India’s Great Divide

The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar By Sankarshan Thakur 226 pages, New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2000 In recent years, India’s image as a land of elephants, snake charmers, and millions of wretched poor has been tempered by optimism about its booming high-tech industries. The southern city of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, ...

The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar
By Sankarshan Thakur 226 pages, New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2000

In recent years, India's image as a land of elephants, snake charmers, and millions of wretched poor has been tempered by optimism about its booming high-tech industries. The southern city of Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, has found a place on the world map. In the old days, well-meaning Catholic nuns went to India to save souls. More recently, Indian techno-geeks ventured forth to save the world from the Y2K bug.

For the hopeful, the software export parks of Bangalore and the free-market hustle of Bombay represent India's future. But for the pessimist, the future lies in Bihar -- an overpopulated, gut-wrenchingly poor state in the north where it is hard to tell the politicians from the criminals and where the only growth industry is the looting of government funds.

The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar
By Sankarshan Thakur 226 pages, New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2000

In recent years, India’s image as a land of elephants, snake charmers, and millions of wretched poor has been tempered by optimism about its booming high-tech industries. The southern city of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, has found a place on the world map. In the old days, well-meaning Catholic nuns went to India to save souls. More recently, Indian techno-geeks ventured forth to save the world from the Y2K bug.

For the hopeful, the software export parks of Bangalore and the free-market hustle of Bombay represent India’s future. But for the pessimist, the future lies in Bihar — an overpopulated, gut-wrenchingly poor state in the north where it is hard to tell the politicians from the criminals and where the only growth industry is the looting of government funds.

How long the India of Bangalore can coexist with the India of Bihar is one of the many questions that surround The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar, a well-received biography of one of India’s most notorious politicians written by Sankarshan Thakur, a New Delhi–based journalist and Bihar native. The book’s subject, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has reigned over Bihar since 1990. Yadav was born in poverty, the sixth child of a cowherd and the first in his family to graduate from high school. Thakur traces Yadav’s journey from a thatched hut in a village without electricity to the stately, colonial-era government bungalow he now calls home. To his admirers, Yadav symbolizes the maturing of India’s democracy and the long-overdue empowerment of its underprivileged. His detractors dismiss Yadav as a village bumpkin and crook who has achieved the seemingly impossible — raising the level of corruption in the country’s most corrupt state and lowering the standard of governance in its worst governed.

Yadav belongs to the first generation of Indian politicians with no experience of colonial rule; he was born in 1948, a year after the British left India. He didn’t begin his political career amidst the high idealism of the independence movement but in the rough-and-tumble of 1970s Bihari student politics. In 1990, after nearly two decades in opposition, Yadav rode an anti-Congress Party wave to power. The milkman’s son replaced the state’s Brahmin chief minister. Almost overnight, the 42-year-old Yadav became a symbol of hope for Bihar’s traditionally downtrodden lower castes.

Yadav was reelected in 1995, but his halo did not remain untarnished for long. In 1997, he was forced to step down after being indicted for corruption in a case involving millions of dollars diverted from a government program to buy fodder for cattle to the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians. But rather than fade into political oblivion, Yadav had his party choose his wife to succeed him; the signatures on government files are now hers, but Yadav still barks orders over the phone.

Thakur fulfills his limited brief: to write a political biography of Yadav. The narrative unfolds smoothly, and the author has an eye for the nuances of Bihar’s caste-ridden society. In one passage, he recounts how the upper-caste landlords in Yadav’s childhood village taunted him for having the temerity to wear clean clothes and comb his hair despite belonging to a lower caste. That single incident captures the all-pervasive grip of caste in Bihar, as well as the symbolic importance of Yadav’s political triumph.

But for the rest of the world — or at least for those not interested in the minutiae of North Indian politics — Yadav’s story is most compelling not for what it says about Bihar but for what it means for all of India.

Laloo Yadav represents two important trends that emerged in the 1990s. He symbolizes the rise to political power of previously marginalized castes in India’s Hindi heartland — the country’s most populous and politically powerful region. His tenacious grip on Bihar, despite the efforts of both the Congress Party and the party currently in power in New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party, also shows how regional satraps have come into their own at the expense of once-dominant national parties.

