Doer Nitish Kumar scores over political rhetoric of Lalu and Ram Vilas
On the morning of counting day, driving through rain and the blossoms of Laburnum and Gulmohar in Patna, I was surprised to find that the road outside Nitish’s residence deserted. For a moment I assumed the other news channels had decided to skip the early morning slightly pointless pre results dispatches, till I walked a few steps away to the next lane. Sure enough, the entire media cavalcade of cameras and broadcast vans was parked right there – outside the home of Rabri devi, Lalu’s wife and the proxy Leader of Opposition.
Why would the media ignore the bigger story – Nitish Kumar, the man being wooed by all political formations, praised by Rahul Gandhi, hand-grabbed by Narendra Modi, and generally seen as Bihar’s great hope – to chase the by now predictable story – the decline of Lalu Prasad, the Railway minister who looked all set to go off track this election? This could a matter of habit – after all, Lalu has been the centre of gravity in Bihar for two decades. Or it could a more calculated journalistic gambit, linked to the well known contrast between the two men – Impetuous Lalu might supply some drama even as a loser, while Punctilious Nitish would not allow the media in except at the designated hour dutifully phoned and faxed to media offices. Nitish, as the consensus goes, does not believe in springing surprises.
And the initial leads came as no surprise. Both reporters and exit polls had picked up the astonishingly high level of Nitish’s personal popularity on which the NDA hoped to sweep Bihar. The only subject of speculation then – what would be the final tally? Lalu’s elder son, a Krishna Bhakt and mildly notorious in Patna, drove in from a morning visit to the temple, flashing the victory sign, holding up both his hands. He is giving four seats to his party – quipped one journalist. Uncannily, that’s what the RJD ended the day with.
Ram Vilas Paswan, the LJP leader who completes the Bihar triumvirate, had all morning been ensconced in a five star hotel suite – the one that he occupies when he is in Patna, which is not too of- ten, usually around election time. He has a reason, or excuse, to stay away – as par t of every single government since 1996, his duties as Union Minister have kept him busy in Delhi. Except this election took that excuse away. Paswan lost from Hajipur – a seat he won seven times since 1977, losing just once in the Congress wave of 1984. This time, an 88 year old man, Ram Sunder Das de feated him. Das could be this Lok Sabha’s oldest candidate.
As far as age goes, many have claimed this election has upturned an old truth about the way Bihar polls. That it is no longer about Jaat or caste, the vote is for Vikaas or development. Hardly one to dispute the remarkable transformation underway in Bihar, led by Nitish, I would slightly modify that claim. The reality is more nuanced.
Nitish has revived Bihar’s comatose administration, kickstar ted schools and hospitals, used the centre’s money well to build roads and infrastructure – public goods meant for all, they have indeed created a groundswell of support for him across the state and across communities. But what Nitish has also done is target benefits to specific communities, based on caste: the EBC’s or extremely backward castes, numerically larger among the backward castes but edged out by the more powerful Yadavs and Kurmis, have finally been given political space through reservations in panchayats; Mahadalits, dalits minus chamars and Paswans, for whom state largesse now ranges from subsidised homes to monthly supply of bathing soap; even among Muslims, Nitish has singled out the Pasmanda or backward and dalit muslims for special schemes like Talimi Markaj, a scheme aimed to bring Muslim children to school.
This is social engineering, Nitish style. And it pays. It has created new vote banks. Numerically, the most significant is the EBC bloc, 100 odd castes that add up to around 30 % of Bihar’s vote. In 2004, not a single EBC candidate was voted to Parliament. In 2009, three will be sworn in as MPs, all three are from Nitish’s party.
Further proof of how caste realigned this election – Lalu’s outburst post defeat. Two months ago, on poll eve, he dismissed my questions on the impact of the potential consolidation of the EBC and Mahadalit vote. But as his own electoral defeat from Pataliputra flashed on TV screens, he turned to the group of journalists and ranted : ‘Everyone has united against Yadavs, there is hatred against Yadavs’. His other villains: the administration for rigging the polls, an upper caste media for biased reporting. Familiar targets from the nineties.
Not surprising. But what was mildly stunning was Lalu’s dismissal of development as a factor. He said if Vikaas could win votes, he would have won hands down for the turnaround of the Railways. He was emphatic : development does not win votes. It was scary to see a man stuck in the nineties.
Nitish, as expected, called for a press conference and walking into 1, Anne Marg had a surprise in store : a mandatory security check, at sharp contrast from the mad chaotic unchecked stampede into Lalu’s home. The security guards, including women constables, were trained to frisk, but did not have the detectors. Another insight into how Bihar is changing – step by step.
The press conference took place under the mango tree, the sole unchanging landmark in a vastly different Chief Ministerial Residence. The briefing lasted twenty minutes and a beaming Nitish Kumar repeated several times, the word ‘Nakaraatmak’, translated best as ‘Negative’, but far more potent in its original meaning. Nitish said voters had rejected the ‘Nakaraatmak’ approach of his opponents. Nitish reiterated that this was a vote against ‘Nakaraatmak’ politics. At final count, Nitish had used the word 10 times. Nitish may have chosen the negative adjective, but his work has been an affirmative one, both as the chief minister trying to bring governance back to Bihar, and as a politician schooled in the politics of social justice.
The stream combines the socialist ideals of Jayaprakash Narayan, and the modified socialism of Karpoori Thakur – Bihar’s second backward caste chief minister and the first to introduce reservations for OBCs in Nor th India, way back in 1978. Both Lalu and Nitish were claimants to this legacy. But while Lalu squandered it, Nitish is building on it – by deepening the reach of reservations and social targeting. It is Mandal Part Two. And like Mandal Part One, you could have a problem with it, if you oppose affirmative action based on caste. Except, by further refining reservations, Nitish has actually taken on what has been one of the prinicipal criticisms of Mandal – that it helped dominant caste groups like Yadavs and Kurmis become even more powerful, at the cost of the more backward and less powerful groups.
Lalu may have privately wished that Nitish’s agenda would lead to a backlash from the upper castes, Yadavs and Kurmis – but it didn’t. Possibly one explanation : even if the others are slightly resentful of reservations, the resentment is offset by the larger benefits of a functioning state that has finally begun to deliver.
No wonder, at his press conference, Nitish didnt look partic- ularly crushed at the national picture of a UPA win, and an NDA defeat. Instead, he asked the new government at the centre to live up to the promise of special status for Bihar – just a day ago, ever y political party had shown a willingness to consider the demand when a hung verdict seemed likely and the support of Nitish seemed crucial. Still beaming, Nitish wrapped up : Good that the elections are over, now lets all get back to work.
Post Script: Observations overheard that day: RJD has be- come Rajput Janta Dal. Apart from Laloo, the other three RJD candidates who won are Rajputs. The election has ended the Raj of Gundas – Gundis. Gundas are dons turned politicians. Gundis are their wives, propped up as proxy candidates. All 10 of them lost. Including Munna Shukla on a JD U ticket. A jubilant Nitish had one reason to be upset. Digvijay Singh, his former party colleague turned rebel, won from Banka defeating Nitish’s candidate. This setback could be crucial – in keeping Nitish grounded. Bihar cannot afford another arrogant leader.
– OE News Bureau