India's Cow-Belt King Is Put Out to Pasture

The law catches up with Lalu Prasad Yadav, one of India's most colorful political figures.

Last week, the law finally caught up with the five-term member of India's parliament, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for decades one of the most colorful political figures. The son of a humble milkman, he rose to great power by throwing himself into the vicious caste wars of his region. In the process, Yadav, 65, brought millions of previously marginalized people into the mainstream of Indian politics, even as he established his own cult of power and brazenly bent every rule. Yadav is a one-man case study of Indian democracy at its most emancipatory -- and its most exasperating.

Not to mention its most entertaining. With his deliberate country-bumpkin air, his salty oratory and his willingness to play both king and court jester, Yadav is a cartoonist's dream, a sound bite factory for journalists and a perpetual provocation to political scientists and moralists. The star of what is sometimes pejoratively called India's cow-belt -- the large, predominantly rural, densely populated swathe that spans the great northern plains -- Yadav personally owns more than 100 bovines. He visits them regularly in the air-conditioned cowshed he has built on the outskirts of Patna, the capital of Bihar, the colossally dysfunctional state where his word was law in the years that he held power there between 1990 and 2005.

The cosseted livestock won't be seeing their master for a while. Last week, Yadav made headlines as the most high-profile of dozens of people convicted in a 16-year-old case of corruption known as the "fodder scam" and sentenced to five years in jail.

The conviction was a double blow, as it also makes Yadav one of the first politicians to be penalized by a ruling in July from India's Supreme Court on the question of criminals in politics. (About a third of current members of parliament have criminal cases against them, but few are eventually convicted. The new ruling meant that not only was Yadav immediately disqualified as a member of parliament, he was also barred from standing for public office for six years after his release. That means he's out of action until 2024.

But it wouldn't be right to say that the curtain has come down on Yadav's storied political career -- not when that curtain is only a set of bars. He has faced this kind of crisis before. In 1997, when he had been chief minister of Bihar for seven years, he had to resign from his post after India's Central Bureau of Investigation first implicated him in the fodder scam. Yadav promptly installed his wife, Rabri Devi -- at that point without a shred of political experience -- as chief minister of a state of more than 70 million people. His wife eventually served three terms. Yadav, when he got out of jail, moved into national politics and eventually became minister for railways.

Much of Indian politics today isn't much more than the cult of the family. And while individuals come and go, families go on forever. As Yadav prepared to go to jail (he will also appeal the verdict), it was clear he wasn't about to give up his hold on power. Last week, a spokesman from his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, announced that "Lalu Prasad would continue to lead the RJD from prison and Rabri Devi from outside." And pointing at the state of affairs in India's ruling Congress Party, Rabri Devi declared last week that she and her son would run the party "like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul run Congress."

But if Indian politics is so tribal, it's because a man's last name is also his caste name, and that identity may still be the most powerful force and fault line in Indian politics. (A good book to read on this subject is the anthology by the political scientist Ghanshyam Shah "Caste and Democratic Politics in India." To get a sense of how caste works as a force in Indian economic life, see this excellent paper by Barbara Harriss-White.)

Yadav first came to power by appealing to the backward caste called Yadavs who make up more than 10 percent of the population in Bihar, and promising that he would end their oppression at the hands of Bihar's upper castes. The enduring loyalty of this "votebank" to Yadav, combined with that of the state's Muslim population, ensured that his party ruled almost unchallenged in Bihar from 1990 to 2005 before its political capital ran out. Writing about this trend in a review of a biography of Yadav in 2000, the columnist Prem Shankar Jha observed:

INDENT The story of Laloo's rise underlines the extent to which democracy has displaced traditional modes of elite formation based on education, ability and leadership qualities and created a parallel avenue for the acquisition of power. This is the avenue typically availed of by people from rural areas, of limited means, who possess some exceptional leadership qualities. The political elite it creates knows how to mobilise voters and capture political power but has no idea of what to do with it. ENDINDENT

The news of Yadav's conviction and the absence of a prominent second line of leadership in his party mean that the political math has been decisively altered in his state (which has 44seats in India's 552-member parliament). In next year's national elections, as Rajesh Ramachandran wrote in the Hindu Business Line, "about 19 percent of votes are up for grabs in Bihar." Elsewhere, Sankarshan Thakur, Yadav's biographer, summarized the implications of Yadav's conviction with a series of metaphors: "Rumpelstiltskin has finally been dragged away by an iron manacle for all the gold he spun off animal fodder; en route to jail, he may be leaving behind a bank rich in votes up for grabs."

Who knows, though, what India's irrepressible cow-belt king will be able to conjure up from jail?

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

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