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Bihar’s paradox: Will Bihar go back to Jungle Raj?


by Ratnakar Tripathy

Tunneling in or out?

Tunneling in or out?

From all the field reports lately, it has begun to seem that the voters in Bihar are in an adventurous, even reckless mood in 2014. They are quite willing to vote for a change in the regime. I will readily admit that this year Bihar successively went through an ant-Nitish wave, then a Modi wave and is currently going through a last ditch Laloo wave even as many-phased voting in India has come beyond the half way mark, as long as you don’t ask me to define a ‘wave’. The only thing I could say by way of defining it is it may be seen as a zeal of the hysterical sort, which a politician may flatter himself with but which cannot be depended on. After all, there is that moment of lonesome sobriety a voter comes face to face with, within the booth that remains an indecipherable black box! The media however pounces on the hysteria as its staple, paid or unpaid news, since this is the stuff the media market in our time is made of, as a matter of definition. Where there is excitement, there is media and substance can wait!

To come back to the central theme, by claiming that the Bihari voter is in an adventurous mood, I mean that he is willing to vote for the parliamentary election with full awareness of its dire implications for the 2015 state elections. A rout for Nitish in 2014 may open up the floodgates for exodus to other parties in the 2015 state elections, a possibility that must have made Nitish a very tense man these days. Although one must admit that Nitish is a man unlikely to resign himself to spending sleepless nights over this – he is more likely to spend the hours of darkness making fresh moves on the political chessboard. He may win or lose but he is no loser.

But the question is – is Bihar ready to willingly embrace another stint of jungle raj? Or is there a smug belief here that Bihar has forever and decisively left jungle raj behind and any regime that comes to power, be it Laloo or BJP, they will be unable to undo what has been achieved by the NDA in the last ten years. I find this complacency baseless as it leads to a mad gamble. The complacency is of course made of a mix of mindless euphoria and amnesia. It is indeed bizarre how the Bihari voter has forgotten all about the kidnapping industry of the 1990s, arguably the most pathological form of business entrepreneurship seen in India for decades. Let us admit such complacency is nothing but a delusion created by the new found safety in a society unused to it for decades. Isn’t it strange how quickly we get used to the luxury of basic law and order and begin to take it for granted?

The paradox that Bihar faces today has been voiced by various media analysts repeatedly – if it is true that Bihar has taken some definite strides in the areas of law and order, road construction and now in the decisive field of power – why is the Bihari voter apathetic or even hostile to Nitish Kumar? That despite the continued drawbacks in education and health, Bihar’s development is not a figment of someone’s imagination is amply clear to the Bihari on the ground. Those outsiders who are unable to see it may be applying standards better suited to Maharashtra, Gujarat and the South. So why this anti-Nitish fervour?

This is a puzzle that needs an answer. I am sure Nitish and his clique of thinking politicians in Bihar may be grappling with it these days, even as they struggle to turn back the tide against them. There is some evidence that the average Bihari voter is largely unaware of being double-tongued in acknowledging Nitish’s contribution and voicing ire against him in the same breath. It is a bit like saying with utter unselfconsciousness – ‘yes, he has undeniably done good work but I am not voting for him this time’. This is a paradox waiting to be unravelled.

Why the strength of the alliance lay in its opportunism

First of all let us make a note of how Nitish’s popularity dropped overnight once he broke up with the BJP over its decision to declare Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate.  Did that happen because the BJP’s upper caste constituency felt betrayed through Nitish’s swift political moves and was left hanging in abyss in the most abrupt and ungracious manner possible? Both Nitish’s side and the BJP reacted with much emotion in the manner of former lovers, claiming that the break was a case of grievous betrayal. Nitish wanted BJP, a national party to focus on Bihar and ignore matters national, an unfair suggestion by any means.  The Bihar BJP on the other hand accused Nitish of unjustifiably greater ambitions than he deserved, another unfair innuendo.  The fact is the BJP–JD [U] alliance was in its very origin an opportunistic one. The untold and unseen story here is – the opportunistic nature of the alliance was its biggest strength and achievement. How and why, let me explain.

