Lathi Fails to Amuse Restive Bihar
Bush Bhagaao, Duniya Bachaao; Bhajpa Bhagaao, Desh Bachaao (oust Bush, save the world; oust BJP, save the nation) – that was the declared battle cry of Laloo Yadav’s much trumpeted Lathi Rally on April 30. And the ‘rustic’ lathi was chosen as the medium to convey this message across the world. The rally came at a time when the spectacle value of Bush’s Iraq war had already started diminishing. For the spectacle-hungry television channels, the timing of Laloo’s ‘lathi rally’ therefore could not have been more appropriate. They lost no time in conjuring up a spectacular mega war between Togadia’s trishul and Laloo’s lathi. And the lathi rally thus became a mega TV event, with TV channels launching a virtual war among themselves to ensure that the audience did not miss one bit of the colourful run-up to the finale. But as April gave way to May, the lathi rally was truly over. The shelf life of Laloo’s lathi rally could not be stretched for even one extra day beyond April 30.
It was after several years that Laloo Yadav held a rally in Patna and the preparation was indeed massive. The rally was preceded by a series of district-level mobilisations and the whole of Bihar, and especially Patna, had literally been painted green. The entire governmental machinery had been pressed into service and no effort was spared to ensure a mega turnout. Yet by the afternoon of April 30 the word was out: this has probably been the smallest rally by Laloo Yadav’s standards. Even the most sympathetic media analysis had to admit: “The lathi rally … fell short of the party’s record in terms of numbers and was no historic event. Yet, it showed that although Laloo Yadav may be down, he is certainly not out…” (Frontline, May 10-23, 2003). Laloo Yadav had wanted to demonstrate his strength, he ended up exposing the chinks in his armour.
In the hands of Laloo Yadav and his men, the lathi did not appear as a symbol of a spirited counter-offensive of the people against the saffron onslaught on secularism, democracy and national dignity. The oppressed and fighting rural poor of Bihar were conspicuously absent in Laloo’s lathi show. Bihari women, who still have to confront a well-entrenched feudal-patriarchal set-up in their daily battle for minimum livelihood and basic dignity, were obviously not enamoured of the paeans that Laloo and Rabri sang in praise of the lathi. And even though Muslims are credited with supplying almost half of the votes that have been seeing Laloo Yadav through all his electoral crises, their presence and participation in the rally was also quite minimal. This is however symptomatic of the RJD’s variety of politics that essentially looks at Muslims as a captive and passive electoral factor and not as an active political force.
So for all his anti-American and anti-BJP rhetoric, Laloo’s lathi rally remained very much an aggressive mobilisation of his own core social base among the Yadav peasantry. But it was not the mass of Yadav peasantry, who have to face as severe an agrarian crisis as peasants elsewhere in the country, who really responded to the lure of the lathi. The lathi brandishing gentry were typically members of the kulak-contractor-criminal nexus for whom the lathi has only one symbolism: jiski lathi, uski bhains (he who wields the stick owns the buffalo).
While Laloo Prasad waxed eloquent about the legendary qualities of the lathi, he had nothing to say about the severe crisis pervading every sphere of life in his own state. The reason behind this silence is quite clear. His government owes its existence and strength to the very forces that are responsible for, and benefit from, the backwardness of Bihar. This is why his government is increasingly trying to save its skin by unleashing state repression. No wonder the people in Bihar view the the RJD-Congress government as ‘lathi-goli ki sarkar’ : a government that survives by raining lathis and bullets on the people. While Laloo’s call of ouster stops at the border of Bihar, for the people of Bihar the slogan stretches to the very core of Bihar polity: end the repressive reign of crime and corruption, build a new democratic Bihar.
Meanwhile the issue of Bihar’s backwardness has been in the news again. A survey of various Indian states commissioned by the India Today on the basis of eight parameters (propserity and budget, law and order, infrastructure, investment, agriculture, health, education and consumer market) has revealed Bihar to be India’s most backward and worst-ruled state. In Delhi, Rabri Devi walked out in a huff of a meeting convened by the India Today to reveal the findings of the survey while Laloo Prasad threatened to burn the copies of the magazine. For Laloo Prasad and his men, the issue of Bihar’s deep-seated economic backwardness is just a bogey and a product of central conspiracy. It is another matter that the RJD government has never fought any reral battle against central discrimination. Rhetorically Laloo Prasad can threaten to burn copies of India Today for describing Bihar as India’s most backward and ill-governed state, but in the realm of action, his government’s record of struggle for securing greater central share is just a big zero. Even at the time of Bihar’s bifurcation, the RJD government failed to mount any effective pressure on the central government to declare any specific affirmative action for backward and bifurcated Bihar.