These twin themes — lower-caste empowerment and the rise of regional chieftains — are set against the backdrop of India’s efforts to leave behind a socialist command economy and embrace free-market capitalism. The combined effects of grass-roots democracy, regional politics, and the decentralization of economic decision making will help determine whether India in the 21st century will begin to look more like prosperous East Asia, poverty-stricken Africa, or the conflict-ridden Balkans.

The Making of Laloo Yadav feeds two current debates. The first concerns whether the dramatic empowerment of historically oppressed castes is a prerequisite for economic development or evidence of a slide into chaos. Second, what happens if the gap between the (relatively) rich states of western and southern India and the impoverished northern Hindi-speaking states continues to widen?

Those who believe that Yadav’s government, for all its corruption and ineptitude, is a step in the right direction point to the experience of western and southern India, where social reform and the eclipse of upper-caste political power arrived a generation or two before it did in the north. This change, the argument goes, helped lead to a more egalitarian distribution of public goods, such as education, and helped lay the groundwork for the impressive economic growth rates that states such as Maharashtra in the west and Tamil Nadu in the south achieved in the 1990s.

Thakur is implicitly skeptical of this view. For him, Laloo Yadav’s decade-long rule has been one of missed opportunities, or of "the plenty of symbolism and the poverty of substance." Indeed, the numbers are bleak. During the last 10 years — when India as a whole enjoyed its most robust economic growth ever — Bihar’s per capita income declined by 6 percent. At current prices, the average Bihari makes about $100 a year, or a third of what the average Tamil makes. More than half of Bihar’s citizens are illiterate and live below the poverty line, compared with about a third of those in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu has stabilized its population at 62 million, while Bihar is projected to continue adding to its 100 million well into this century.

There are more reasons to be pessimistic about Bihar transforming itself into Tamil Nadu during the next 20 years. Tamil Nadu’s social and political changes were not accompanied by the complete breakdown of law and order, rampant corruption, and the emasculation of institutions such as the civil service and the police. Neither have other parts of India witnessed quite the same twinning of crime and politics, where elections are often fought (and won) by candidates in jail on charges of murder.

The second question arises from the failure of Bihar’s political revolution to deliver a better life to its people. How will an increasingly decentralized India cope with the strain of vast regional disparities? Not only are the faster-moving states of the western and southern coasts lowering birthrates and ratcheting up literacy rates, they are attracting the bulk of the country’s foreign investment. Meanwhile, as the population of the Hindi heartland continues to explode, government investment is drying up, and foreign investment is virtually nonexistent.

Thakur does not explicitly compare Bihar with any other state. But he repeatedly contrasts Laloo Yadav with a political contemporary, Chandrababu Naidu, the reformist chief minister of the southeastern state Andhra Pradesh. Naidu is everything that Yadav is not. Naidu uses a laptop and has successfully lured investors such as Microsoft and GE Capital, while Yadav rails against the Internet and demands that Delhi pour more money into Bihar’s loss-making state-owned enterprises. Andhra Pradesh’s capital, Hydera-bad, has the cleanest roads of all major Indian cities. In Bihar’s capital, Patna, the stench of rotting garbage fills the air on a road meant to take Japanese tourists to the Buddhist ruins of Nalanda.

The reaction in India to The Making of Laloo Yadav shows just how much Bihar has become a byword for all that is rotten in Indian politics. When Yadav was first elected, the country’s influential English-language press treated him with a mixture of affection and slight disdain. But the goodwill has long since evaporated. Writing in India Today, India’s leading newsweekly, journalist Prem Shankar Jha calls Thakur’s book a saga of despair and describes Yadav as “only the first of a new breed of politicians that will inevitably take over much of the country.”

But not everyone has given up. India’s response to problem states such as Bihar is to shrink them. In fall 2000, the federal government carved three new states from the Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. The hope is that the smaller states will be easier to govern and that democratically elected governments will face more pressure to perform if they are held accountable by fewer people in a smaller area.

Laloo Yadav still presides over the fortunes of Bihar, but it is a smaller Bihar than the one he was elected to govern more than a decade ago. Smaller states worked elsewhere in India. Both Haryana and Himachal Pradesh prospered after being carved out of Punjab. Should the same hold true of Bihar and the new state of Jharkand, carved out of Bihar’s mineral-rich south, then a sequel to Thakur’s book may be subtitled The Remaking of Bihar.

<p> Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. </p>

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