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Last Updated: Friday, 30 April, 2004, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
The lord of Bihar

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC India correspondent, in Bihar

The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava has been out and about around India meeting some of the country's headline-makers. For his first report, he met controversial politician Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is seeking election in the northern state of Bihar.

Laloo Prasad Yadav
Laloo Prasad Yadav - charismatic autocrat
Mr Yadav is often described as the king of Bihar, India's most lawless, corrupt and backward state.

Born to a family of cattle-herders, he rose to become Bihar's chief minister, and heads an influential regional party allied to India's opposition Congress party.

His party represents lower-caste Hindus, people at the bottom of India's social hierarchy.

If his Rashtriya Janata Dal party does well in the current general elections, Mr Yadav could become a key player in national politics.

Voice of the poor

Mr Yadav holds no constitutional post at present.

But everyone, be they state officials or Western diplomats, comes to him if they want to do business in the country's second most populous state.

If it wasn't for me the upper castes would still be running Bihar and my people would be excluded from society
Laloo Prasad Yadav
A charismatic autocrat, he reigns in the name of his wife, whom he got elected as the state's chief minister when forced to quit from the post a few years ago on corruption charges.

"We have given a voice to the poor and the religious minorities.

"If it wasn't for me the upper castes would still be running Bihar and my people would be excluded from society," he tells the BBC.

His vision of India is one in which everyone is equal.

But his reign has also taken all of Bihar back to the dark ages.

A near complete absence of infrastructure has cut off Bihar from the national mainstream.

Roads, hospitals, schools - everything is in a shambles.

Laloo Yadav says, however, that his wife's government has worked hard to improve Bihar's situation.

"Our development is not projected properly, we actually get negative publicity and we ourselves aren't keen to project our achievements," he says.

Religious harmony

But for his supporters, the lack of development is hardly an issue.

Laloo has given us dignity
Bihar resident
They give him credit for ensuring religious harmony in the state.

There have been no Hindu-Muslim riots in the state for the past 15 years.

It is a big achievement considering religious violence has claimed thousands of lives across the country in the same period.

Also Laloo Yadav's regime has seen some of the poorest people in his state getting empowered. "For thousands of years the poor and the downtrodden had no voice here," says one man.

"We were beaten, abused and harassed by the people higher to us in the social ladder. Laloo has given us dignity."

Hitting back

Laloo Yadav's public rallies always draw big crowds, many just excited to see their leader step out of a helicopter.

"I am popular because people know that I am their man. They know that whatever has happened it is due to me and whatever will happen will again be due to my presence.

"So people have faith in me."

To his supporters Laloo Prasad Yadav symbolises social justice.

Divisions in Bihar are sharp - for thousands of years, the Hindu lower castes have been ruled and exploited by the upper castes.

It is now their turn to call the shots - and they do it through Laloo Prasad Yadav.

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