The Metaphor of Middle-Class Scorn

Originally published in Satyam Online, 1 March 2000.

 

In his first few years occupying the Chief Minister’s chair in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was found of recalling that, in his father’s village, the local upper-caste leaders would sit in similar thrones, and his father could not dare to come near the Brahmins and sit on a chair like them. That would have signified equality. His father and other backward and lower castes had to approach their caste superiors as humble supplicants, their faces averted and backs hunched, and sit at the feet of the lordly Brahmins.

Laloo’s claim to power, he seemed to be saying, was not just based on the boring details of parliamentary procedure such as the number of votes he or his allies polled. Rather, he incarnated the inversion of the brutal caste and feudal hierarchies of agrarian society, the awakening of the wretched of the earth. His rustic idiom of political expression, the discourse of the masses, was the only language he knew how to speak, and one that he took to the heights of the state, whose all-important symbol was the gaddi of power.

The Symbols and Substance of Power

What he did with this power is another story, one that we all are familiar with. As with the recent Assembly election, the middle-class is always ready to write off Laloo as more symbolism than substance. Our media never tires of representing him and his followers as corrupt and glowering peasants drunk on a power they for some reason seem not to deserve, considering Bihar’s present ills — the massive scandals, caste and class warfare, criminalisation and administrative collapse that have become synonymous with Yadav raj. When several years ago Laloo was hauled off to jail on corruption charges, his wife became an object of similar scorn. She was condescendingly portrayed as a hoodwinked pativratta, running the state from her kitchen, with too many children than is considered decent.

Why this particular hatred and fascination with Laloo, when there are thousands of other equally loud-mouthed and corrupt politicians who are deserving of similar derision? Laloo first came to power standing defiantly alongside his former colleagues in the Janata Dal, all of whom had risen simultaneously with the new politics of lower caste and lower class empowerment, in the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan’s social justice movement and V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission reservations. While early in his reign, Laloo provided housing to the masses and made other pro-poor overtures, most importantly through his example showed them that the could control their own destinies.

Democracy and Insubordination

His irreverance is legendary — planting vegetables and grazing cattle in the prim gardens of the Chief  Minister’s official residence, or chomping a huge paan and regally spitting while conducting interviews with posh journalists from Delhi. A new type of politician of the television age, Laloo craved such opportunities, the chance to caricature himself for the camera, as the unreconstructed Other of the mannered and educated classes, the veritable metaphor of Underdevelopment — the oily and uneducated peasant whose spittle just stained your finely starched kurta.

While the middle-class elites would turn away in disgust and fear of this jungli, it is mistaken to see these performances as signs of a villager who could not forget his backward ways — it was a clear message to the poor that their way of life was as powerful and meaningful as that of the elites.

Laloo always knew that he was both the object of fascination of the better-off — because the Other always conceals the repressed desires and anxieties of the Self — as well as their worst nightmare, because his antics reminded the middle-classes of their irrelevance in a democracy where only numbers count, and even the media can’t hide that depressing fact. If Bihar is, according to the recent NDA slogans, a jungle raj, then Laloo styled himself the jungle ka sher.

Jab tak samose mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Laloo rahega

It remains to be seen whether Laloo’s brand of insubordination will ever bring a real change to the lives of the poor. It seems not. But last week, Laloo’s staying power was again roundly underestimated by every political formation in the country.

While unlike the aloo in our samosa, one day Laloo might himself go, he and his ilk have had a permanent effect on our democracy, a change that it would be foolish to ignore. Political and social institutions are never neutral. For the powerless, the state is synonymous with the dominance of certain castes and classes whose hegemony are made to seem permanent. When the hierarchies on which this control of institutions are themselves swept away through the logic of popular democracy, their institutions might similarly be shattered. In regions like East UP and Bihar the social order, based on the brutalities of poverty, casteism and landlordism, is being overturned with an equal amount of ferocity and violence, and not a little showmanship