There are two ways in which Laloo Prasad Yadav is viewed outside Bihar depending on the social (read caste) origins, educational accomplishments and political leanings of the person concerned.
People belonging to the ‘lower’ or backward classes, especially the undereducated among them, see him as their messiah, who has waged a long, courageous and unrelenting battle against the ‘Manuvadi’ and Hindutva forces. For them, Laloo’s conviction in the fodder scam for the second time in five years is an ‘upper caste’ conspiracy to stifle the voice of the oppressed classes. For proof, they point to the fact that Jagannath Mishra, the Brahmin Chief Minister during whose Chief Ministership the systematic loot of the government treasury through the Animal Husbandry department is believed to have started, was acquitted in the same fodder scam case. The entirely uncalled for, arguably casteist and needlessly sarcastic comment of the CBI judge Shivpal Singh – asking Laloo to play ‘tabla’ to beat the cold when he expressed apprehensions about spending time in jail at the height of winter and advising him to tend to cattle in the jail along with his entire family since he had ‘good experience in fodder and cattle medicine’ – certainly lends a degree of credibility to the ‘upper caste conspiracy’ charge.
In sharp contrast, the educated upper classes see him as the man who spawned what is derisively called ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar during his 15 uninterrupted years as the Chief Minister of the state beginning 1990. They accuse him of doing nothing other than exacerbating existing caste fault lines in Bihari society during his rule, indulging in large scale corruption, promoting family rule, giving a free run to violent thugs and hobnobbing with the most communal elements among Muslims in the name of secularism and fighting the forces of Hindutva to build his MY (Muslim-Yadav) coalition. They are convinced that he took Bihar backwards by at least 15/20 years and think the conviction of Laloo in the fodder scam twice over is ‘just desserts’ for the man.
The second conviction in the fodder scam has effectively marked the end of Laloo’s own career in electoral politics. But far from quietly walking into the sunset, the irrepressible mass leader appears to have got a fresh lease of life as he went into the Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi after his conviction. The voices singing the ‘just desserts’ tune have been drowned under the outpouring of sympathy for him – not just from RJD cadres but from a significant section of the progressive and left-liberal classes, mostly manned by upper castes, across the country who see him as a ‘martyr’ in the cause of social justice.
To understand this sympathy for a ‘convicted criminal’, one has to go deep into the centrality of caste and the long history of caste based oppression in Bihari society. The backward classes see him as the man who gave them a voice and strived long and hard to balance the skewed caste relations in the state. ‘Development’, in the conventional sense of better roads, schools and other amenities, has no meaning for them. What matters instead is the fact that for the first time in history, the backwards were emboldened by a regime to look the upper castes in their eye and give back to upper caste ‘armies’ like Ranvir Sena as good as they got. The Muslims see him as their savior for his steadfast refusal to join hands with the ‘communal forces’ (read BJP) to stay in power, unlike his friend-turned-foe-turned-ally-tuned foe again: Nitish Kumar. [It is a measure of Laloo’s undiminshed support base that once he decided to part ways with BJP, Nitish had no choice but to join hands with his bête noire in 2015!] For them, the arrest of Lal Krishna Advani in Samastipur just days before his ‘Rath Yatra’ entered Uttar Pradesh en route to Ayodhya in 1990 was the most courageous act by any Indian politician in the cause of secularism in modern times. Try speaking a word against Laloo in the presence of his staunch supporters and you could be in serious danger of being lynched.
Though it did not really get that bad, this columnist learnt this lesson the hard way sometime in the early 1990s when Laloo was at the peak of his popularity. During a marriage ceremony in Jamshedpur – which was part of undivided Bihar in those days – I made the cardinal mistake of making some adverse comments about Laloo’s governance (the fodder scam was still a few years away). For the next one hour or so, I had to suffer the non-stop harangue of a man about what the messiah had done for them. The incident was an eye opener and taught me one of my first lessons in journalism: never speak without knowing the ground realities.
His legislative career may have ended for good. But given the social realities of Bihar, Laloo in jail could prove to be an even more potent force than a Laloo outside.