I have come to believe that the unprincipled and opportunistic nature of the BJP-JD [U] alliance matches closely how I have seen my village in Bihar change in the last three decades. Even till the 1980s, my village was a jungle Raj of the traditional kind. I am not exaggerating – an upper caste man of some means could randomly abuse and beat up a lower caste person at will and beat up and abuse further when asked why. The only way a lower caste person could escape this terror was by joining the Maoist club. It is fashionable to call Laloo’s regime THE jungle Raj among those too young to have witnessed the original jungle Raj. We need to be cured of this amnesia.

By mid-1980s things began to change rapidly. As Laloo strode in with his own ‘secular’ version of jungle raj, every caste got an equal share of daily insecurities over bodily safety and property. If the original jungle raj aimed at reinforcing the upper caste might, the Laloo version made differing degrees of crime and association with the criminal the only way to live with self-respect and dignity in Bihar. Competitive criminality of this sort succeeded in pulping the upper caste pride into something rather tame for the moment. Laloo practised what I called the ‘politics of humiliation’ against the Bihari upper castes, a slight that I am unable to object to on grounds of morality. But after walking out in the streets in Bihar became a hazardous act for the common citizen, soon even the indoors began to no longer seem immune to violent intrusions anymore. Thankfully, the logic of this chaos did not follow its full course, and Nitish-BJP team got a chance to undo the Himalayan mess created actively and through default by Laloo Yadav right into the new millennium. On the basis of my first hand experience, I am in a good position to talk about my little lane in Patna as well as my village jawar in Champaran with barely a difference in tone.

To come back to the opportunistic alliance between Nitish and the BJP, let me recount the parallels I saw in my own village in Champaran. Rather suddenly after mid-1980s, I found the upper caste turn dramatically diffident. They felt free to argue and fight with the lower castes but on equal terms. I could sense the fear and the slack in the age old presumptuousness among the upper castes.  The bullies had been out bullied. This was not because the upper castes went through a change of heart or any kind of principled conversion. It was purely opportunistic and I think the reasoned compromise was the best part of it. I wish for social change of a certain sort but am not immodest to the point of pretending to dictate the pathways it must take. People and behaviours change before principles modify unless you wish to sit and wait for a profounder renaissance forever.

The outcome of this strategic change in the upper caste attitudes and increased assertiveness among the lower and poorer castes was a more humane social ambience in the village. The murmurings and grumblings never came to an end, but I suddenly found myself and other Brahmins being addressed as bhaiya or kaka [uncle] by a Chamar or Kumbhar caste member. Such forms of address were not permitted during my childhood except in the occasional case of a Yadav or Kurmi, intimate with a Brahmin family. Even though I am aware that the upper caste Brahmin relatives took it as unavoidable descent of status in favour of mundane social peace, the less high-minded did begin to get used to it without fuss – for me this is the irreversible part of the social revolution. And it’s getting better as the number of brothers and uncles across castes continues to explode. I expect an outsider to my village today will wonder if he has entered a strange social bundle where everyone, all the castes seems to be brothers or uncles or aunts to each other.  This of course leaves out the less empowered dalits and semi-tribal castes whose turn for justice is still awaited.

My question here is – are the above changes in the social fabric of my village really as irreversible as I would like to believe. And again – is my lane in Patna rid of petty or mighty criminals irreversibly? I am not sure.

I believe the modicum of social peace in my village is based however tenuously on the fear of law and a dynamic coalition of castes which aims at maintaining the minimum levels of peace, which is saying a lot. The BJP-JD [U] coalition fully reflected the opportunistic and fragile nature of the many locally based coalitions on the ground. Although the BJP – JD [U] relations remained tensely competitive during the best of times, the fact remains that Nitish was the unquestioned leader left to steer the state where it stands today. This is why I feel the coalition fully reflected the state of the mind in Bihar. More practically, it reflected the tense and precarious social balance that was seen as everyone’s responsibility. It is as if a society decided tacitly that its conflicts were far too serious to deal with as a wholesale challenge and that it must address each day as it turns up and hope that the show of social goodwill would prove cumulative over time, congealing into more enduring and genuine forms of peace.

