the awareness and self respect of the poor.

It was a low key approach but brilliantly effective in the hands of this quintessentially populist chief minister. This was not the rath of the south Indian movie heroes turned politician, or of Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP, but an entirely unpretentious rath of the poor, the common people of rural Bihar.

And when he invited them to New Delhi for tea, or to vote for the sitting CPI candidate in Kurtha, "who will raise his hand on my behalf, so the poor will have a voice in New Delhi," he did so with understated calculation. "When you make me the prime minister, we will bring money from New Delhi to help the poor of Bihar", he said.

In all of this, he neither appeared disingenuous, nor was he lecturing his peasant audience of 4,000, but in effect talking with them, as if he were sitting in their village huts, as in fact he often did. They laughed with him when he explained that many untouchable Musahars now had pakka roofs on their houses, whereas poor upper caste Bhumihar Brahmins did not, "but we will do that too, if you vote for the CPI/Janata Dal ticket".

He was quietly but pointedly rein-forcing the social justice theme of his first term, of assuring self respect, izzat to the socially and economically deprived of the land. Then he explained in great detail how to vote, how to mark the ballot, how to stamp it on the appropriate party symbol, how to fold it and place lt in the ballot box, as he dropped a sample ballot between the microphones where he as seated.

It was a disarming and impressive performance, and while the voters of this constituency gave his candidate a strong winning margin, for the state as a whole, of course they did not. My sense was that the Peasant voters I observed at Kurtha were intent on listening and learning, and they were often amused by their chief minister, with whom they felt completely relaxed, but they were obviously not mesmerised as the press described these encounters.

And of course as we now know, something went badly wrong. Comparing the 1996 Bihar results with 1991, the Janata Dal is down from 32 to 22 of the 54 Lok Sabha seats, the CPI down from eight to four seats, while the CPI (M) has lost its lone seat giving the National Front-Left Front combine in Bihar a total of 26. E the Samajwadi Party candidate from Purnea supports the National Front-Left Front as seems likely, then that total would be 27, as compared to the 48 of 1991. The JMM stood independency of the National Front-Left Front in 1996 and was reduced from six seats to one in the new Parliament.

However one juggles these numbers, defections to the Samata Party and the Congress in the iterim notwithstanding, the Janata. Dal decline from its near total dominance of 1991 is certainly significant. In the meantime, the Congress, which had one seat in 1991, lost that seat but won two others, while the BJP improved dramatically from five to 18 seats, capturing 12 of the 14 seats in tribal Jharkhand, and six in north and central Bihar. Its anti-Laloo partner in this election, the Samata Party, which was formed in 1994 as a breakaway of the Janata Dal, won six seats, giving that combine 24 seats. This means that the Janata Dal, National Front-Left Front combine and the BJP-Samata Party alliance will be essentially equal in strength of their Lok Sabha numbers, with two seats to the Congress, and one for the JMM.

The political calculus of these results as a function of splits in the backward caste, Dalit and Muslim alliance which Laloo crafted before and after the 1980 and 1991 elections has been examined in the public press in elaborate detail. I will only repeat here that the creation of the Samata Party in 1994, as a reaction to the "Yadavisation" of the Janata Dal in the minds of many Kurmi and Koeri castes, and the alliance of that party with the BJP has in effect contrived a new and successful backward caste/upper caste anti-Laloo alliance, further marginalising the Congress which is already badly fractured in Bihar.

Obviously, these various combinations and recombinations involving caste, class and creed are relevant in understanding the results of this or any other election. But it is what the sociologist, Dipankar Gupta, refers to as specific secular and political interests, and to which I would add economic interests and personality interactions which governs how people vote.

As is true for any social or religious segment of society, whether Muslim, Yadav, Kurmi, Rajput, or whatever, these are never unitary solidarities in any political sense. And the fragmenting of the MY factor-the Muslim and Yadav support base of the Janata Dal- in the 1996 election in Bihar is a good case in point, as is the upper/backward caste alliance of the BJP/Samata as an anti-Yadav formation. However, my explanatory argument goes beyond this social and political calculus to suggest that issues of political freedom as well as economic and social freedom and the allied issues of social justice and self respect have a long history in Bihar. These are fundamental human rights in this society as in any other, and Yadav, coming as he did out of the student movement of the early and middle Seventies, has certainly brought the issue and the idea to a new level of awareness in Bihar. But to repeat, the concept is not new in Bihar or elsewhere in the country for that matter.

