How corrupt is Lalu Prasad Yadav

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Kishanganj. The longest and most comprehensive parliamentary election in India ended on Monday with the last of five ballots in eighteen states. The approximately one million electronic voting machines, on which the citizen only had to press a push button next to the symbol of their favorite party, are now loaded into a central computer in several hundred centers and processed. The first provisional results will be announced on Thursday. In the electoral district of Kishanganj in the east of Bihar state, voters had already gone to the polls on Wednesday, and, as in the rest of India, election day was a festival day in the countless villages in the Ganges plain. Even poor women had dressed in their most colorful sari and stood patiently in line in the scorching sun, many with their children on their hips and ID cards in hand.

But the gap between the deep poverty of these voters and the power that a political mandate gives the victor repeatedly produces distortions that add serious scratches to this beautiful image of democratic will. In the village of Baharbari, 23-year-old Vijay Kumar Thakur appeared early in the morning at his employer Bullu Sharan and casually mentioned that he and his friends would "fix" the elections in the village today. When asked how he wanted to do this, he said lightly: "For the first two hours we let people vote normally. Then we block the entrance to the schoolyard". One of the colleagues will press the button for their candidate Mohammed Taslimuddin a few hundred times on the voting machine, another will put his thumb on the signature document, and a third will check off the electoral roll. The rest of them would "go have tea" with the polling officer and the police. Sharan, who runs a cooperative in Baharbari, had to threaten Kumar with the loss of his job in order to dissuade him from his plan.

The project wasn't just the prank of some youngsters who wanted to have some fun. It was planned broadly. Two days earlier, our vehicle had been followed by a motorcycle after it had turned onto the bumpy causeway that connects Baharbari with the asphalt road. Only when it turned out that we were not representatives of Taslimuddin's opponent could it continue. The plan was that the six villages, which can only be reached this way, should be closed so that no election agents of the opposing party should interfere with the "treatment" of the voting machines. On the eve of the election, the number of guards at the junction had risen to several dozen, some of them armed with rifles.

Baharbari was not typical of electoral practice in this poorest state in the country, but neither was it an isolated incident. The power that elections bring to the electorate is too important for many politicians to be left to the chance of an unpredictable electorate. And the complete lack of awareness of injustice among Kumar and his accomplices shows that this business-like attitude has found followers, especially among young people. How else can you explain the fact that in Bihar alone six people ran for parliamentary office from prison, some of them with two dozen charges ranging from murder to kidnapping? From there they organized their election campaigns, followed by "visitors" whom the prison administration supplied with tea and air cooling devices. In the constituency of Siwan, Mohammed Shahabuddin triumphed from the prison hospital to the magistrate's office to deposit his candidacy. He was accompanied by Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister of Bihar, who had installed his wife as his successor when serving a corruption sentence in prison.

For most observers, this is typical of Bihar, where loyalty - marked by caste and religion - supplants any other virtue (such as democratic rules of the game). Behind this lies a complete failure of the state, which for the past fifty years has not been able to keep its promise of development. Baharbari is a case in point. The village still has no electricity and the four kilometers to the main road are, says Bullu Sharan, "a shame". During three months in the monsoon, the six villages are practically cut off from the outside world. And in the rest of the time, the potholes and fairways are so deep that even tractors have trouble transporting agricultural products to the market towns of Araria. The result is poverty enough to survive - but not much more. It catches the eye all the more because these villages on the lower reaches of the Himalayan rivers sit on fertile soils from which the seed capital for the first step out of poverty could easily be generated.

When the state ceases to be the advocate of society as a whole, politics becomes a battle of particular interests. In Bihar these run along box lines and they are often congruent with class differences. Mohammed Taslimuddin had represented Kishanganj and thus Baharbahri for two terms in office. In two terms of office he has brought neither a road nor electricity to these villages. How is it that he still has enough supporters here to ensure his election by all means? Like his party leader Laloo Yadav and Shahabuddin, he appeals, according to a lawyer in Araria, "to the fear and aversion of the lower castes and Muslims towards the rich Hindu peasant castes". Meanwhile, he does not have to worry about promoting prosperity. It sounds like a mockery that the Yadav party has a kerosene lantern as an election symbol instead of an electricity pole. One of their electoral slogans is: "First dignity - economic development will follow".

It may be that Taslimuddin's policy of social inclusion and exclusion has its limits. In the last election campaign he was beaten by the young BJP politician Shahnawaz Husain. As one of the few Muslims in the BJP, Husain was promptly chosen as a model figure to be minister. But his care for the constituency shows how little the BJP, as an urban Hindu party, understands about the problems of the rural population. Instead of providing the villages with weather-proof connection routes to the next marketplaces, Husain has a kilometer-long elevated road built over the electoral city of Kishanganj. "With the money for just one of these concrete pillars," says a friend of Bullu Sharan's, "one could connect a dozen villages with the outside world." This may explain why Taslimuddin faced Husain again. The traffic isolation of the six villages around Baharbari is convenient for him. One more time he can play off the neglect of the voter as a trump card.

The only alternative in the face of the dismantling of the state through unscrupulous democratic politics is civil society initiatives. Bullu Sharan and his brothers founded a cooperative in Baharbari to overcome the crippling energy crisis in the village. His family is one of the wealthy farmers of Baharbari, but instead of leasing most of the land as usual and amicably fifty percent of the yield, weeds and other fast-growing plants grow on his land. They are fed into a gasification furnace that drives a 50 KWh generator. It provides the electricity for four pumps with which the farmers can irrigate their fields for a fee. And behind the small power station there is an oven and a rice peeling machine. Next, Sharan wants to bring light to the village huts for three hours. However, there is a lack of capital for this. This could only come from the sale of agricultural products in the nearby Araria market. The increased production would be guaranteed - if only the road that was supposed to connect Baharbari to the main street were passable.

Source: The article was published on May 11, 2004 in the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung.