The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The lathi, as the saying goes in Bihar, is the farmer’s pride meant to ward off “dogs, jackals, enemies and creditors”. The unassuming, yet powerful lathi, is associated with the vast multitude of the state’s rural poor and the “socially-relegated” votebank of Bihar’s messiah, Laloo Prasad Yadav — the backwards, Dalits, minorities and other marginalized caste groups who inhabit the fertile Gangetic plain. The length of the lathi determines the status of the farmer in Bihar. The bigger the lathi, the more powerful the farmer. It is a symbol of might and muscle-power, and its significance in the state’s predominantly agrarian society is summed up by the popular adage — jiski lathi, uski bhais (The one with the lathi owns the buffaloes.)

The lathi, which has its roots in the akharas (mud-wrestling arenas) of central Bihar, is part of the state’s historical legacy and martial past. Budding wrestlers are taught the art of wielding the stick in self-defence and lathaits (lathi warriors) on the payroll of the landlords keep the hired farm-hands on a tight leash.

With less than a year to go before the Lok Sabha polls and the assembly elections after that, the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal is trying to use the lathi to strike a chord among the masses, which identifies the bamboo contraption as the poor’s man security.

The RJD is also trying to use the lathi to garner more bargaining power at the Centre now that Laloo Yadav, the RJD chief, is hell-bent on making his presence felt in Delhi and change the state’s negative image projected outside. At the recent chief ministers’ conclave in Delhi organized by a leading publishing house, Laloo Yadav and his wife and Bihar’s chief minister, Rabri Devi, resisted moves by an economic survey team to highlight Bihar’s backwardness. While the Bihar chief minister registered her protest by walking out of the meet, her spouse spoke of the discrimination by successive governments in New Delhi in matters of freight equalization, coal royalty, division of assets and denial of a post-bifurcation package to his state.

For the first time, Laloo Yadav appears serious about turning round the fortunes of his fiefdom. The maharailla (mega rally) or the tel pilawan, lathi ghumawan (massaging oil on the bamboo stick and wielding it) rally (as it was dubbed in the villages), on April 30 at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan succeeded in driving the message home. The rally, one of the largest since the Mandal rally of the late Eighties and the gareeb rally of the early Nineties, drew more than a lakh RJD supporters and an equal number of lathis.

Though the first couple’s rhetoric and Bharatiya Janata Party-bashing at the rally were predictable, the theme of the rally captured the imagination of the action-starved villagers and RJD workers. “The lathi struck a strident secular posture against the sangh parivar’s trishul, a symbol of overt Hindutva and reassured the backward classes and minorities of the government’s priorities,” said the RJD spokesman, Shivanand Tiwary.

Strangely, throughout the rally, Laloo Yadav refrained from making any direct reference to the backward castes despite riding piggyback on their symbol. Instead, he played to a pan-regional gallery by addressing the economic issues that confront the backward farmers and the landless agricultural labourers in the state. He spoke of the hybrid seeds that sapped the soil of its fertility, lashed out at the Centre for not being able to supply fertilizers on time and threatened to unseat the National Democratic Alliance with a blow of the lathi for neglecting non-BJP ruled states.

For the economically-marginalized rural voter, picking up the lathi in a facile show of strength provided some measure of human dignity, which had been pushed far back in the social agenda for rural Bihar, beset with caste problems.

According to observers, the anti-imperialist slogan — “Bush bhagao” — tagged to the central theme as an afterthought, awed the ignorant villagers. “Laloo bhagwan, Bush ko bhi lathi se bhaga sekta hai (Laloo is god, he can even drive away Bush with his lathi),” chanted a mesmerized farmer from Arrah. For the uneducated Phalgu Yadav, Laloo Yadav appeared larger-than-life in his “Bush-bhagao” avatar than as the stick-wielding messiah of the poor.

The RJD, which plans to go it alone in the Lok Sabha polls next year, needs a populist plank to re-assert itself to the backward classes. Since 1999, when Laloo Yadav lost the Madhepura Lok Sabha seat to Sharad Yadav, and Ram Vilas Paswan (now the chief of the Lok Jan Shakti Party) turned his attention to Bihar, the backward votebank of the RJD has been under siege from within. The Paswans and their other backward classes and extreme backward castes allies like the Nishads, Gangotars, Chamars and even the Mushahars have been drifting away from the RJD. Paswan, who has more clout at the Centre than Laloo Yadav, has been trying to cash in on this. Similarly, the backward Kurmi-Koeri votebank has pitched in their lot with the railways minister, Nitish Kumar, who has gifted a host of new trains, additional halts and showered other bounties on the state.

Under the circumstances, it was necessary for Laloo Yadav to unite the divergent backward ranks with an “acceptable social tool” rather than a political plank. His desperation to stay afloat in Delhi, after putting his house in order at Patna, prompted him to relinquish the Raghogarh and Madhepura assembly seats (which he won in the last state polls) for a Rajya Sabha berth.

A comparative study reveals that over the years, secular representation at the Centre from Bihar has dwindled alarmingly. The undivided Janata Dal, which had 54 Lok Sabha members from Bihar in the late Seventies, now has only seven (representing the RJD). The figure could dip further next year, and the BJP make more inroads, if Laloo Yadav does not pull his act together.

Moreover, the RJD is not too sure of its mercurial ally, the Congress. The Congress’s soft-Hindutva stand to counter Modi in the Gujarat elections was an eye-opener for Laloo Yadav. In some of the BJP strongholds, Laloo Yadav was apparently not allowed to address election rallies so as not to upset pro-Hindu voters. Similarly, his interaction with the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay Singh, also threw up several contentious issues. While appreciating Digvijay Singh’s Gram Siksha Yojana and devolution of power at the grassroots, Laloo Yadav was appalled by his suggestion of banning cow slaughter countrywide and sending a recommendation to the president. According to party insiders, Laloo Yadav is wary of a truck with the Congress this time. Sonia Gandhi’s new-found love for all things Hindu will definitely rub his secular and minority vote-banks the wrong way.

Laloo Yadav is probably testing political waters with the lathi, in keeping with rural Bihar’s tradition of measuring the water-level of the small streams criss-crossing the Gangetic plain with a lathi. The shallower the level of the water, the better it would be for the political future of Laloo Yadav.

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