I think here of names like Swami Sahajanand, Panchanan Sharma, Jadunaridan Sharma, Karyanand Sharma, Kishori Prasanna Singh, Ramnandan Mishra, Dhanraj Sharma, Ganga Sharan Sinha and Jayaprakash Narayan, among many, many others. And of movements like the Kisan Sabha, the Triveni Sangh, the Bihar Socialist Party, and other parties of the left, mostly under the umbrella of the Congress, whose activisms and objectives were in a very fundamental sense of, by and for the people. Few will know that it was Yadav peasants who, in 1927, pleaded with Sahajanand to aid them in their struggles against the Bhumihar Brahmin zamindars of Masaurhi, and that it was from that beginning that the most powerful peas-ant movement in India, the Bihar provincial Kisan Sabha, emerged. And among the many beneficiaries of that movement were precisely those productive and upwardly mobile middle caste groups now courted so assiduously by the Janata Dal, the Samata Party the Congress, and indeed, the BJP.

It is also revealing to note that Sahajanand and the Kisan Sabha were equally seized with the issue of equity,justice and izzat for the poorest of the poor. These are issues to which all par-ties lay claim in 1996, including, especially, the CPI(ML), which is active in many parts of the state, but primarily in those ares where Kisan Sabha itself was most active in the Thirties. The near equal division of the vote in the Arrah constituency in 1996 between the Janata Dal, the Samata Party, the CPI(ML), and the Congress, in that order, makes these points nicely. Two recently published political tracts of Sahajanand's from 1941 are especially revealing of this history, at a time when Sahajanand was already using the term Dalit, well before it came into common use as a description for the exploited poor. I refer to Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor and Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand.

It is this history and its memory 1996 which provides the citizen voters of Bihar, across the political and social spectrum, a strong sense of their place and their rights in this society. And it reinforces the high expectations of performance they demand from the political leaders they elect.

I recall the response of Karpoori Thakur during the Emergency of Indira Gandhi when she rationalized that Westminster democracy was not meant for countries like India. What Indians wanted and needed was bread. Karpoori who was underground at the time explained pointedly "Hamko azadi aur roti chahiye," that is, we want freedom and bread, a memorable observation I take to be deeply etched in the collective mind of the citizen voters of India and Bihar.

Putting that logic in the context of 1996, one might say that the voters of Bihar have given a similar message, to wit, "Hamko izzat, roti, dhoti, aur pakka makan chahiye," namely, we want self respect yes, but we also want bread, dhotis, and parka houses. In other words, the voters of Bihar have supported massively the idea of social justice and self respect, and perhaps now they are reminding the political establishment chat they want performance, an improvement in the quality of life, symbolised in the broadest sense in the roti, dhoti, pakka makan metaphor.

It has been said that 1996 was an election without issues, but I suspect what is being said is that it was an election without catchy slogans. I have referred above to what we in the US refer to as bread and butter issues, or gut issues, which are equally important issues in India. To push the point further, for example, if teachers and non-gazetted employees are not paid their salaries for months and months on end, that is clearly an issue which will agitate the electorate.

And in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was himself an issue. And some observers felt that voters were oblivious of or unconcerned with the multi-million animal husbandry scandal, thinking that inasmuch as everyone did it, why hold the current incumbents liable? But I am persuaded that this was a bad misreading of the sensibilities of the citizen voters of Bihar. They were not only aware of what was happening but deeply pained and offended that their Laloo bhaiyya might have betrayed them. His opposition to a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry, now enforced by the Patan high court and sustained by the Supreme Court, did little to allay their anxieties.

What the recent arrest of Shyami Bihari Sinha, the regional director of animal husbandry and the main accused may mean, of course only time will tell. But certainly the attempted suicide of the animal husbandry minister when he lost in the Bagha constituency, suggests that he too thought that the fodder scandal, extending over a period of 15 years, was a potent issue.

The message the voters have sent in the 1996 elections may not be neat and clean, but then it never is in a time of transition. But it is patently clear to those who will listen.

"People's turn," Walter Hauser 4 May 1996
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