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'Lalu's a rascal, but will vote for him'

By Amberish K Diwanji in Madhepura
Last updated on: February 09, 2005 15:17 IST
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Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji is currently touring Bihar to inform you about what life in the state is truly like. This is his second dispatch from the area of darkness

Part I: In Bihar, silence is golden

In the last three polls, Lalu Yadav has defied every pre-poll survey to emerge the winner.

Never has he been predicted the winner, but he has always had the last laugh.

Those in the cities, in their armchairs in Delhi and Mumbai, despair. When will the Biharis learn? When will they vote for a better man who will bring about development?

Casting your bullet in Bihar | Laloo, aloo and baloo

The divide is clear. In Patna, in the larger cities, in the markets, those in their comfortable armchairs or air-conditioned rooms, curse Lalu Yadav and want him out.

But these men are of the upper caste and upper class or are from the lower castes who have been Sanskritised and seek to emulate upper caste behaviour.

Deep in the interiors, which means off not just the national highways but the state highways too, even off just motorable roads, one gets a mixed picture of why Lalu Yadav might still win even though many insist that this time he'll go.

The tragic reality of Bihar is the debate is between caste and development. The reality so far has been caste.

The killing fields of Bihar | 'Bihar needs change'

It remains to be seen if development becomes more important than caste. As is clear, what is said openly is not always the truth. Much has to perceived rather than just heard.

In a small village called Behariganj, deep in Madhepura district, the metal road ends where the village begins.

Inside, the best road is on the side on which the Sahus (traders and moneylenders) and the Thakurs live.

To reach where the largest segments live -- the Yadavs and the lowest of the Dalits, the Musahars -- one needs to take a long winding road, or a short cut walking in a single file.

There is no large road leading directly to where the Yadavs and Musahars live.

'Lalu's arrogance will cause his downfall' | 'Shall we make whole of India a Bihar?'

The larger road does go to the Yadav area, but in a long roundabout way. So to reach the Yadav settlement, you walk much more or take a short cut through the Musahar area.

If for 40 years the upper castes did not think it important that the lower castes should have a direct road to their area, the tragedy is that the last 15 years have not seen the situation change either.

The Musahars and Yadavs live next to each other; their children play with each other, the men and women talk to each other, they even eat alongside each other.

However, many Yadavs won't eat at a Musahar's house (it is another thing that the Musahars have little to offer).

Of course, it is a reflection of India's social reality that they don't mingle beyond this level; but for the Musahars, who are not just looked down by the so-called upper castes but also actually abhorred, this means a lot.

This is the rat-eating (musa means rat) caste that ekes out a living through labour and making straw baskets.

Thus for the Musahars, the Yadavs are their only friends and link to the larger world

Tragically, as Yadav's Sanskritise further, they are beginning to emulate the worst behaviour of the upper castes and seek to keep the Dalits at arm's length or farther.

Pravin Kumar Yadav is an articulate man who revels in abusing Lalu Yadav. "That man has done nothing in 15 years. Look at our roads, look at these poor Musahars," he said.

"All these politicians, from the village level to the highest level, are corrupt. They are in politics to make money," he said emphatically.

So who will he vote for? "Lalu Yadav."

I was flabbergasted. Wasn't he just abusing him?

"Sir, we vote as per our caste, nothing else. Lalu Yadav is a rascal, he has done nothing, but as a Yadav, I have to vote for his party," he said.

"Caste is everything," he adds. He was a little upset later on when I refused to tell him my caste, merely saying I was 'Indian'.

Pravin doesn't expect the RJD to win in Madhepura and admits that in Bihar, it is a tough challenge.

Then he adds: "I don't vote for Lalu. He is a thief. I vote for the RJD. In this state, each caste is identified with a person."

He is absolutely right: in Bihar, it is almost axiomatic to identify a caste with a party:

Yadavs, Muslims = RJD;
Upper castes = BJP or Congress;
Dalits = LJP;
Non-Yadav backwards = Samata Party or Janata Dal-U.

Of course, there are others entering the fray and seeking a slice of the pie.

The Musahars are quiet. Dalits in the villages rarely tell you who they will vote for even if you are alone; never in front of a person from another caste.

But they echo Pravin to say that over the years, there has been no development and therefore no jobs; their greatest need.

Members of the younger generation from this village work in Punjab as agricultural labourers.

But Lalu has done one thing for them: he got the primary school shifted from the forward caste area to the backward caste area: every child in the Yadav and Musahar settlements goes to school.

Tragically, every child does not finish school (the real problem with education in India has always been the dropouts, not the enrolment).

This village school has classes only up to Standard VII. Better still; this school is the voting booth; which means that the lower castes now don't have to enter the forward caste areas to vote.

Decades ago, they were simply turned away by the forward castes.

The old remember that and hail Lalu; the young don't, they want jobs and abuse Lalu.

Even as the evening cold descends, the little children frolic around in just shirts; the women have only a shawl to cover themselves. How can it be enough in a region just north of which lie the Himalayas.

The Musahars will soon go into their thatched huts and huddle up to fight the cold.

Yet, Lalu or the Yadavs are not their worst enemy.

The Sahus and Thakurs never talk to the Musahars.

The Musahars wouldn't mind if Lalu Yadav went and the next man was a pro-development person.

That is the clear impression that came across to me as they spoke in a collective voice -- the young men more articulate than the old. The women merely watched.

Pravin then said, "When we vote, we all get together and decide whom to vote for so that it benefits the village."

That is another way of saying that the Yadavs decide whom the Musahars vote for.

Decades ago, it was said the Thakurs and the Bhumihars, who held the land and the power, told the Dalits whom to vote for. Today, the Yadavs have taken over that role.

But there is a difference: Thakurs and Rajputs treated the Dalits as untouchables; the Yadavs, especially the poorer ones -- and there are poor Yadavs everywhere, in every village of Bihar -- still treat them as fellow humans, even if some exploit the Musahars economically.

And the poor Yadavs have much more in common with the Musahars than they do with the rich Yadavs. Such commonality does create strong bonds, which often translate into votes!

For the Musahars, it is tough. Can they afford to vote against the candidate favoured by the Yadavs, who are always on their side?

What is the point of voting for the same person who the Sahus and Thakurs support when these segments don't even bother to inquire into the welfare of the Musahars?

Will such an elected person ever ensure their welfare or will they go by the dictates of the upper castes?

We will never know whom they vote for. What we know is that for them, life just never offers them any easy choices.

But it does explain why so many of the poor and poorest still see Lalu and RJD in different light from what is beamed via satellite television into carpeted drawing rooms.

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Amberish K Diwanji in Madhepura