For the past four and a half years, India has had a classy, educated, honest Prime Minister in Manmohan Singh. He’s often been criticized for not seeming forceful enough, but he did score a major success against both left and right in the nuclear deal and subsequent vote of no-confidence, and will probably join a relatively small number of Indian PMs in finishing out a complete five-year term. (Quick quiz: how many have there been?)
One person who is being talked about as a viable candidate for India’s next Prime Minister couldn’t be more different — Lalu Prasad Yadav. Yadav is the ex-Chief Minister of Bihar, where he rose to power in the “Mandal era” by mobilizing what are referred to as backward caste voting blocs in the state. Once in power, Yadav became nationally notorious as a rampantly corrupt figure, who embezzled at least $267 million in the “Fodder Scam”. He was eventually forced out of office, but was able to continue effectively running the state after he installed his wife, Rabri Devi, as Chief Minister in his stead. Starting in the late 1990s, Lalu Prasad Yadav became the punchline of many Indian jokes; even saying his name in some circles leads people to start smiling, in expectation of the joke to follow. (Another quiz: what are the names of his nine children?)
During the current UPA (Congress) administration he has had a second political life as the National Railways Minister — and he’s had remarkable success in turning around a huge government operation that had for decades been dominated by inefficiency and losses for the government. During its tenure (1999-2004), the NDA (BJP) had even been making noises to the effect that the only solution would be privatization, or failing that, raising ticket prices aggressively. But under Yadav, in 2008 alone the Railways earned profits of $6 billion — without raising passenger ticket prices at all. He may have been incredibly corrupt (and may still be corrupt), but he has been remarkably effective at turning around a major government agency.
I mention Lalu Prasad Yadav as a Prime Minister possibility as a reflection of the chatter I was hearing, mainly from relatives, as I was traveling in northern India last week. I have no idea whether it’s a real possibility, and I’m certainly far from thrilled about the possibility of someone so corrupt becoming Prime Minister. But it would nevertheless be interesting, partly because it would involve the country making a clear departure from the Nehru family and western-educated elites, in favor of someone with a strikingly different profile.
He may or may not become Prime Minister, but it does appear that while Lalu Prasad Yadav is still the butt of a few jokes, many Indians are starting to utter his name with newfound respect.