The Harvest of Hubris: Kachhe din jaane waale hain
“Bahati Hawa sa thha woh, Gujarat se aaya thha woh, kaala dhan laane wala thha wo, kahan gaya use doondho. Humko desh ki fikr sataati hai, woh bus videsh ke daure lagaate hain, humko badhti mahangai satata, wo bas mann ki baat sunata. Har waqt apni selfie khinchta thha woh, Dawood ko laane wala thha woh, kahan gaya use dhoondo…”
- Nitish Kumar, parodying in an election speech a song from the film Three Idiots
It must have been a sullen birthday for Advani Ji on Sunday. And it will be a dull Deepawali for the Sangh Parivaar, their thunder stolen by the unlettered gwaalaas of Bihar, the former’s greedily anxious patronage of the cow notwithstanding.
I first came to live in Delhi when I was 16. I was born (in Arrah) and raised in Bihar. It is the part of the earth I still feel closest to. From childhood we were raised on the adage Arrah jeela (zila) ghar baa toh kauun baat ke darr baa? (If Arrah is your home, what can you possibly be afraid of?)
After spending some time traveling in Bihar some weeks before the polls, including a 45-minute meeting with a very self-assured, but watchful Nitish Kumar, I became quite sure that Modiji will meet his match soon. Before the last phase of the polls in November I told a number of people that the Mahagathbandhan would win by a two-thirds majority. Only Laloo himself was crazy enough to make such a prediction. Many went sleepless for a few nights, thinking of Chanakya’s prediction of 155 seats for the NDA. And on the morning of the counting the bluff masters and omniscienti in the national media began counting the NDA’s chickens long before they had hatched. In the event, it was Laloo’s 190 seats for the MGB which came closest to the final result, especially if you take into account the 12 seats that went to candidates other than those of the NDA and the MGB, in which case Laloo's prediction was uncannily spot on! Something for our national pundits and know-all metropolitan journalists to ponder. A thoroughly well-deserved drubbing for the NDA.
It is backward Bihar that has saved India again. Consider the opposite verdict as a counterfactual: Had Modi-Shah’s NDA won 178 seats out of 243, we could have reasonably expected the Indian Constitution to be imperilled by the ruthlessly ambitious communal hate-mongers, their eyes set firmly on winning a similar majority in UP in 2017 and seizing control of the Rajya Sabha - all that stands between them and the rape of the Constitution. Instead Modi-Shah and the RSS find their Ratha-Yatra blocked yet again by the nearly forgotten Laloo Prasad Yadav, back from long political wilderness to haunt the Parivaar’s dreams like a bad penny. His RJD finds itself the single biggest party in the assembly with 80 seats. In the last assembly the party had just 23. It explains in some measure why the BJP-led NDA, which had tasted success in 172 of the 243 assembly constituencies in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, was struck down to a paltry 53.
What does this widely unexpected turn of events mean?
The DNA of the NDA
One thing it clearly means is just how much more politically astute is the unlettered, largely rural, Bihari janta than the educated classes of metropolitan India. Love and hate are passions which any honest human heart can divine. It does not take education. On the contrary, as we often find, it may hinder a clear view of the truth. Bihar has demonstrated this abundantly. If political sagacity lies in recognising the perfidy of a power that seeks to divide a people for political gain, Bihar has it in greater measure than any other part of India. (The Bihar polls also featured over 2000 third gender voters. Wonder how that will compare with an election in the US or the UK!)
While it is true that Nitish’s governance and 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. Campaigning for the RJD candidate at an election rally at Keoti earlier this month, Nitish Kumar said: “Prem aur sadbhav banaye rakhiye. Tarah tarah ke log jhagda lagane ki koshish karenge, ek kanphukwa (rumour-monger) ghoom raha hai. Sama mein jahar gholne ki koshish karenge, haddi phek denge, murti tod denge, mara suar phek denge dharmik sthalon ke paas. Inke uksane se sachet rahiyega.” ("Maintain harmony and peace. People will try to create trouble of every kind. A rumour monger has been doing the rounds. Attempts will be made to poison the atmosphere by throwing bones, breaking idols, leaving dead pigs near religious places. Remain alert, do not get provoked.")
