Forget corruption, caste still dominates Indian politics

Lalu Prasad Yadav's arrest could threaten the electoral alliance in Bihar

By Aditya Sinha (Going Viral)

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Published: Wed 10 Jan 2018, 8:24 PM

Last updated: Wed 10 Jan 2018, 10:28 PM

Lalu Prasad Yadav, former chief minister of Bihar and its most potent political leader other than current chief minister Nitish Kumar (who's in power thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was sentenced to three and a half years rigorous imprisonment this week for his role in the "fodder scam", in which funds from Bihar's animal husbandry department were siphoned off by officials with political patronage. Bihar is one of India's most backward and poorest states; if one half of India is like East Asia, Bihar lies in the part that is like sub-Saharan Africa. The fodder scam did not amount to much, perhaps less than a Rs100 million, which is peanuts compared to what the then Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had estimated as losses in a telecom scandal in 2010 and a coal scam in 2012: Rs1,760 billion and Rs1,860 billion, respectively.
It is another matter that these scams have turned out to be mirages, and that the CAG was rewarded with three sinecures by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.
Obviously, to dislodge a clean man like Dr Manmohan Singh required allegations of mind-bogglingly astronomic proportions. Once gone, the scams were no longer necessary. It is also another matter that the fodder scam started long before Lalu came to power, by Bihar's upper caste elite (the unctuous Jagannath Mishra is one who has escaped rigorous punishment by climbing aboard Nitish's bandwagon). All that matters is that Lalu, the only politician to never do business with the BJP and to overturn caste relations in India's most casteist state (I should know, I'm from Bihar), has gone to jail.
Most of my extended family rubbed their upper caste hands in glee.
The BJP fears/loathes Lalu because Bihar has consistently been so close and yet so far from their grasp. Even in the 2015 assembly elections, at the height of Modi's power, Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal emerged as the single largest party in Bihar's hung assembly and thwarted the BJP's bid for power by coalescing with Nitish. Further back in 1990, when the BJP project was in full swing, its then-strongman LK Advani traveled through the country from Somnath, where an ancient temple was rebuilt, to Ayodhya where a temple is sought to be rebuilt on the ruins of a demolished mosque. His route left inter-communal riots in its wake. But before he could enter UP in his final leg to Ayodhya, he was stopped and arrested by then CM Lalu. Ever since, the Bihari leader, who publicly puts on an act of a country bumpkin that hides a\sharp political savvy, became an everlasting thorn in the BJP's side.
No wonder, then, that the BJP was exhilarated when, in 2013, Lalu was found guilty in the fodder scam and under electoral law barred from contesting election for ten years.
Overlooked by the anti-Lalu cheerleaders is the fact that the Patna High Court was all upper caste, whose judgment lacked the dispassionate tone that characterises jurisprudence the world over. An example of this was when the court this week opined, out loud, that Lalu and others could be put in an open-air jail where his "expertise" in animal husbandry could be put to use; meaning that being a backward caste, he could not be expected to spend his incarceration with reading and writing unlike other political leaders around the world.
Before mentioning where Lalu's imprisonment will likely lead, one should mention another episode from the new year that took place in one of India's wealthiest states, Maharashtra, in Pune, at Bhima-Koregaon. On New Years' Day, the Mahars, a dalit group, gathered at a memorial to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Imperial army's Mahar regiment's victory over the Marathas. It was attacked by upper castes led by two local BJP leaders, and this led to a statewide bandh a day later. The BJP (and its trolls) tried to blame it on "communist types" and questioned why anyone would celebrate a British victory, conveniently forgetting the old adage about your enemy's enemy. Some BJP supporters even attributed it to secret machinations by Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, in a devious effort to malign the BJP.
What it did was threaten the electoral alliance of dalits and most backward castes that the BJP had so far successfully cobbled together for astounding wins nationally in 2014 and in UP last year. BJP did it through religious polarisation. In India, however, the only thing that trumps religious polarisation is caste polarisation - which much to Modi's great anxiety almost worked in Gujarat last month when the Congress, led by a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi, was eight seats away from a massive upset in Modi's home state.
With Lalu's incarceration, what will undoubtedly happen in 2019 in Bihar will be the most violent election ever. In the trenches will be Lalu's soldiers, and bearing the brunt will be landed upper castes trying to push through the BJP's first win in the state. The wildcard would be the dalits in Bihar's countryside, and there are no prizes for guessing on whose side they will land.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India

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