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'Unless Rabri govt goes, nothing will improve'

Amberish K Diwanji in Madhepura | February 14, 2005

Is Lalu invincible? Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji put this question to the Biharis themselves and found that Lalu has a chink -- failure to gauge the aspirations of the state's new generation of voters.

Part I: In Bihar, silence is golden

Part II: 'Lalu is a rascal, but we'll vote for him'

Part III: A village that symbolises Bihar

Even if Lalu Prasad Yadav still enjoys support in Bihar, as some reports indicate, what simply cannot be missed is that he is no longer the icon he was.

Lalu has failed to understand human aspirations -- after physical security people need financial security.

Today, many Yadavs and other lower castes are physically safe from upper caste atrocities.

Fifteen years of Lalu Yadav rule now means that the typical setting of upper castes terrorising the lower castes no longer exists, because any such upper caste tormentor will soon be locked up, pointed out an academic based in Patna.

Lalu Yadav won in 1990 and, more importantly, again in 1995 and 2000, by projecting himself as the messiah of the downtrodden, even though many were convinced he would not win.

But 15 years is half a generation. Those who were children then are young men and women today, most of them in the job market and eligible to vote.

And for them, the biggest problem is finding employment. They are also disgruntled with the lack of roads, with the lack of electricity that prevents development, and thus job creation in Bihar.

The anger is palpable. What should cause worry for Lalu Yadav is that even those who had backed him in the past -- the lower castes and classes -- are now against him.

This includes even the Muslims. Only the poor Yadavs appear to be still with Lalu, but they alone are not enough to ensure the victory of his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Deep inside Madhepura district, off the potholed state highway, then off the even more potholed road linking two villages, down a kachha (mud) road, lies Beldhana tola, part of Rupauli village. The residents here belong to the poor Chauhan caste (among the most backward).

Their resentment is evident and bursts out like the Ganga in spate.

The villagers complain, angrily and bitterly: There are no roads, and when it rains, they have to wade through knee-deep slush to get to the tarred road; there is no electricity; there are no jobs. All of them work in Punjab or Kolkata or Mumbai.

They are clear they will not vote for Lalu Yadav or any person backed by the Yadav.

Madhepura is the stronghold of jailed MP Pappu Yadav, who was elected to the Lok Sabha election in May 1994 on a RJD ticket, but recently broke away from Lalu Yadav.

The villagers said in the last election, they had no intention of voting for the RJD but were forced to by the powerful Yadavs.

"They stood outside the booths with sticks and guns and threatened us; they held the hands of our women and forcibly made them push the 'lantern' button (the RJD symbol)," said one villager, who shall remain unnamed.

Don't the election observers protest? "Ha! They are too scared themselves. They just drink and eat the food provided by the Yadavs and keep quiet."

The nearest school is three kilometres away, so most children don't go to school. "How can they walk three kilometres, and we cannot take them because we have to work?"

"During the monsoon and after, when the roads are filled with water, walking is impossible. So the children end up missing school and soon drop out!" explained the quite articulate villager.

These villagers want change: they want development. They want schools, electricity, roads. And they don't believe Lalu can deliver them. He has, in their eyes, turned out no better than his predecessors.

At a place known as Zero Mile, some 115 km northeast of Patna, there used to a fertiliser factory. It has shut down and the many locals who were employed in the factory are now jobless.

"All the officers and others were transferred and they got jobs elsewhere, but the poor people were left stranded. What has Lalu done for us? Why could he not restart this factory or get the central government to do so?" asks Manohar Singh, who runs a tea stall.

He claims that anger against Lalu Yadav and the RJD is so strong that they will be swept out of power.

But then he hesitates. "Actually, I am sure that Lalu Yadav will rig the election. I have heard that no matter what button you press, the 'lantern' gets marked," he said. He then asks me, "Is this true?"

I insist this is quite impossible and that the Election Commission will not allow such blatant rigging.

Manohar Singh was not the only person to voice concern about rigging on a massive scale, which would favour Lalu Yadav. All through my travels in the state, many voiced that fear.

This fear reflects how much Lalu Yadav has grown from being the parvenu out to change the system to being the system.

In the 1995 assembly election, Lalu Yadav had consistently voiced his fear that those against him (then almost all the other major parties, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) would rig the election to make him lose.

It took T N Seshan's overpowering personality to give Bihar one of its freest elections till then, and Lalu was the winner.

Now, the fear is that Lalu, who is seen by many as having sold himself out to the upper caste/class interests, will rig the election.

