Mrityunjay Sharma’s book, ‘Broken Promises: Caste, Crime and Politics in Bihar,’ offers a holistic assessment of the Lalu Yadav’s years, and a sector-by-sector analysis of the state’s woes

Born in the north Bihar town of Darbhanga, I grew up in Ranchi in the 1990s. Shortly before my twelfth birthday, Ranchi was declared the capital of the newly-formed state of Jharkhand, thereby creating a sort of hyphenate Bihari-Jharkhandi identity. It’s not like I had any illusions about how Biharis and Bihariness were perceived by the rest of the country.

When I left home for college, however, I realized the extent of the stereotype. Basically, Shekhar Suman’s nightly impersonations of Lalu Yadav (on the primetime TV show Movers and Shakers) were the primary source of information about my state, it seemed. It’s like white Americans thinking every Indian resembled Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons.

Lalu Prasad Yadav: A product of his times

Bihar’s fall from grace is one of the most remarkable stories of the Indian subcontinent. How did this renowned epicentre of art and culture, of social and political reform, known for giving us globally-famous universities, thinkers and two major world religions (Buddhism and Jainism both began here), fall so far behind the rest of the country? Mrityunjay Sharma’s recently released nonfiction book Broken Promises: Caste, Crime and Politics (Westland Books) offers some compelling, well-organized answers.

After a brief, cohesive introduction to the history of the region, Sharma settles down for the main order of business — a holistic assessment of the Lalu years (1990-2005). How Lalu came to power, his genius for political rhetoric, his gift for either polarizing or uniting interest groups (based on political convenience) and, of course, his blind spots and eventual downfall.

Sharma, unlike a lot of upper-caste commentators from Bihar, doesn’t view Lalu Yadav as a pantomime villain or the devil incarnate, presiding over the so-called ‘jungle raj’. He is not interested in cheap point-scoring or scapegoating. He correctly views Lalu Yadav as the perfect ‘product of his times’, rising to power in a land where caste dictated every single aspect of one’s life. Lalu saw an opening in the mounting frustration of the lower castes against savarna landlords who hogged every public resource, resisting even the most tokenized efforts towards levelling the playing field.

His political nous

At the same time, Sharma isn’t blind to Lalu’s failures as a leader. Ditto with Lalu’s signature brashness that became perceived as arrogance later in life. As the RJD’s support base shrank and shrank, it left the gate open for other caste-led power players like Sharad Yadav and the current chief minister Nitish Kumar, who has unlocked new levels of craven opportunism over the last decade or so.

The book’s first half has several excellent demonstrations of Lalu’s political nous — via speeches, interviews, anecdotes and so on. But what may be even more surprising to readers outside of Bihar is the fact that this was a chief minister who began his stint in office with a series of unconventional, pro-active measures designed to speed up development and remove bureaucratic bottlenecks.

These measures included Lalu holding impromptu ‘panchayats’ for dispute resolution, making surprise visits to schools and hospitals, and even suspending tardy officers or bureaucrats on the spot (Sharma correctly compares this spree to the Anil Kapoor film Nayak, where Kapoor’s character becomes CM for a day and does some very similar things).

Resorting to rhetoric-heavy, stunt-adjacent strategy

However, Lalu soon realized that governance isn’t a PR-friendly realm, not in the way rhetoric is. Take education, for example: Politicians are loathe to invest substantial time or money solving problems in the education sector. This is because it takes 10-15 years for any concrete gains to take shape in this sector. A child going through a superior school system will still take about a decade to properly show the impact of said system. And so, Lalu decided to revert to the rhetoric-heavy, stunt-adjacent strategy that had made him famous in the first place.

“At an election rally in Dhanbad in 1991, Lalu marched from his chopper to the stage wearing a khadi vest over his kurta. Lalu announced to the chuckling audience, ‘We have long played vest to the upper castes. It’s time to swap roles now. It’s time to get the vest over the shirt now.’ Lalu had cleverly framed the entire conflict as a battle between the privileged and the oppressed. While it appeared to be purely a class struggle, the way it was carried out and projected frequently caused the classes to coincide with caste groups.”

Broken Promises also draws upon some very relevant lessons from Bihar’s history. Like the fact that Bihar’s agricultural sector was decimated by the British strong-arming farmers into growing opium and indigo, things valuable to British merchants internationally. Or that Bihar’s inequality levels have a lot to do with the Permanent Settlement system of taxation during the British era, wherein the total tax payable was a flat, fixed fee regardless of the crop output that year.

Sector-by-sector analysis of Bihar’s woes

If we consider the period right after Independence, too, Bihar suffered because of centralized administrative decisions coming out of Delhi, decisions that no Bihari had any control over. The Nehru government declared that iron ore could not be sold at differential prices at different places in India — this nullified the mineral-rich Bihar’s (today, of course, the mineral-rich areas belong to Jharkhand) competitive advantage among Indian states. Here’s a passage from the book describing the circumstances that led to Bihar being carved out of the undivided Bengal — even here, caste-based politics played a very important role:

“The Bengali domination was a major obstacle for educationally advanced castes, mainly the Kayasthas. It was frequently claimed that the Bengalis would push their relatives to various vacancies and opportunities as they arose. This particularly hurt the Kayasthas, who were especially dependent on government jobs and such professions for their economic well-being and social advancement. It is not surprising, therefore, that the movement for separation from Bengal was led by a Kayastha, Sachchidananda Sinha. The creation of Bihar thus greatly helped the aspiring sections of Bihar to wrest control of government jobs and opportunities such as contracts and favours.”

Political motives unpacked, the book then moves on to a sector-by-sector analysis of Bihar’s woes and does a typically thorough job. Broken Promises draws upon the work of earlier Bihar books such as Sankarshan Thakur’s Subaltern Saheb: The Making of Laloo Yadav (2006) and Santosh Singh’s Ruled Or Misruled: Ruled Or Misruled (2015. And, arguably, it surpasses both in terms of journalistic and historiographic rigour. A fine primer on Bihar highly recommended for those seeking to educate themselves on the topic.

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