Bihar is perhaps unique in that it has hardly had a communal riot during the last 25 years. The RSS plan of “uniting” 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 jaati-vyavastha. This is not to endorse the idea of caste in the slightest. It is only to remember the occupational historical correlate of jaati for most Indians and to underscore what should be the bleeding 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 (which, a vast amount of data suggests, is impossible to address within the economic framework of the reigning development model) gets worse over the next few decades. This will put paid to any attempt at “Hindu” unity. RSS Hindutva idealism has read the ground completely wrong, leading to electorally costly repeated blurts from the pulpits of Nagpur by sarsanchaalak Mohan Bhagwat. To address the jobs question within the Hindutva ideology is likely to prove utterly difficult, if not impossible, especially since folks like those in the Swadeshi Jaagaran Manch have been totally sidelined by the Modi Manch (of three). When you couple this with the unfettered corporate investment agenda of Modi’s, the writing is on the wall for the present rulers of India. India refuses to shine like this, a lesson they should have learned from the 2004 debacle. Given the depth and range of interests at play, they are unlikely to learn it this time either.
Bihar is also, at a deeper level, a vote against hatred in public life. What we have witnessed over the last six weeks was easily the most vicious of all electoral campaigns in the history of Independent India. Desperate to win at all costs, the NDA went hell for broke in its attempt to communalise and polarise the electorate, divide, for instance, Dalits and Yadavs from Muslims, and Yadavs among themselves. Even Modiji outdid himself when it came to lowering the standards of public speech, especially for a serving Prime Minister. Early in the campaign he found “some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA”, a remark which alone may have cost him more than a few seats. At a recent rally in Buxar, keen to divide the opposition’s votes, he did not pause to think before accusing the grand coalition of plotting to reduce quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs in order to benefit “a particular community”. Rabble-rousers like Giriraj Kishore went to the extent of saying “Lalu says that (you should) throw meat in a Durga temple”. Lead campaigner and BJP President Amit Shah said that if Nitish’s coalition won, firecrackers would go off in Pakistan. (There were actually many more in India!) And so on.
The venom and poison that has been unleashed during the last year should make anyone wonder if this is a civilised society any more. The hate brigade reintroduced a vicious form of beef politics in recent months, leading to the lynching of an innocent man last month, the Prime Minister maintaining a typically cowardly silence. It is not for love of the cow, but for love of the power that the pretence of protecting it is seen to give that the beleaguered animal has found such enthusiastic patrons in recent months. Nobody should miss the point that the surge in beef politics during the last couple of months was scarcely coincidental. It was prime-timed for the Bihar elections. (This happened despite Nitish repeatedly drawing attention to the fact that cow slaughter had been banned in Bihar since 1955). You will see the hype come down sharply now. The attempt was to divide the large Yadav vote in the process. In the event, the divisive tactic proved counter-productive, one more instance of the alertness of the ordinary voter in the state. One finds it hard to imagine if a region like Haryana or Western UP would have responded with the same sagacity.
The MGB’s victory in Bihar restores the idea of India to its pristine dignity, an idea wounded and imperilled seriously over the last 18 months by a hate-inspired leadership hypocritically more keen to see a Mahabharata than an Akhand Bhaarat.
Fortunately, every seductive slogan of Modiji’s - beginning with the ridiculous DNA slur - was turned around by his Bihari opponents into a jumlaawaar which fractured the NDA strategy. He was outwitted fair and square.
