Lalu Prasad Yadav: Indian Politics’ Enduring Conundrum

Jab tak samosa mein rahega aalu, Bihar mein rahega Lalu

Lalu Prasad Yadav (during an election rally in the 1990s)

Born into an upper peasant class family in Bihar less than a year after India’s independence, Lalu Prasad Yadav is often touted as the man who transformed politics in the state of Bihar in India. Described by the English media as “a maverick, a jester [but] a crowd-puller par-excellence[[1]], he was the face of the central debate in the politics of Bihar during the 1970s-1990s i.e. caste vs development. Not only did caste repeatedly win the debate during Lalu Yadav’s 15-year rule in Bihar starting 1990, it continues to be the central issue in Bihar politics till date.

Bihar has been an important state in the history of India’s political economy. A turning point came in the state’s politics when, in 1974, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan launched a student-led protest movement against the Congress-led state government called the ‘Bihar Movement’, which later transformed into a movement against the Indira Gandhi government at the Center. The ‘Bihar Movement’ marked Lalu Prasad Yadav’s first encounter with state politics, wherein as President of the Patna University Students’ Union (PUSU), he was chosen to lead the student agitation. Post this, he joined the Janata Party and was elected to the Lok Sabha (1977, 1989, 1998, 2004, 2009) and the Bihar Legislative Assembly (1980, 1985, 1995, 2015) multiple times.

Caste has often been used as a tool for political mobilisation in India.[[2]] Renowned Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas (1957) traces the motivation behind using caste as a political tool to simple arithmetic – since elections are won by a plurality of votes rather than a majority, in multi-way contests, a vote share of 40 per cent often suffices for an electoral victory.[[3]]

While till the 1970s, politics in Bihar was dominated by ideology, post-1970s, it become increasingly driven by identity and caste. Politics in Bihar is driven by the ‘MY’ or Muslim-Yadav Equation – Muslims and Yadavs constitute about 13 and 15 per cent of Bihar’s Thus, any party that is able to secure the Muslim-Yadav vote becomes a formidable force in Bihar state elections. In 1980, the Mandal Commission, which was setup by the Morarji Desai government in 1979 to “identify the socially or economically backward”, recommended an increase in the reservation quota in government jobs and seats in public universities for members of the lower castes (OBCs and SCs/STs) from 27 per cent to 49.5 per cent. While the Commission led to the allotment of only a few thousand government jobs to members of the OBC community, it “provided a tremendous fillip to OBC pride and solidarity”.[[4]] The Yadavs, who were an (upper) OBC caste in Bihar, were to be beneficiaries of the commission’s recommendation. Hence, Lalu Yadav strongly came out in support of the Commission’s recommendations and established himself as a leader of the Yadav cause. In the Bihar countryside, Lalu Yadav was seen as a character of folklore and commanded a cult following – one could get a Lalu haircut, smoke a Lalu-brand beedi, and recite the Lalu Chalisa, a devotional hymn in his name.[[5]] Further, with the Yadav community seeing in him their own protagonist and already supporting him, Lalu Yadav appealed to the Muslim vote by leveraging the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. He ordered the arrest of BJP leader L.K. Advani (who was seen then as a Hindu extremist leader) during the latter’s Rath Yatra to Patna, and refused entry to leaders of the Hindu fundamentalist organisation VHP in 1990, to establish himself as a secular leader and secure the Muslim vote.

Lalu Yadav’s reign in Bihar came to an end in 2005, when his party lost the state elections to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). While the English vernacular press may criticise his tenure as one marked by loot, corruption and lawlessness (often termed the ‘Jungle Raj’), the Yadavs and other backward castes see in him a charismatic leader who has given them voice and social recognition at the national stage.

In conclusion, Lalu Yadav remains Indian politics’ enduring conundrum.[[6]] While his anglicised upper caste ‘sanskritized’ critics may call him ‘eccentric’ and a ‘clown’, the poor and backward classes consider him as their messiah and chief protagonist. Hence, the saying “Lalu is in the eye of the beholder”.[[7]]


Authors: Chaitanya Kansal <chaitanya.kansal15[AT]>; Arun Kiran R <arun.kiran15[AT]>

(This article derives from a project that the authors had done for a term course on History of India’s Political Economy. Views expressed are personal)



[[1]] Swamy, N. (2013). “Lalu Prasad Yadav: A maverick who made waves; in and beyond politics”. DNA India.

[[2]] Srinivas, M.N. (1957). “Caste in Modern India”. Presidential Address to the Section of Anthropology and Archaeology, in Proceedings of Indian Science Congress, Calcutta, 1957.

[[3]] Guha, R. (2007). “India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy”. Picador Publishers. Pg. 610

[[4]] Guha, R. (2007). “India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy”. Picador Publishers. Pg. 612

[[5]] Farooquee, N. (2013). “In Bihar Village, an Enduring Love for Lalu Prasad Yadav”. New York Times.

[[6]] Yadav, M. (2004). “Politics from Below”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 51 (Dec. 18-24, 2004), pp. 5510-5513

[[7]] Diwanji, A. (2005). “Lalu is in the eyes of the beholder”.


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