On the Barauni-Begusarai road, some men make khapras(conical structures, which, after partial drying, are split into two and used as roof covers). There men belong to the traditional Kumhar caste, a Dalit grouping. The workers are all related and run the business. The oldest, who gave his name as Anandi Pandit, oversees the labour. Their complaints against the government are the same.

"There is no development, and you have seen how bad the Barauni-Begusarai road is," Pandit said. "What can we poor people do but continue with our trade?" he said.

"None of us will vote for the RJD. What have they done for us in the last 10 years? Today, Lalu begs us for five more years, but if in the last 15 he has failed, why should I believe that he will succeed in the next five?"

So who will he and his fellow workers vote for? Pandit replies, "Nitish Kumar (of the National Democratic Alliance that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party, Samata Party, and the Janata Dal-United)."

Why not Ram Vilas Paswan (who is a Dalit)? "No one will vote for Paswan. How can he oppose Lalu here and be with him in Delhi? Why has Paswan taken Congress support? What if after the election, Paswan, the Congress and the RJD tie up? We want a change and prefer the NDA."

From Begusarai, a small road leads outward to another village. This road forks and one path leads to a village with a South Indian-sounding name, Mariappa (I was taken aback when I first heard the name and rechecked to know if I had heard right!).

Along one road is a small settlement of Paswans, about half a dozen mud and bamboo huts. It is afternoon and no men are seen since they are in the fields, working. On a cot lies a man, clearly unwell and coughing. His wife Phulari Devi is sitting next to him.

She said they haven't been to a doctor because they can't afford to. It isn't just the doctor's fees (that might well be free though the medicines rarely are). The trouble is how to take him, since the doctor is in Begusarai, which is around 10 km away, and Phulari Devi's husband is in no condition to walk.

Some land reforms have taken place in this settlement. The Paswans here do own some small parcels of land. The problem is their land is deep inside the fields; the farms nearest to the villages belong to the Bhumihars of Mariappa and of the neighbouring villages.

"There was a fight over land and we were given land elsewhere," said Phulari Devi.

About 5 km down the same road lies the Kothia tola, part of Dhabauli village. The tola is more prosperous with proper brick and cement houses. Women and children (and some men) are busy placing red chillies in mounds; these will be transported for sale.

The chillies have come from the farm of Ram Vilas Singh, a Bhumihar landlord in Kothia. The women and children doing the work are mostly Muslims, among the poorer segments in the locality.

Singh said all the farms adjoining the villages belonged to the Bhumihars. The poor, including those toiling on his fields, also own land. But it is so little, even less than a katha, that often all of it is used up in just setting up a house to live in. "Some of these people own just a few dhoors," he added.

(1 acre = 2.5 bighas; 1 bigha = 20 kathas; 1 katha = 20 dhoor; 1 dhoor = 6 hands squared (elbow to fingers))

Nearby is the residence of Rajesh Kumar Singh, another Bhumihar landlord. In front of his house, his father and some men are playing cards even as his brother drives away to Begusarai in a Scorpio.

Kothia is a good example to explain why the poor are against Lalu. This tola has no electricity even though electricity poles abound and wires run crisscross the tola.

But the rich have their generators (if you can afford a Scorpio, you sure can afford a diesel-powered generator that is virtually powering Bihar!). The poor have no choice but to live with lanterns and oil lamps.

And education is not a possibility as there is no school.

Kothia tola boasts of a well-maintained and decent looking school building that would make any village or town proud. But no classes are held!

"My children go to a school in Begusarai by rickshaw. It costs me Rs 10 a day," says Rajesh Singh. That works out to at least Rs 200 a month. The poor in the village, whether a Paswan or a Muslim, simply cannot afford to spend so much on transport for their children to go to school.

"None of the children of the workers go to school, so they end up working with their parents in the fields," revealed Rajesh Singh.

"You have no idea how hard we have tried to get the school reopened and to get electricity. We have repeatedly told local politicians and administrators that it is not us but the poor who are suffering the most, but what do these damn politicians care.

"It is not like we want a new school, but surely the government should run a school that exists. They are not even willing to do that," he complained bitterly.

His father perks up from his card game. "Unless this government goes, nothing will improve."

Rajesh Singh's father is not reflecting a caste or class bias, but a common prejudice against the lack of development and administration that has united the poor and the landless alongside the rich and the landed.

Lalu's days may well be numbered.

Complete Coverage: Assembly Elections 2005

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