It is time people stopped considering Bihar “backward”. Without making any apologies for the rampant corruption (as much a feature of other places), it is important to keep in view the fact that Bihar has been systematically denied its due share of Central funds over the past 25 years, affecting its performance more than any other state perhaps (the dues going into hundreds of thousands of crores, Modiji offering a small fraction of it, as if from his own private kitty), because it has always faced a hostile government in Delhi in these recent decades.
There is also something else to consider. During our meeting with him Nitish Kumar expressed the view that provincial elections in no other part of the country inspire as much wide national interest as a Bihar election. Why is this so?
Bihar has always led the curve in Indian politics, all the way since Gandhiji’s Champaran Satyagraha in 1916, through the JP movement and the revolt against the Emergency in the mid-1970s, to the Mandal agitation and Laloo’s stopping of Advani’s Rath-Yatra in the early 1990s. For anyone who knows the socio-political ground in Bihar (and retains a deep distrust of the political intelligence of metropolitan media savants), it would have come as a huge surprise had Modi-Shah pulled off an upset against the Laloo-Nitish combine, especially after Modiji chose to commit (yet another) folly. Kisne hidaayat dee thhi Modiji ko Laloo se moonhh lagne ki, auur wo bhi Bihar mein? The NDA brains trust also preferred to have Amit Shah give more than 60 speeches while blocking local point-men like Shatrughan Sinha, committing the same blunder they did in Delhi, of preventing the state unit of the BJP to take charge. Somehow, Modiji (and Shah himself of course) believes that the people of India also voted for Amit Shah in 2014. Trying to save themselves from the Delhi blunder of announcing pre-emptively a candidate the state unit of the party had not endorsed, they went for the opposite gamble of not announcing a candidate at all this time. (This is typical of a power-drunk leader without any Plan B, presuming that everyone will kow-tow to him anywhere in the country once he is triumphant). I remember Nitish Kumar saying to us in September “Modiji Bihar ka additional charge lenge kya?”
I have lived in four countries on three continents. Within India I have lived in four different states and travelled to virtually all, except a few in the North-East. I have not come across people with a sharper political intelligence anywhere else. This is the reason for the wide national interest that a Bihar election provokes. There are objective reasons why Bihar - apart from its large population (one out of thirteen Indians is a Bihari) - is of enormous political significance for India, a trend likely to grow in the future.
Biharis and Baaharis
Regionalism played a far greater role in this election than communalism. Parties like the Shiv Sena and the MIM came from outside the state to participate. It was widely noticed that top NDA leaders from out of the state had come to campaign. Amit Shah camped all October in Bihar and addressed over 60 rallies. Modiji himself spoke at more than 30, his party losing in most of the places where he spoke.
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, especially since the NDA failed to announce a CM candidate, Modiji himself at the forefront of the campaign. It naturally prompted Nitish to ask voters to choose between a Bihari and a Baahari. Wouldn’t Modiji himself have done the same had Sonia Gandhi aggressively fronted a Congress campaign in Gujarat when he was CM?
Moreover, taking its cue from the Lok Sabha polls, Modi’s campaign was mechanically pitched for urban (and urbanising) India. But almost nine out of ten Biharis live in villages. It was natural for the large rural vote to go against Modi, especially as he mocked at the scale of labour migration from Bihar, forgetting what a major contribution is made my millions of migrant Bihari labour both to the country and to their own households. Our elites and middle classes would find it difficult to believe that even Rahul Gandhi's words about "suit-boot ki sarkaar" had greater traction in so many parts, resulting in 27 seats for the Congress, when it had just 4 last time.
What can we expect now?
First of all, we can expect a lot of national entertainment, now that Laloo is back before the media cameras. He has already promised some fun when he said that he will go with a laal-ten (lantern) to Modiji’s constituency Benares to look for his achievements! From there he threatens an agitation to challenge the regime in Delhi. As the Parivaar knows now, if there is one man in India who is serious about destroying communalism, it is Laloo. He is not a man to be trifled with!
