In 1989, when the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign had been gathering steam under the leadership of BJP leader LK Advani, "Ramshila" processions were being held across states in North India with the intention of collecting bricks (shilas) for the purpose of building a Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid on the disputed site Ayodhya. One such Ramshila procession was organised by the VHP in October of that year in the Bhagalpur area of Bihar, which at the time was ruled by the Congress. With its history of communal violence, Bhagalpur was on edge, especially the minority population which at the time had been feeling increasingly alienated by the Congress government in Bihar. Additionally, violence during the Muharram and Bihari Puja festivities in the month of August had also left the area on edge.
On October 22, one such procession passing through Fatehpur village led to brick batting which led to arson, sparking off nearly two months of communal violence that engulfed Bahagalpur and about 200 villages surrounding it. Over 1000 persons were killed in the ensuing riots and as per several reports and findings, a majority of the causalities were among the Muslims.
The Bhagalpur riots were key to the rise in power of a feisty leader who had for nearly a decade been making a splash in the socialist circles of Bihar. By 1990, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who rose from the turbulent waters of Patna student politics in the 1970s and later got involved in the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement in Bihar as well as the Janata Party (JP) politics before joining the Janata Dal, had positioned himself as the leader of the Yadavs, thanks to his own caste affiliation and his charismatic personality. Authors Santosh Matthew and Mick Moore in their paper State Incapacity by Design: Understanding the Bihar Story called the groups that formed Lalu’s core voter bank as the “middling castes” which also included sections of Dalits and “lower-caste” (Pasmanda) Muslims. However, in the aftermath of the Bhagalpur riots, Lalu came up with a formula that was to keep him in power till 2005: the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) formula.
With the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign leaving minorities across North India anxious, the Bhagalpur riots led to questions about the role of then Congress leader Satyendra Narayan Sinha the CM of Bihar at the time. Many in the community questioned his failure to handle the situation and his failure to visit the site of violence exacerbated the feelings of betrayal among the Muslims. At the time, Lalu Prasad Yadav rose as the voice of the Muslims. With a resounding victory in March 1990, Lalu as Chief Minister ensured that his core vote banks - Yadavs and Muslims - were protected.
For instance, in October 1990, Lalu further secured his credentials as a “secular” leader when he stopped LK Advani’s contentious Rath Yatra from entering Bihar and got the influential BJP leader arrested. He was heading the Janata Dal at the time which was also in power at the Centre and the BJP led by Advani as President at the time knew that the VP Singh government needed the tacit support of the BJP to stay in power. Lalu, however, decided to risk it for the 17 percent voter base which was sure to swing completely in favour of Lalu if he managed to subdue Advani. The daring arrest of Advani was carried out on October 22 in Dumka, cementing the young Lalu’s position as a “secular firebrand” in the political pylons of India.
Even during the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in 1992 when the Babri demolition led to riots across the country between Hindus and Muslims, Lalu Prasad Yadav ensured that Bihar remained, as Matthew and Moore call it, a “haven” of safety for minority populations.
Political analyst Steven Wilkinson in 2006 wrote that when asked why Bihar had been so quiet during the turbulent period despite its history of communal violence, Lalu had explained that the state government had actively “arrested returning militants from Uttar Pradesh (the site of Ayodhya) before they could reach their towns and villages” and that the political will of the government at the time was clear.
Such tactics were key in ensuring Lalu’s seat of power till 1997 when he had to resign following massive corruption allegations. Despite its fluctuating record in social and infrastructural development and politicised lawlessness, politics in Bihar definitely took a turn toward secularism under the leadership of Yadav who went on to form the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The party won elections under Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi and stayed in power till 2005 after which it failed to consolidate power in the face of the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) and BJP alliance which ushered forth the formidable combination of OBC and upper caste Hindu votes.
While the combine is yet to be beaten in the state, Lalu’s legacy endures with Bihar remaining one of the bulwarks of secular politics in North India. In the 2020 Bihar elections, RJD under the leadership of Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav, harked back to the M-Y formula. Though Nitish Kumar retained power in the elections, RJD emerged as the single largest party winning 75 seats in the 243-member Bihar legislative assembly. Its Mahagathbandhan alliance with Congress and Left parties managed to pull 110 seats, but was beaten by the JD(U)-BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which won an absolute majority in Bihar, winning 122 seats.
In a recent video, Lalu Prasad was seen cooking “Champaran mutton” with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, soon after the announcement of the INDIA Alliance between Opposition parties led by Congress. In the video, Lalu is seen sharing his “secret” mutton recipe with Gandhi who cooks it. At a time when vegetarianism is being touted as a virtue and endorsed politically by the government, the mutton cooking video is no coincidence and appears to be a renewed attempt on part of Lalu to capitalise on his former legacy of “secular” politics.