[Mirrored from the original in the Calcutta Telegraph, 28 July 2000, Book Review]

Bihar News



The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar
By Sankarshan Thakur
, HarperCollins, Rs 295

Much has been written about Laloo Prasad Yadav in the ten years he has dominated the political life of Bihar. But no one, however good the occasional vignettes in the daily press or the weekly news magazines, has achieved the degree of critical sensitivity in defining Laloo Yadav as a populist politician and failed chief minister as has Sankarshan Thakur in The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar.

This is not academic scholarship but in terms of its revealing thoroughness, this is a tour de force of reportorial writing. In saying this, one might wonder parenthetically why Laloo Yadav´s remarkable trajectory across India´s political firmament in this decade has been so little studied in the academy. Where are the political scientists and the historians when we need them?

After a brief initial phase when he was viewed as a rustic buffoon, Laloo after all was winning parliamentary and assembly elections in Bihar by dramatic margins. And by the middle Nineties, he was a major player at the Centre where prime ministers were being made and unmade. Indeed, as Thakur makes clear, it was Laloo Yadav´s unqualified support for V.P. Singh in 1989 that was critical in the political ascent of the Raja of Manda to the prime ministership, and to Laloo´s rise to the gaddi in Bihar and ultimately the presidency of the Janata Dal. Whether in populist jest or serious intent, Laloo was, alas, proclaiming to his constituents in the 1996 parliamentary campaign that he could make himself available for the highest elective office in the land. As it turns out for better or worse, for India and Bihar, that was not to be.

There was a small matter emerging into wider public consciousness in 1996, already well known in Bihar as the fodder scandal, which in the end would become a metaphor for the very nature of Laloo Yadav´s chief ministership, and to use Thakur´s apt phrase, the unmaking of Bihar.

In short, what the fodder scandal revealed was a state system in a condition of systemic dysfunction, literally across the board. Thakur provides in these pages a damning critique of a revolution for social justice and empowerment of the exploited backward classes gone wrong. Though Laloo was hardly the first to give voice to the oppressed, Thakur gives him full and legitimate credit for representing the poor and the powerless in a populist message of self-respect and political assertion.

If it was a message that had been heard before, it had never before been expressed with quite the populist brilliance which Laloo brought to the effort. It was a message that gave voice to the oppressed, no doubt, but for Laloo Yadav, the ultimate goal was to assure the empowerment of Laloo Yadav.

The cynical twist in the story is that maintaining Laloo Yadav in power became the only goal, inevitably to the detriment not only of his backward classes and Muslim vote bank, but for the 100 million citizens of India who are Biharis. The specific beneficiaries of Laloo raj are his intimate associates, most often his caste fellows, family, friends, contractors, and if one is to believe press reports, many of the mafia dons and criminal gangs of Bihar whom he is said to patronize, all of whom in effect have become alternate centres of power in an environment where normal structures of governance and administration were being undermined. What has been called “jungle raj” with reference to this emerging pattern and the absence of law and order, or anything approximating an effective policing system, might more accurately be described as “chamcha raj”, the rule of cronies and hangers-on of the main man, Laloo Yadav.

It is this pattern of highly personalized one man rule, quite independent of the normal mechanisms of administration which permits Thakur to refer to Laloo Yadav as a feudal lord. By this reading, he is chief minister as feudal lord with no sense or interest in the ultimate purpose of government, namely to govern. For Laloo Yadav, the very concept of infrastructural development is a joke as he has made clear time and time again. The result of course is that there is no policy and no development, meaning that all economic indicators have been in precipitous decline over the decade of the Nineties.

The fiscal system is in a state of collapse, which in turn makes possible a fodder scandal, and an infinite number of other scandals. Thakur reports that thousands of crores of Central government development funds directed to Bihar are unused, year after year. A secretary to Laloo´s government laments this as criminal, but nobody could do a thing. In mid-July of this year, the comptroller and auditor general of India has made the same charge. And a similar state of chaos exists in other critical areas, whether in medicine, as the response to the recent plane crash revealed, or education, or power, or roads, and so on ad infinitum.

Nothing confirms Thakur´s point about Laloo and the unmaking of Bihar more poignantly than Laloo Yadav´s response to the prime minister´s conference of July 15, on information technology and the computerization of India. What is information technology? What has it done? I am opposed to it, he was quoted as saying. What good are science and technology other than rendering skilled people useless. What technology? The coal will remain ours. We will take out the amount of coal we need and we are doing that. The Centre, the police and the officials are stealing and looting coal, and so on. In the meantime, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and other states, are moving forward to employ the revolutionary new technology in the interest of all of their citizens, especially those less privileged.

The tragedy of Bihar is precisely that the poor, unlettered and backward citizens of Bihar, who stand to benefit most from the new technology, are made to believe by Laloo Yadav´s fear of the unknown and his Luddite vision of the 21st century that remaining backward is an acceptable expression of assertion. It is not the first time in human history such logic has been employed to keep people on the farm.

It is a logic which stands the related concepts of izzat, development and a more generous quality of life squarely on their head. It is after all serious governance, development and everything that means in the year 2000, which might have given substance to ideas of equity and social justice to all of the citizens of Bihar. Regrettably, this logic is not a part of Laloo Yadav´s conceptual, social, or political lexicon. But the results of the 1996, 1998, and 1999 parliamentary elections, and the 2000 assembly elections, all of which showed Laloo Yadav´s Rashtriya Janata Dal losing seats, suggest that the citizen voters of Bihar may be responding in different terms. That is their hope.

Sankarshan Thakur´s remarkable book helps us understand why that should be the case. It is a book that all observers of Bihar and of the Laloo phenomenon, especially those in the remote urban reaches of Delhi, Calcutta and other centres of political reflection should consider required reading. Sadly, the citizens of Bihar know the story only too well.

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