The story is told that after blocking Advani’s Rath-Yatra in the 1990s, when he was Chief Minister of Bihar, Laloo Yadav was giving a speech somewhere in UP, in either Kanpur or Lucknow. Heckled by Bajrangis, he turned the mike off and sat down. When things had quietened, he stood up again, turned the mike on and said into it “Ee Ram Chandra Ji kauno BJP ka card-holder hain ka? Humko cheente hain? (Do you recognise me?) Hum bail (bull) ko seengh pakad ke chadhte hain!”
The political lesson of Bihar is that the man who knows his cow wins. The man who pretends to love it loses in the end.
Will the Mahagathbandhan hang together, or perhaps dissipate into the sort of factional fights which have been the undoing of coalition governments in the past? The risks are not low, given that the coalition here is between two former rivals, even enemies. Yet, both sides know very well what is at stake. They came together in a moment of national peril, to not only defend Bihar against a perceived outsider, but to kill the deadly virus of communalism before it got worse. The virus is far from gone. And the two leaders know that they must hang together for it to remain at bay.
For his part, Nitish needs to reflect carefully on the future economy of the state. The country is living through an unacknowledged impasse of development. 'Development' can mean many things. It is for him and his supporters to define afresh what it should mean for Bihar, what would bring the greatest benefit to people long deprived and exploited.
“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, like our traditional haats and mandis, 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, especially between cities and the countryside, will bring ruin even to the wealthy in the cities. Sabka swaarth, sabka vinaash.
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 arhar Modi model of promoting big business, Nitish could pay due attention to basic services, agriculture and small, sustainable industry to generate livelihoods, deepen his already substantial commitment to renewable energy and pioneer for all of India an entirely new form of ecological development, something which could lay the foundations of a future state of what may be called Praakritik Swaraaj. Such attention to rural Bihar would also allay Laloo’s well-known suspicion of development, helping to keep the coalition together.
Bihar is only 12% urbanised. Instead of succumbing to the dominant view that this is a sign of “backwardness”, it may be wise of Nitish to see this as perhaps one of Bihar’s great long-term ecological assets. A whole new style of development can be pioneered in Bihar which may not be so easy to pursue for highly urbanised states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat or Maharashtra. This would also require appropriate infrastructural investments (in basic amenities and training) from the government in small (tier 3 and 4) towns, addressing the need for employment amongst educated, mentally 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 strong mandates bring. They must read these mandates well. This is the era of extreme verdicts in Indian electoral politics. Speaking solely from the perspective of the country, it would be a lot better if the verdicts were more slender: it would give stronger incentives to the ruling coalitions to behave themselves and stick closely to the tasks within the mandate. If NDA had 75 fewer seats in Parliament they would not have chanced their arm so freely, spouting, encouraging and permitting the scale of communal rubbish that has been served over the past year to seek to make narrow electoral gains.
On the other hand, a mandate like 178 out of 243 can be turned to great effect under astute leadership. Nitish is known for his sober qualities. He will need every bit of this sobriety to stay humble, grounded, and focused. The people of Bihar have waited long. They are bubbling with enormous potential and hopes; they will require at least this from him.
As for Modiji and his vanquished crew, there is just over a year left for the UP elections. After massive defeats in Delhi and Bihar, the RSS may ask for Amit Shah’s head, as against allowing him to take charge in UP too. (Rajnath may be their preferred choice.) If they do so, it will inaugurate a blood feud within the Parivaar. At any rate, if they continue in the same communal vein, forgetting the substance of their real mandate, they will deservedly lose again, given people’s rising impatience on issues that matter. (Beef-eating is hardly one of them.)
If that happens, the unlikely may come about and Modi may not last the full term in Parliament. Not so long ago, I was the only crazy forecasting such an outcome. Even now, there would be few takers for this view.
For now, let us savour the fact that you can’t fool many people in this country all the time. Those out to destroy dharma will themselves perish in the dust.