A Colorful Power Couple Knows How to Sway India's Grass Roots

Caste politics, and lots of personality, are keys to winning office in voting this month.

They are India's most colorful political couple - the first family of a state that usually comes last in terms of the country's economic and human development.

Laloo Prasad Yadav is former chief minister of the northern Indian state of Bihar and freshly out of jail. His wife, Rabri Devi, is Bihar's current chief minister, a mother of nine with no previous political experience. Together, the couple is fighting to retain its fiefdom of 90 million people in India's drawn-out general election that begins Feb. 16.

Bihar is where Indian democracy is at its most rustic. Apart from a hired helicopter used for touring the state, the Yadavs' medium and messages are direct and down to earth.

"I am a son of the soil," thunders Mr. Yadav from a makeshift bamboo podium at a rally in the town of Maniari. "There is a dark storm gathering over India, and I am going to light the lantern and show the way to Delhi," he tells a crowd of about 10,000 people as he waves a green kerosene lantern - symbol of his Rashtriya Janata Dal party (RJD).

Noise, and plenty of it, is the key to keeping the crowds amused. In between speeches, troupes of dancing girls boogie to the latest Indian show tunes, and local bards extol the virtues of their leaders in catchy rural rap. "Rabri rides on Laloo's chariot; she is the reincarnation of Durga [a benevolent Hindu goddess]," says one of the most popular songs.

During the last election in 1996, Yadav's party workers trained parrots to say, "Vote for Laloo." This time pigeons bearing flags with the party's election symbol tied to their feet are being used to spread the message.

Their opponents may poke fun at them, but in this closely contested election campaign, Yadav and his party are a force to be reckoned with.

Bihar is India's second-most-populous state - 1 out of 10 members in the national parliament is from Bihar.

That makes Bihar too important to ignore, which is why the Congress Party, with only two seats in the state, has allied itself with the RJD. Together, they hope to thwart the growing influence of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, which opinion polls indicate may receive just enough seats to form the next government.

India's major parties spend weeks fine-tuning their manifestoes, even launching Web sites on the Internet. But Yadav, running for a seat in the national parliament, knows that the only way to reach Bihar's largely illiterate electorate is by mingling with the masses.

Rallies like the one in Maniari are cheap, easy to organize, and highly effective. An empty field, enough loudspeakers to drown out a lion's den, and a team of dedicated party workers adept at spreading the word usually ensures a large crowd. "It cost around 8,000 rupees ($206) for us to put on this rally," says party worker Iqbal Muhammad. "We don't need to force people to come. They all want to see Laloo."

The key to Yadav's appeal is that he comes from one of the lowest tiers in the Hindu-based caste system. His main constituencies are members of his own "backward" caste, as well as "untouchables" and the mostly poor Muslim population.

"Caste and personality are what counts in Bihar politics," says Hetukar Jha, a professor of sociology at Patna University.

"Laloo brilliantly combined projecting himself as a caste hero with selecting all the right clichs, like social justice, to legitimize his appeal," he says.

Although local party leaders say it is issues like economic reform and development that count with voters, many of those at the rally in Maniari say they couldn't care less about what was being debated in newspaper columns and on television talk shows. "I am voting for Laloo because he is the leader of the poor," says Ramakant Rai, a transport contractor from nearby Muzzaffarpur.

But Yadav's appeal may be starting to wane. His arrest last year on charges relating to one of India's largest corruption scandals, involving the embezzlement of funds meant for cattle fodder, has tarnished his rustic image.

Another factor that may upset Yadav's political dreams, perhaps even being a compromise choice for the next prime minister, is the way in which he made his wife chief minister of Bihar following his resignation from the post after the fodder scandal.

Rabri, who married Yadav at the age of 16 and has no formal education, is accused of being incompetent and unqualified for the job of running the state.

"The day Rabri Devi can name all of her 76 ministers and their portfolios, I will quit politics," says the BJP opposition leader in Bihar, Sushil Modi.

But the Yadavs' supporters are undeterred by the arrows being aimed at their heroes. "Women have made great leaders. Look at Margaret Thatcher," says the RJD candidate from Muzzaffarpur, Jaynarayan Nishad. "Ladies control the kitchen. Why can't they control the country?" he asks.

Soon it will be up to voters to give their verdict. Northern and central Bihar go to the polls Monday, the rest of the state Feb. 22.

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