What Bihar does today...

“Nitish Kumar will need every bit of sobriety to stay humble, grounded, and focussed.”Picture shows the Bihar Chief Minister greeting supporters in Patna after the Grand Alliance's victory in the State Assembly elections.  

One lesson of the Bihar elections is that the man who knows his cow wins. The man who pretends to love it loses in the end.

On the morning of counting day, some of the omniscient ones in the national media began counting the National Democratic Alliance’s chickens long before they hatched. In the event, it was >Lalu Yadav’s 190 seats for the Mahagathbandhan which came closest to the final result, something for our national pundits and journalists to ponder.

What does this widely unexpected turn of events mean?

The DNA of the NDA

One thing it clearly means is that if political sagacity lies in recognising the perfidy of a power that seeks to divide a people for political gain, Bihar has it in abundance. While it is true that Nitish Kumar’s developmental achievements over the last decade weighed significantly in the voters’ minds, caste, community, and the urgent need for communal harmony and decency in public life have played the decisive role in this election.

Aseem Shrivastava
Bihar is perhaps unique in that it has hardly had a communal riot in the last 25 years. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS), which planned to “unite” Hindus (against all others) across the country, has bitten the dust in Bihar, perhaps setting the tone for the rest of the country. Their view that reservations ought to be purely along economic lines betrays a typically modern lack of understanding of the socio-economic complexity of jati-vyavastha. This is not to endorse the idea of caste in the slightest. It is only to remember the occupational historical correlate of jati for most Indians and to underscore what should be the obvious: as the Patel agitation in Gujarat showed, the demand for reservations in education and jobs is only going to get more bitter as the crisis of unemployment gets worse over the next few decades. This will put paid to any attempt at “Hindu” unity. RSS Hindutva idealism has read the ground wrong, leading to electorally costly repeated blurts from the pulpits of Nagpur by Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. To address the jobs question within the prevailing economic ideology is likely to prove difficult, if not impossible, especially since ideas like those of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch have been totally sidelined. India refuses to shine like this, a lesson that should have been learned from the 2004 debacle.

To divide and gain some of the Yadav vote, the saffron brigade reintroduced >a vicious form of beef politics, the surge of which was clearly prime-timed for the Bihar elections. In the event, the divisive tactic proved counter-productive — one more instance of the alertness of the ordinary voter in the State.

Provincial elections in perhaps no other part of the country inspire as much wide national interest as a Bihar election. Bihar has always led the curve in Indian politics, all the way since Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha in 1916, through the Jayaprakash Narayan movement and the revolt against the Emergency, to the Mandal agitation and Lalu’s stopping of L.K. Advani’s Rath-Yatra in the early 1990s.

The Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar once again restores the idea of India to its due dignity, an idea wounded seriously over the last few years.

Regionalism played a far greater role in this election than communalism. Parties like the Shiv Sena and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen came from outside the State to participate. Top NDA leaders from out of the State came to campaign. Amit Shah camped all October in Bihar and addressed over 60 rallies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself spoke at more than 30, his party losing in most of the places where he spoke. >Trying to avoid the costly mistake in Delhi, the NDA did not announce a chief ministerial candidate.

The obvious question this campaign strategy provoked was why local leaders were not given the lead roles in the campaign. The opposition made full use of this lapse. It naturally prompted Mr. Kumar to ask voters to choose between a Bihari and a baahari. Wouldn’t Mr. Modi himself have done the same had Sonia Gandhi aggressively fronted a Congress campaign in Gujarat when he was Chief Minister? Moreover, Mr. Modi’s campaign was calibrated for urban India. But almost nine out of ten Biharis live in villages.

What next?

Will the Mahagathbandhan hang together? The risks are not low, given that the coalition here is between two former rivals. Yet, both sides know very well what is at stake. They came together in a moment of national peril, to kill the deadly virus of communalism. The virus is far from gone. And the two leaders know that they must hang together for it to remain at bay.

Mr. Kumar needs to reflect carefully on the economy of the State. “Development” can mean many things. It is for him to define afresh what it should mean for Bihar, with so many people long deprived.

Bihar mein bahaar ho!” is a much better direction to go in than “ Bihar mein bazaar ho!”, for “ bazaar” no longer refers to actual bazaars, but to the “share bazaar”. The latter is the sort of development which will keep most Biharis in a state of deprivation, while narrow elite interests in the cities are promoted. In the long run, such a model of development, unleashing enormously destructive ecological forces in the wake of growing inequalities, will bring ruin even to the wealthy in the cities: Sabka swaarth, sabka vinaash (Everyone’s selfishness, everyone’s destruction).

The election results show that people in Bihar know where to place the blame when it comes to fundamental macroeconomic issues like inflation, especially the price of essentials like daal.

Instead of following the Modi model of promoting big business, Mr. Kumar could pay due attention to basic services, agriculture, and small, sustainable industry to generate livelihoods, deepen his commitment to renewable energy, and pioneer for all of India an entirely new form of ecological development.

Bihar is only 12 per cent urbanised. Instead of succumbing to the dominant view that this is a sign of “backwardness”, it may be wise of Mr. Kumar to see this as perhaps one of Bihar’s great long-term ecological assets. He could learn from the mistakes made in more urbanised States such as Tamil Nadu, Gujarat or Maharashtra. This would also require appropriate infrastructural investments (in basic amenities and training) from the government in small towns, addressing the need for employment amongst educated, urbanised youth, keeping them from metropolitan frustration, while also easing the pressure in the cities.

Above all, the big lesson of this election is that leaders must avoid the hubris that extreme verdicts often bring. Mr. Kumar is known for his sober qualities. He will need every bit of this sobriety to stay humble, grounded, and focussed.

(Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer and ecological economist.)

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 8:24:16 PM |

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