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How low will Congress stoop before Lalu?

How low will Congress stoop before Lalu?

Author: V. Gangadhar
Publication: The Free Press Journal
Date: January 25, 2005
URL: http://www.samachar.com/features/270105-features.html

Bihar, in Indian politics, is a five letter word. The media talks about the lawless society of the state or the jungle law, which, in fact, is an insult to the animals of the jungle. We are now told that kidnapping has become an industry in the state and was worth Rs 50 crores. The latest sorry episode in Bihar was the kidnapping of a public school student which aroused the ire of the entire student community. Doctors struck work in Bihar when several of them were kidnapped and held for ransom. Engineers and social activists fell victims to the vicious contractors' lobbies which did not want outsiders enter the state. Policemen were either corrupt or brutal. Powerful political leaders like Pappu Yadav, though behind bars, held their own darbars despite strictures from the Supreme Court of India. Hundreds were being regularly killed in caste wars.

This is Bihar which once upon a time had a rich tradition and culture. Even today, it abounded in natural wealth and minerals. Industries which were set up never took off. `Bihari' has now become a word of contempt to the rest of India. As the state prepared to go to the polls early next month, we wonder what was in store for its people. Will the poor in Bihar vote for a government which would help them come out of their present state of degradation? Can there ever be normal law and order situation in Bihar?

This is a problem which had to be faced squarely by two of the leading national political parties in the country, the Congress and the BJP. For nearly 15 years, the state of Bihar had been ruled by the Rashtriya Janata Dal whose maverick chief, Lalu Prasad had appointed his wife, Rabri Devi to function as the official Chief Minister while ruling the state through remote control. He is also the Union Minister for Railways at the Centre and his party is one of the major constituents of the ruling coalition.

It is strange but true that in the February elections neither the Congress nor the BJP will be major players in the second largest state in the country. That honour went to the RJD and the Janata Dal (U) whose political philosophy no one knew or cared. While the Congress had aligned with the RJD, the BJP had cast its fortune with the Dal.

The Congress while ruled India for nearly 50 years after independence had to acknowledge certain bitter facts. It was a tired, spent force in the all important Hindi belt where its fortunes were at an all time low. In the major state of UP, the Congress was ranked fourth behind the Samajwadi party, the Bahuguna Samaj Party and the BJP. It had no visible presence in MP and Rajastan. In Bihar it had been hanging on to the coat tails of Lalu's RJD, in the process of swallowing the humiliation heaped upon it.

This became obvious during the allotment of seats among the RJD and its poll allies. Lalu Prasad Yadav, obviously stung by the fact that his party was sidelined by the Congress and the Jharkand Mukti Morcha in the allotment seats for the assembly elections, hit back offering just 25 seats to the Congress in Bihar. It was a straightforward, `Take it or leave it' offer and the Congress had to accept it. Of course, it hopes to contest a total of 80 seats though many of them would be `friendly fights' with its partner, the RJD.

How can the Congress put up with such humiliation in Bihar? The fact is simple, the Congress had lost its roots in the cow belt. It had no popular leaders either. The traditional vote banks of the Congress which covered the Muslims and the Dalits had been taken by the RJD. Since the Congress had not been in power for more than a decade, it could not do anything to win back the confidence of the people.

Also, the Congress, nor for that matter the BJP, had an answer to the political shrewdness of Lalu Prasad Yadav. For the urban elite, he was some kind a sick joke with his constant pan chewing, broken English and bizarre actions on the political field. Behind this facade, functioned a political brain which rightly assessed the mood of Bihar and its people. The poor masses not only in Bihar but all over India, did not expect any immediate solutions to their monumental problems. But they wanted some kind of attention, an assurance that the leadership was aware of these and had some sympathy for them. In most cases, the leaders could not even provide these. Among the national leaders, the presence of Sonia Gandhi, often acted as a balm to the wounds of the masses in the country. She was the beacon of hope for the Congress for the entire nation.

But in states like Bihar, the Sonia magic was less effective against the charisma of the local hero, Lalu Prasad. For them, Sonia Gandhi promised something, but she was a goddess operating from distant Delhi. She could not be expected to be in Bihar all the time and solve the problems of the state. This was where Lalu scored. For the people of Bihar, he was one of them. He talked their language, ate the same kind of food and promised some kind of a better future.

While Bihar was comparatively free from communal strife, it was the hotbed of caste politics and violence, with the lower castes getting the worst of it. Though, Lalu Prasad was unable to prevent most of the massacres,he was often at the site of the killings, promising help to those affected and assuring that such incidents did not occur again. For the illiterate, ignorant masses, these gestures were enough. Of course, caste conflicts continued and Lalu played his role yet again.

Along with UP Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, had usurped the role of the Congress as the saviour of the Muslims. In every television interview or media contacts, the Railway Minister talked of `secularism' and how he stood for it. Bihari Muslims believed him. He was their messiah. Often, his gestures went beyond Bihar. He was the most vociferous critic of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who was clearly behind the communal riots in the state and had little respect for leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee or L K Advani, often trashing them in public. And Lalu being Lalu got away with issues which other political leaders could not.

As the Railay Minister, he had to institute yet another enquiry into the burning of the Godhra train carnage and also release the interim report of the Banerjee commission just before the Bihar assembly election. The BJP can shout from the housetops and protest to the Election Commission, but Lalu had proved his point once more, that he was the true saviour of the minorities.

The Congress had no strategy to compete with Lalu Prasad. Will the RJD be a victim of the anti-incumbency factor in the forthcoming polls? This is hard to say because the BJP is a fading force in the state and JD(U) had nothing definite to offer to the people. And don't forget the fact that Lalu on the campaign trail could be devastating. Well, the Congress should grin and bear it and thank heavens they were on the same side of the maverick leader.

Many of the urban elite saw only the comic side of Lalu Prasad. This would be missing the gist of the man who really understood the masses and the philosophy that even if you could not help them much, at least be with them and share their sorrows. The homilies of Lalu went straight to their hearts, more than the couplets of an Atalji.

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