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Losing friends and votes the Laloo way

April 07, 2004

I have often thought that the Hindi word har epitomises the contradictions of Indian life in itself. Taken one way, it means 'defeat'; yet another sense is that of 'a garland', an icon of celebration. How does one reconcile the two? You cannot, any more than you can understand the impulses that have driven a third 'har' -- namely Bihar.


For several centuries this land was the mighty engine that propelled Indian life, the land that nurtured the Buddha and Mahavira, produced the first emperors of India in the form of the Mauryas, and would continue to lead the way until the days of Sher Shah Suri. Even after Independence, until the 1960s, Bihar continued to make the top ten in the list of India's best-administered states. And yet today 'Bihar' is accepted across India as an abbreviation for poverty, ignorance, crime, and general breakdown of order. How does one reconcile Bihar yesterday and Bihar today?


Perhaps the answer lies in something said by a German field marshal when asked how the proud German army had bent the knee so meekly before a dictator: 'Hitler was the fate of Germany and this fate could not be stayed.'


Laloo Prasad Yadav is by no means a Hitler; even his worst enemy would hesitate to describe him as 'evil.' But he has dominated the state since 1990, and politics in this wretched state have revolved for fourteen years on the question of being either pro-Laloo or anti-Laloo. Laloo Prasad Yadav is a very lonely man today. Few remember it today, but when he became the chief minister in 1990, he had a host of friends: Mulayam Singh Yadav, George Fernandes, Nitish Kumar -- they were all his colleagues in the Janata Dal. Even the BJP was an ally of sorts.


Today, only the Left Front is left to battle for him along with, ironically, the Congress (I), which was his principal foe in 1990. There is another difference. In 1990 -- and up to 1999 in fact -- Bihar was second only to Uttar Pradesh in the number of representatives it sent to the Lok Sabha. Uttar Pradesh still reigns at the top, but Bihar now ranks behind Maharashtra (48), West Bengal (42), Andhra Pradesh (42), and is just one seat ahead of Tamil Nadu (39).


In fact, angry South Indians insist that Bihar would have been pushed even farther back had it pursued population control measures as seriously as in the South. Population control, it is generally admitted today, cannot be coercive; it goes hand in hand with social development measures, namely advances in education, health, and economic well-being.


Bihar does poorly by any measure. But Laloo Prasad Yadav succeeded in clinging on to power courtesy the 'secularism' plank. In the name of that ideal, he conned the Congress (I) and the Left into backing whatever he did. The results of this foolery became apparent in the last Lok Sabha elections. The Congress (I), which used to rule the state up to 1990, won only two seats; the Left Front, which once counted the state as a growth area, got a single seat with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) winning Bhagalpur.


Today, Laloo Prasad Yadav contemptuously refuses to allow the Congress (I) to contest more than four of the 40 seats in the state. This in spite of the fact that Sonia Gandhi has mortgaged 23 MLAs to the Rabri Devi ministry! As for the Left, the CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India have been given one constituency each. For the record, Ram Vilas Paswan has been allotted six seats.


But the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader knows perfectly well that he is on a stickier wicket than any greentop in Lahore on the first day of a Test. He has prudently decided to fight from two seats -- generally, though not always, a sign of nervousness. But he is in good company; Laloo Prasad Yadav's former Janata Dal colleagues are equally jittery. Nitish Kumar too is contesting from two constituencies. George Fernandes, elected from Nalanda in 1999, has decided to move to Muzaffarpur; the seat had been allotted to the BJP but the defence minister made such a fuss that the party gave in. If there is any inference to be drawn, it is that all of Bihar's leaders are admitting that they have let down their voters.


Adding to the confusion, both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are making a determined bid to extend their influence from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. The Samajwadi Party leaders is aiming for the Yadav and Muslim votes while the Bahujan Samaj Party is fishing for the Dalits. Between them, they are threatening Laloo Prasad Yadav's base. And any understanding amongst National Democratic Alliance partners ends at the borders of Bihar. In Jharkhand (which was a part of Bihar till 1999), the 'allies' are battling each other as merrily as they are opposing the Congress (I) and Laloo Prasad Yadav.


Bihar's 40 seats could be crucial in forming the contours of the next Lok Sabha. But who will speak for the state if the votes are split among half a dozen parties? One way or the other, poor Bihar must wait before it can exchange one 'har' for another.



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T V R Shenoy

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