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The continuing war against social privilege

Now that the dust has settled on the Bihar elections, one question needs analysis: Was Laloo’s 15-year-rule retrogressive or revolution...

Written by Rahul Ramagundam |
March 31, 2005

Now that the dust has settled on the Bihar elections, one question needs analysis: Was Laloo’s 15-year-rule retrogressive or revolutionary?

Laloo has been consistently accused of presiding over the gradual demise of institutions of governance in Bihar. During his regime, it is said, Bihar degenerated into anarchy. A myriad of non-state actors that came into being during the reign of Laloo, indulged in competitive dismantling of the state. Even in pre-Laloo Bihar, state and its capacity to deliver just ruling was repeatedly compromised.

During Laloo’s phase, dismantling of state-institutions attained crass proportions and was done brazenly by anti-establishment rhetoric. If there are any institutions in Bihar that simultaneously curse as well as celebrate, they are the media and judiciary. Rightly so, as these two institutions were out of the purview of Laloo’s rule and therefore could withstand his assaults and launch counter-attacks. Other institutions like the legislature and executive caved in and became ineffectual. But this impotency of the institutions says as much about Laloo, as about their own character.

What Laloo did was to adopt two-pronged strategy to bend institutional collaboration with elite and upper caste in resource-use rivalry, if not by intent, then by default. One, he de-capacitated the state and its institutions by resorting to informal means of power dissemination. Second, he restrained the state’s role in the development of common cake that had the redistributive potential. It was here that the role of state institutions was historically suspect. They mostly sided with an upper class base. By de-capacitating state institutions, he obviated the possibility of state institutions taking sides in the rivalry over resources. In that sense, groups like the MCC became ascendant.

During Laloo’s regime if anything had unsurpassed growth, it was the sector of informal institutions such as MCC or its counter-player the Ranvir Sena and others. By not letting the state intervene in the production of common cake, he punctuated its appropriation by most able groups. The feudal norm results in society not asking any questions. And when modern democratic institutions become handmaidens to feudal norms, it further diminishes society’s right to ask questions. Something similar had happened in Bihar since Independence. Bihar’s political families had enviable ‘social capital’ which they used for maintenance of their interest amidst all trouble and turmoil. Their control over means of production, and thus economic accumulation, apparatus of governance such as civil and coercive bureaucracy, and political power through the legislature, was complete. It was they who became society’s spokespersons because of the political clout they wielded, which came from their hold over state resources. It was they who gained access to the executive arm of governance by means of establishing meritocracy in bureaucratic selection; it was they who interpreted law by means of the judiciary. They not only foisted policies that were hospitable to their interest but also simultaneously frustrated policies and measures perceived to be inhospitable to self-interest.

Repeatedly, even while measures such as abolition of zamindari were taken, they were never implemented. Leaders such as Kapoori Takhur or Daroga Rai, though different from the mould of Congress politicians, had not completely broken the stranglehold of the upper caste politicians. It was Laloo who ultimately picked up the gauntlet to tame upper caste influence in politics. But federal laws, rules and regulations limited his capacity to wrest control of the state. In such situations, to bring into being the power-shift in the controlling authority of Bihar, he had to adopt ideas and tactics that were the only options available to him but no less revolutionary.

Revolutions have both a destructive and constructive aspect. In Gandhi, India saw a revolutionary who attempted to combine both aspects in his praxis. In JP too, there was a semblance of both, however unformed they might have been. Laloo could not visualise beyond destruction. Or did he visualise it this time, when he said, “Development: Now or never”. He could have played a role of enabler by providing enhanced opportunities for wealth-generation to an increased number of people from his constituency. He could have built infrastructure, facilitated the market, improved indexes of human development. But non-development was his chest-thumping achievement. Was it due to his personal or historical limitations? Why did Laloo, seemingly a captor of the Yadav vote bank in Bihar, not initiate reforms in the Tenancy Act, when Yadavs constitute the largest number of share-croppers in the state? Perhaps because institutions that frustrated abolishing of zamindari could still frustrate tenancy reform.

In this failure is also hidden Laloo’s limited hold over institutions of governance despite the power-shift he created in the legislature. To introduce tenancy reform, he took the help of the informal arena built by non-state actors such as MCC, whose growth was facilitated substantially by his dismantling of the state. Why is that Bihar’s poor are reluctant to ask one question that could substantially alter their lives? As yet, the poor aren’t prepared to ask why is that some have acres of land and they who work on such land remain largely landless. Does that say anything about the nature of institutions?

Laloo could change the character of legislature by introducing representation of people with no lofty background but with a backward tag alone. He could tame the executive by reigning in the bureaucracy, although he did succeed in altering its recruiting base too. In doing so, he successfully exposed the class character of state institutions. And now, in Bihar, elite’s hegemony is in complete dishevelment. This is by no means any less revolutionary.

The writer is a researcher

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