The India Today survey essentially reflects how various states have performed between 1991 and 2001, the decade of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Among 19 Indian states (including Delhi but excluding the north-eastern states other than Assam and the newly created states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal), Bihar came 19th, finishing at the fag end on an overall basis. In terms of specific areas Bihar’s rank has been 16 in health and agriculture, 18 in prosperity and budget, and 19 in the rest (law and order, education, infrastructure, investment, and consumer market). The neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s have been an absolute non-starter in Bihar. Even if one were to ignore the market-inspired critera adopted by the India Today study and give prominence to the proclaimed concerns of the era of planned economy like land reforms, industrialisation and employment generation, Bihar would have fared no better. The only ‘saving grace’ for Laloo Prasad is that he had inherited the state in almost equally dismal conditions – Bihar ranked 19th in 1991 as well. Evidently, the rot started setting in long ago and with every passing year it is only getting worse.
Apart from highlighting the chronic nature of Bihar’s problem of backwardness, the India Today survey has also hinted at a broader and interconnected set of problems in contrast to the narrow ‘law-and-order’ based discourse. We use the word ‘hint’ because the survey does not directly address the question of interconnection among the various parameters, especially in the complex context of Bihar. The law-and-order factor in the survey, for example, takes into account the number of policemen per lakh people, ratio of cases filed to pending cases in district and lower courts, and share of murders, kidnappings and rape and molestations to total cognisable crimes. Bihar may thus appear to be a classic case of an under-policed state but the role of the police as an integral component of the crime establishment does not come under the scanner. Even without the benefit of exact figures, the people of Bihar know it well enough that crime and coruprtion in Bihar have assumed the proportions of an industry and that Bihar is systematically looted by a symbiotic nexus of corrupt politicians, repressive police, idle bureaucracy, organised criminals, cruel landlords and greedy contractors.
From the point of view of the ruling classes, Bihari or Indian, the crucial relevance of Laloo Prasad lies in the fact that he is a shrewd political manager of this nexus, the best political insurance for any potential popular upheaval against the nexus that is stiffling Bihar. The political entertainment that Laloo Prasad provides to the media or the money that he makes in the bargain is for them just a secondary detail.
For the people of Bihar, Laloo Prasad is only a symbol of economic stagnation, political betrayal and institutionalised loot and decay. Bihar therefore felt little impressed or amused with his brandishment of a mega lathi. The whole of Patna wore a deserted look on the day of the rally. This silence was Bihar’s way of telling Laloo Prasad that as far as the people of the state are concerned he enjoyed little legitimacy or moral authority. And to be sure, the lathi rally has had little impact on the continuing spate of popular protests all over the state. The ripples of the wave that started with the mass upsurge in Patna against the Ashiananagar fake encounter are still quite visible.
Bihar is however one state where there is no readymade political alternative. In fact the crisis in the state is so deep and acute that it can only have a radical solution and the bourgeois parties which can only tinker with the problem but cannot even effectively scratch it have therefore little ‘market’ as an opposition. Despite their numerical strength in the legislature, the NDA partners have proved singularly ineffective as a political force in the state. In fact, the NDA as a coalition is in a state of growing disintegration in Bihar.
For the Left, Bihar continues to provide not only a very fertile ground but also a favourable climate. In contrast to the lack of initiative and credibility of the bourgeois opposition, the Left has all the chances of emerging as a dynamic and credible ‘third force’ in Bihar. The Naya Bihar Andolan initiated by the CPI(ML) since January this year marked a major step in this direction. But the other major component of the Left in Bihar, the CPI, has hastily teamed up with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti and Jagannath Mishra’s Nationalist Congress. Both the LJP and the NCP are known to be getting closer to the Congress, the NCP in fact is not only a Congress offshoot but is also a coalition partner of the Congress. In the last Assembly election, the CPI had entered into a seat adjustment with the CPI(ML), raising hopes of a new consolidation of the Left in the state. But soon after the elections, the party started distancing itself from the CPI(ML) and instead formed a Left Coordination Committee with the CPI(M), an ‘outside’ partner of the ruling RJD-led coalition. And now even the Left Coordination has been sacrificed at the altar of an instant third front. This CPI politics of exigency is of course a hindrance to the process of an effective consolidation of the Left in Bihar, but the CPI(ML) must make up for it by expanding its own role and strengthening its own political initiative. — DB