Others may call it opportunism. I call it hard work – very hard and persistent work at both ends of the society – increasing fairness and continued growth. The assumptions behind this logic were driven by primitive existential thought – the worst of enemies need some minimal ground rules to move around unafraid from each other. The worst of enemies need decent roads to move on. Quite simply, a society must seem more or less like a society, not an arena or a boxing ring. This is far from lofty idealism. It is about coming halfway for a handshake. It is about suppressing old pride and about restraining ancient angers. It is about enjoying new found freedom without arrogance and masking shame over loss of ancient status.

Politics through management: a critique of Nitish’s political style

Whether Bihar will go back to jungle raj after a 10-year spell remains an open question in 2014. More so as the 2014 elections are proving to be a watershed for the whole nation and Bihar can presently no longer be seen in isolation, a luxury we enjoyed for a whole decade. Nitish kept harping to the state about its special status needs, the only time when the fate of Bihar seemed closely linked with the rest of the country. It may be possible to talk of Bihar’s fate with some more certainty after the 16th May and I will exercise patience here.

Having linked the question of social peace in my village to the nature of the JD [U] – BJP coalition, I now wish to explore broader links between the presiding style of politics in Bihar for the past ten years – Nitish’s. I have no mind here to critique either Laloo’s style or that of the BJP. Laloo’s legacy of governance in Bihar is despicable and BJP’s record in the country when not constrained by a coalition is scarier if anything. In brief, one can only critique someone who carries promising elements of positiveness. You don’t critique people who scare you. You just fight them and condemn them.

Coming back to Nitish’s political style – during his ten years in power one saw a constant tussle between his two sides – Nitish the technocrat-manager and Nitish the politician. By politician I mean someone who mingles with and manages people and not just things. Nitish it turns out is good at building roads between distant places but has proved terrible at building bridges between human beings. This includes the BJP politicians as much as his own party members. Look at Laloo – despite the menace he may be, he mingles and jokes with people and carries a convincing air of utter humanity, even if you don’t want to entrust him with your future. I wonder if it’s too late in Nitish’s life to change this but it’s worthwhile trying.

The point I am making is not about Nitish trying to transform himself from a glum introvert into an exemplar of happy gregariousness. The point I am making is in a democracy, whether you like it or not, you need to consult others, whether you convince them successfully or end up getting convinced by them. And then there are the stalemates without resolve where some semblance of conversation must carry on. Again I am not talking about the lofty ideals of democracy. I am talking about talking, about the fact that voters, political colleagues and opponents all like to be dignified by being talked to, to be consulted and approached. Nitish failed to do this with headstrong characters in BJP, but he has failed to do it within his own party. His communication system covered the bureaucracy and the press but ran seriously short of his partners and party men.  This by itself may be the reason why he is hated as viscerally as he is.

In sum for the time being…

On a glum day, Nitish, I imagine, may ponder over the paradox of doing so much good for the state and ending up as unpopular as he is today. He may even decide to declare the voter ingrates and come to a quick conclusion. But I would like to remind him of the Janta Durbar days when he got a chance to interact with commoners from all parts of the state. Nitish used the time to make lists of people and problems like a bureaucrat and forgot to have an occasional chat. These were his likely messengers from different parts of Bihar whom he sent back without a message, without an impression, without a human imprint.  I am not talking publicity and the feigned humanity of an actor. I am talking about the quality of simple modesty, of asking how are you?

The trouble with managerial politics is it puts you at a remove from the people. Or rather you volunteer to put yourself at a remove from people. Even as you busily seek solutions to their problems and broadcast your contributions to the world, you tend to forget that in a democracy you need to ask, not to tell. As a leader of course, you may on occasions tell people what must be done. But the spine of political discourse in democracy is built on the language of service – what do you want done? This is a question you need to ask endlessly and tirelessly. Put in the language of principles, you need to fulfil desires people say they have, rather than those you decide they should have. Put in the language of pragmatic politics and propaganda, you need to flatter your voter into a position of the giver rather than the supplicant. Nitish failed at this simple job even though in my opinion he may be easily crowned the best chief minister Bihar has ever had.

The parting question is – will anyone lesser do?










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