For all those who believe the 15-year-rule of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi, was a veritable "jungle raj", here is an anecdote which provides another perspective.

In the traumatic days following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, communal tension simmered in Patna, as it did in most cities of north India. The old, congested neighbourhood of Patna, which is the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, witnessed sporadic clashes and arson.

An elderly woman, a relative of mine, had then taken the assistance of police to evacuate five Muslim families residing in an area of the city considered particularly vulnerable to the machinations of those wanting to drive a wedge between communities. From then on, she became a port of call for those fearing attacks, not the least because of rumour mills working overtime.

Late one night, well past midnight, she was woken by the shrill ring of the phone. At the other end was a quavering voice saying, "A mob has descended on our area. We need police protection. Could you do something?"

Desperation often makes people opt for measures they wouldn’t normally think of otherwise. So she dialed the residential phone number of Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. To the person who answered the call, she said she wanted to speak to the chief minister, that she had a grave "communal situation" to report.

In a few seconds, Lalu was on the line. He heard her through, asked for the location details of the quavering voice who had called her, and in his bumbling style told her not to worry. "Hum hain na," Lalu said.

In another 30 minutes or so, the elderly woman received yet another call from the quavering voice, now calm and steady:  "The mob is gone, the police are around." In reality, there had been no mob. The police had that night nabbed a gang of Hindutva radicals who were playing tape-recorded sound of assailants about to launch an attack.

Regardless of the reality of the threat, there is no denying that Lalu’s late-night intervention saved the residents from spending a night of torment.

Reality check

Contrast this with the many calls former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri is said to have made to the Gujarat police and officials on Feb 28 in 2002, in the hope he and other residents of Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society could be saved from the mob which had surrounded it, baying for their blood. No police force was sent. Jafri was hacked to death and burnt, as were 68 others.

Or take yet another example of callous administrative apathy. Once it was confirmed that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hadn’t survived the assassination attempt made on her on the morning of October 31, 1984, riotous mobs began to target Sikhs with impunity across Delhi. Shocked at the violence, a group of five eminent personalities, including IK Gujaral (who later became prime minister) and Air Chief Marshal (retd) Arjan Singh, took upon themselves to call on then Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao.

They had hoped to beseech Rao to call in the army to put an end to the bloodbath, now widespread because of Delhi Police’s perceived unwillingness to protect the Sikhs. When the five reached Rao’s home, they were told he couldn’t be woken up from his siesta. In an interview to this writer a few years later, Gujaral said he simply couldn’t fathom how Rao could have slept through the massacre in Delhi.

In case you assume Lalu’s late night intervention in 1992 was an exception, you must rewind the clock. It was in Bihar that LK Advani’s rath yatra of 1990, which blazed a trail of devastation through north India, was stopped and the leader arrested. Yet the state did not erupt in violence.

Once infamous for grisly communal riotings – Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Biharsharif, Bhagalpur and more – Bihar remained astonishingly peaceful in the weeks following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Just how remarkable this feat was can be gleaned from the fact that West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu called in the army to quell the riotous mobs from taking over Calcutta. The peace in Bihar, in contrast to the other north Indian states, prompted journalist Arvind N Das to write a riposte to Lalu’s critics, titled, "Give the devil his due."

These three snapshots from the past provide an insight into how popular memories are constructed, which events are chosen to be remembered and which cast aside, and who determines the selection. There is also the complex issue of tagging and categorising past events.

Indeed, why is it that the administrative collapse witnessed under the Congress rule in 1984 or, for that matter, under Narendra Modi in Gujarat in 2002, isn’t remembered as an example of jungle raj? Why is this label reserved for Lalu’s tenure alone?

Jungle raj?

Nobody has cared to define jungle raj, but it presumably means a condition of living not governed by law, in which the powerful prey on the weak, aware that they will not be brought to book for their transgressions. These symptoms of jungle raj Lalu’s rule undoubtedly showed, particularly in the latter part of his long tenure, notwithstanding his commendable role in banishing the menace of communal violence from the state.

For one, kidnapping for ransom did seem to have become an industry under him. Businessmen and doctors with a flourishing practice were targeted specially. There were stories of vehicles being commandeered for rallies, at times driven straight out from showrooms, of property being grabbed or people having to pay to goons for constructing their houses.

More significantly, the connivance of administration was assumed because the gangs of goons were said to be close to Lalu, or belonged to his caste. They were the power-brokers, his electoral managers, so to speak, who harvested votes for him and, in return, enjoyed immunity from law. That Lalu himself was implicated, and subsequently convicted in the fodder scam, gave the narrative of his rule being the proverbial jungle raj a powerful overtone.

Simplistic narrative

Yet the jungle raj narrative is perhaps a bit simplistic. It does not take into account or explain the popularity Lalu enjoyed for most of his 15 years of rule. Before he gradually frittered away his political equity, largely as leaders of different castes left him because of his tendency to favour the Yadav social group, there was no one in Bihar, or even outside it, who could match Lalu’s following among the lower classes.

On my reporting trips to Bihar then, I often heard people from lower classes and lower castes lavish praise on Lalu for giving them dignity and self-respect, that they no longer had to suffer in silence the disdainful attitude of upper castes, that they felt liberated in intangible, at times indescribable, ways. Though Lalu’s rule did not lead to their economic upliftment, on one count they were grateful to him: They were not brusquely shooed away from the police station when they went to file complaints.

This complicated picture of Lalu’s rule raises the question: How could his administration, so sensitive to lower classes and Muslims, show callous indifference to extortion rackets? But there is also a related question begging to be asked of the rule of Modi and Congress: How could their administrations, found wanting in controlling riots, if not guilty of fanning them, have functioned efficiently otherwise?

The answer to these two questions is the same: transgressing laws has become a vital tool of political consolidation and mobilisation in India. In this situation, the victim is one who is not considered the voter of the person overseeing the administration. In Lalu’s Bihar, the victim belonged to upper class/upper caste; in 1984, it was the Sikh in Delhi and other parts of India; in 2002, it was the Muslim in Gujarat.

Obviously, the victim and his or her tormentor remember the past in their separate, at times contrary, ways, thereby creating multiple memories. But which memory dominates the public consciousness depends on whether the victim and the tormentor possess cultural capital. From this perspective, Lalu’s rule has become synonymous with jungle raj because the victims were from the upper classes and upper castes, whose hegemony has granted greater salience to their memory over that of others.

But this apart, considering that the BJP has been engaged in ghar wapsi and love jihad programmes, desecrating churches and stoking communal polarisation before every election, it does seem rich for the party to accuse Lalu of having presided over jungle raj.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.