PHULWARIA is not even an assembly constituency in Bihar. It falls under the Mirganj assembly segment and the Lok Sabha constituency of Gopalganj. Yet, a signpost outside the village describing it as the Amethi of Bihar would not be too out of place. This is Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav's hometown, and it shows.
In the six years that Laloo has been in power, Phulwaria has been transformed from a sleepy village in one of Bihar's northern-most districts into a member of the emerging band of select, upwardly mobile, VVIP villages that dot the political landscape of India by virtue of being the place of birth of important leaders. Showered with largesse by Laloo Prasad Yadav, Phulwaria—in comparison to the villages and towns nearby—seems as close as one can get to Eden in Bihar. It is, after all, a matter of pride.
Take the road that links Phulwaria to Gopalganj. When the chief minister promised "roads as smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks" for his state, he was obviously speaking about the 'chief minister's road' (as this one is called in popular parlance). State highways may be crumbling and the streets of Patna may have more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese, but when the prodigal returns home, he is assured of a smooth ride.
That was just the beginning. A couple of years ago, Phulwaria was spared the ignominy of having to spend the rest of its days as an obscure village because Laloo ensured that it was upgraded to a block. The block office was inaugurated with much fanfare and nobody really minded that chunks of the adjoining Hathwa and Uchkagaon blocks had to be appropriated for the purpose because the population of Phulwaria was too sparse to enable it to get the coveted block status. In 1993, an electric substation became functional in the village. "It is enough to cover the adjoining blocks," says the man on duty at the sub-station.
Then there is the community hall, a branch of the State Bank of India, a referral hospital named after the chief minister's mother, Marchiya Devi, a middle school, an electric underground water-pump, solar-powered lights, a windmill to generate water for the fields around the village, a police post and even a fledgling telephone exchange. Most of these schemes have been the brainchild of Laloo Yadav and he has been at hand to inaugurate a number of them. A majority of residents—and all the Yadavs—of Phulwaria have only praise for Laloo. "Compared to the other villages in the area, we live in paradise," says Tribhuvan Prasad Yadav.
All's not well in Eden, however. Casting furtive glances over his shoulder, lest someone observe him as he walks towards the fields where he works as an agricultural labourer, Mohammad Habib dares to disagree: "These schemes have done us no good at all. There are no industries here and agriculture remains the only occupation. Laloo has done nothing to make our life easier. We still do not have a source of running water for irrigating the fields; not even a pucca canal from the stream which is a kilometre away. As for the much-talked-about windmill, it rarely works."
The feeling within a section of the villagers that they have been treated as guinea pigs for Laloo's 'grand designs' is reinforced by S.N. Upadhyay. Says he: "The hospital is in bad shape. Of the four doctors who are supposed to be on duty, there is never more than one. And what is the point of having an ayurvedic doctor at a referral hospital? The community hall is another example of sops for his kinsmen, as it is almost always used by Janata Dal supporters. The outlets for potable water provided by the underground electric water-pump are few. As for solar-powered lighting, there are a grand total of three streetlights—one in front of the chief minister's house, one near the police post and another in front of the mandir."
Others allege that Laloo seems more interested in 'selling himself' as the poor village yokel who has made it big. "Despite his house being pucca and the biggest in the village, the crumbling hut in which he grew up still stands so that he can emphasise his modest beginnings to the leaders who sometimes accompany him home," notes a non-Yadav resident of Phulwaria.
And that seems to be the crux of the problem in Phulwaria. It has acquired all the trappings of 'progress and development', but many residents feel that the changes are superficial and have not improved their standard of living.
But this is a claim debunked by ardent Laloo followers. "These people have forgotten that six years ago nobody even knew that Phulwaria existed. It is because Laloo has not forgotten his roots that he has taken such an interest in the development of the village," says Ramanand Yadav. "Anyway, we are hopeful that after these elections, Phulwaria will become the prime minister's hometown and then the benefits will really start pouring in," adds another resident.
Ramanand Yadav points to the fact that Laloo "looks after Phulwaria better than Rajiv Gandhi looked after Amethi" despite never having contested either the assembly or the Lok Sabha elections from the area. And he denies that it has anything to do with the fact that despite the growing Yadav assertion and a sizeable number of Muslims, it is the Brahmin, Bhumihar and Rajput communities which dominate the electoral process. But given Phulwaria's dramatic transformation, Laloo Prasad Yadav may win them over yet.