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able to speak Hindi, and certainly had no grasp of the realities of life for the 80 per cent of Indians who lived in villages. Ten years ago every second person at Delhi drinks parties seemed to be either an old schoolfriend of the Prime Minister or a member of his cabinet. Now, quite suddenly, no one in Delhi knows anyone in power. A major democratic revolution has taken place almost unnoticed, leaving the urban Anglicised élite on the margins of the Indian political landscape. As Mulayam Singh Yadav put it on his elevation to the national cabinet, ‘For the first time, power has come to the underprivileged and the oppressed, and we will use it to ensure that their lot is bettered.’

      This is also the stated intention of Laloo. So far his political success may have done little in concrete terms to boost the welfare of the lower-caste poor, but what it certainly has done is to boost their confidence. The lower castes are no longer content to remain at the bottom of the pile and be shoved around by the Brahmins. Laloo has given them a stake in power and made them politically conscious: exactly as the Civil Rights Movement did for American blacks in the 1960s.

      The rise of lower-caste politicians has also done something to slow the rise of the Hindu revivalist movement, by demonstrating to the masses how little they have to gain by voting in a Hindu theocracy dominated by the same castes which have oppressed them for millennia. In the dying days of 1992, when India was engulfed in the bloody chain of Hindu–Muslim riots that followed the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, even the previously peaceful commercial capital of Bombay was burning. Yet Bihar remained uncharacteristically – indeed almost miraculously – peaceful. With a series of unambiguous threats to the more excitable elements in the Bihar police force, Laloo had been able to contain the anti-Muslim pogroms which elsewhere in India left two thousand dead.

      Indian politics are rarely predictable, but it was certainly one of the more unexpected developments in modern Indian history that led to the low-caste and semi-literate Chief Minister of India’s most corrupt and backward state becoming the custodian of the crumbling Nehruvian ideal of a secular, democratic India.

      The more I read about Bihar, the more it became clear that Laloo was the key to what was happening there. But ringing Bihar proved virtually impossible from Delhi: it was much easier to get through to Britain, ten thousand miles further away. Unable to contact Laloo, I was forced to take pot luck and book a flight to Patna without having arranged an interview. But by remarkable good fortune, it turned out that Laloo had been speaking at a rally in Delhi, and was returning to Patna on the same flight as myself.

      The first I learned of this was when the Bihar flight was delayed for half an hour while it waited for Laloo to turn up. When he eventually did so, striding on board like a conquering hero, he brought with him half his cabinet.

      Laloo turned out to be a small, broad-shouldered, thick-set man; his prematurely grey hair was cut in a boyish early-Beatles mop. He had reserved the whole of the first row of seats for himself; his aides, MPs and bodyguards filled up the next seven tiers. They were all big, slightly sinister-looking men. All, including Laloo himself, were dressed in white homespun cotton pyjamas, once the symbol of Mahatma Gandhi’s identification with the poor, but now (when synthetic fibres are far cheaper) the unmistakable insignia of political power.

      The delay, the block-booking and the extravagant manner in which Laloo sprawled lengthwise along the first row of seats like some degenerate Roman Emperor, graphically illustrated all I had heard about Laloo being no angel of political morality. To get to the top, he had had to play politics the Bihar way: at the last election, one MP had gone on record to declare: ‘Without one hundred men armed with guns you cannot hope to contest elections in Bihar.’ To become Chief Minister you would need to have more toughs and more guns than your rivals. Laloo was no innocent.

      Yet, in the most ungovernable and anarchic state in India, his government had been at least relatively effective. A retired senior Bihar civil servant quoted Chanakya, the ancient (c.300 BC) Indian Machiavelli, when he described the administration of the new Chief Minister: ‘Chanakya said that to rule India you must be feared. Laloo is feared. He likes to play the role of the simple villager, but behind that façade he is nobody’s fool. He is a violent man. No one would dare ignore his orders.’

      Certainly the entourage at the front of the plane seemed bewitched by their leader. They circled the Chief Minister, leaning over the seats, squatting in front of him on their haunches and laughing at his jokes. When I eventually persuaded one of the MPs to introduce me to his leader, the man literally knelt down in front of Laloo while he explained who I was.

      Laloo took it all in his stride. He indicated that I should sit down on the seat beside him – leaving the MP on his knees to one side – and asked how he could help. I asked for an appointment to see him. With a nonchalant wave of his hand he called over a secretary, who fixed the interview for five thirty that afternoon.

      ‘But,’ he said, ‘we could begin the interview now.’

      ‘Here? In the plane?’

      ‘Why not? We have ten minutes before we arrive.’

      I asked Laloo about his childhood. He proved only too willing to talk about it. He lolled back against the side of the plane, his legs stretched over two seats.

      ‘My father was a small farmer,’ he began, scratching his balls with the unembarrassed thoroughness of a true yokel. ‘He looked after the cows and buffaloes belonging to the upper castes; he also had three acres of his own land. He was illiterate, wore a dhoti and never possessed a pair of shoes in his life. My mother sold curds and milk. She was also illiterate. We lived in a mud-thatch cottage with no windows or doors: it was open to the dog, the cat and the jackal.

      ‘I was one of seven. I had five brothers and one sister. There was never enough money. When we were old enough we were all sent out to graze the buffaloes. Then my two elder brothers went to the city [Patna] and found a job working in a cattle farm near the airport. They earned ninety-four paise [five pence] a day. When they had saved enough money, my brothers called me to Patna and sent me to school. I was twelve. Until that time I did not know even ABC.’

      I asked: ‘How were you treated by the upper castes in your village?’

      Laloo laughed. The other MPs – who had all gathered around and were listening reverently to the words of their leader – joined in with a great roar of canned laughter.

      ‘All my childhood I was beaten and insulted by the landlords,’ said Laloo. ‘For no reason they would punish me. Because we were from the Yadav caste we were not entitled even to sit on a chair: they would make us sit on the ground. I remember all that humiliation. Now I am in the chair and I want those people to sit on the ground. It is in my mind to teach them a lesson. I don’t hate them,’ he added. ‘But their minds have to be …’ He paused, searching for the right word: ‘Their minds have to be changed. We have been an independent country for fifty years, but there has been no alteration in the caste system, no social justice. I want to end caste. I want inter-caste marriages. But these Brahmin priests will not allow it.’

      ‘But how can you hope to destroy a system that has been around for three and a half thousand years?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t caste the social foundation of Hinduism?’

      ‘It is an evil system,’ said Laloo simply. ‘It must go.’

      The plane was now wheeling above Patna. Below I could see the grey ribbon of the Ganges threading its way along the edge of the city, past the ghats and out in to the fertile floodplains of Bihar.

      ‘Go back to your seat now,’ said Laloo curtly. ‘I will talk to you again this afternoon.’

      No one has ever called Patna a beautiful city; but revisiting it I found I had forgotten how bad things were. As you drive in through the outskirts, the treeless pavements begin to fill with occasional sackcloth shacks. The shacks expand in to slums. The slums are surrounded by garbage heaps. Around the garbage heaps goats, pigs, dogs and children compete for scraps of food. The further you go, the worse it becomes. Open drains line the road. Beside them lie emaciated migrants from famine-hit villages. Sewer-rats the size of cats scamper among the rickshaws.


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