IN a State where protest has traditionally been marked by the massive mobilisation of people on the streets, the April 30 rally in Patna was not an unusual one. Laloo Prasad Yadav himself had organised bigger crowds on at least a couple of occasions in the past, the largest one being the Gharib Rally in 1997. The Gandhi maidan in the State capital was filled with men and women from all over Bihar then. The numbers were far more than on April 30.
The rally that remains etched in the minds of the people of the city was the show of strength on the streets of Patna on November 4, 1974. That was a day Gandhi maidan could not hold the lakhs of people, a large number of them in their teens, who reached Patna to listen to Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP. Describing the rally and the context, Minoo Masani, who remained a friend of JP despite his sharp differences with the Gandhian socialist ideas that the senior leader had embraced all his life, said then: "November 4, 1974, may well prove to be a major turning point in independent India's history.''
He was right. The streets of Patna became a battleground that day. The city was barricaded against its own citizens by thousands of policemen and security forces personnel brought in from all over Bihar as well from outside the State. The forces were ordered to thwart the demonstration of citizens, drawn from among the students, the middle and the lower castes, the small peasants and the landless labourers who were chronic victims of famines and food shortages and slaves of the landed gentry, and such other men, women and children who travelled to Patna from all over the State.
They were not provided any transport by the organisers of the rally. The managers of the event did not bother to set up camps where rallyists could be entertained with cultural programmes. Those who came did not know where they would get a meal. Yet they came in large numbers. They did not mind the lathi blows.
And as Minoo Masani said, Bihar's political history took a turn. The veteran socialist Karpoori Thakur, among the few political leaders on whom JP reposed a lot of faith, would become the Chief Minister of Bihar a few years later. The principle of affirmative action, by way of reservation for the Other Backward Classes in State government service, was put in place then. Karpoori Thakur did not stop with the OBCs: he put in place a list, in the form of Annexure I, which included those caste groups that were not classified as Scheduled Castes only because the scriptures had assigned them such jobs as rowing the boat or washing clothes and hence could not be labelled untouchables. But their living conditions were no better than those of the Scheduled Castes. And the Karpoori Thakur formula has come to stay at least in Bihar.
Karpoori Thakur could not convert it into a political agenda: rather, he did not intend to do so. Hence, the Bihar countryside did not witness a reversal of roles as it happened after August 8, 1990 (the day the National Front government at the Centre led by V.P. Singh decided to implement some of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission).
Laloo Prasad Yadav would have been no match for Karpoori Thakur. Laloo Yadav is not an idealist either. And this fact made all the difference. During his rather brief tenure as Chief Minister, Karpoori Thakur did not attempt to hold the kind of rallies that eventually came to be organised; it is another matter that he could not have managed such road shows as Laloo Yadav has been doing ever since he became Chief Minister in 1990. For Karpoori Thakur, social justice and affirmative action were just a matter of conviction and certainly not an integral part of a political strategy. Hence, during the Karpoori Thakur era, the strategy to empower the intermediate castes and those included in Annexure I did not include dispensing favours in the form of civil contracts from government agencies or granting licences to run public distribution system outlets. The MY factor (a combination of Muslims and Yadavs, which constitutes a substantial voter base in the State) had not come into being yet.
The last 13 years, however, have been different. A number of people all over Bihar had managed to make gains from the dispensation and Laloo Prasad Yadav could bank on them to mobilise the crowds as and when he decided to show his strength on the streets of Patna. This is what helps Laloo Yadav succeed where Karpoori Thakur could not, to sustain a political agenda and retain the political constituency - even if it be by sheer resort to rhetoric.
The `lathi' rally of April 30 was certainly not a historic one as Laloo Yadav sought to describe the show that day. It was a display of the extent of "empowerment'' of the largest intermediate caste in Bihar in not just the social sense but, more important, in the economic sense of the term.