It is disappointing to see the same old, tired questions being raised about Lalu Yadav: jungle raj, casteism, corruption. Note that Modi raised the same questions, appealing not only to hardcore Sanghis but also to “liberals” and non-aligned voters. It would be easy to respond by saying that Lalu is committed to religious pluralism. Or that Nitish’s strengths cover for Lalu’s weaknesses. But those would be weak and insufficient explanations for Lalu’s enduring appeal.
There is no getting away from the fact that development in India or elsewhere means not merely GDP growth, but a transformation of social relations to empower the majority of citizens. Any such transformation involves reordering caste hierarchies, which cannot be a calm and peaceful process. Subordinated castes staking a claim to state power will never go uncontested. The caste wars in Bihar during the ’80s and ’90s are evidence of how far dominant castes are willing to go to maintain the status quo, and how far the subordinated are willing to go to overturn the terms of their domination. So, calling Lalu “regressive” or “casteist” reveals your own politics of supporting the status quo and opposing social justice. It is certainly not a politically neutral (whatever that’d mean here) or “liberal” position. It is the classic reactionary position in modern politics.
It is striking that a term associated with the history of Protestantism in Europe – Corruption – has come to dominate discourse on the Global South. At best, it refers to the abuse of official privileges to concentrate power at the top, which is ostensibly what the Catholic Church in medieval times did. Now, there may be dictators and generals in some countries who act similarly at the expense of the majority. But it is hard to see how it applies to contemporary India. When Indians use the word “corruption,” it refers to one of two phenomena:
(1) the nexus between the state and businesses (in sum, capitalism), and
(2) social mobility by historically disadvantaged groups within state structures. Despite their divergent implications for society at large, neither amounts to “corruption” in the original sense of the word.
With regard to (2), we frankly need more rather than less of this in India. And, for this reason, we need a hundred Lalus. Without the willingness of leaders to change the structure of society, forcibly if necessary, there can be no development. Without Lalu, there would be no Nitish either.