Dividing Lines: The Bihar drama

Politics makes strange bedfellows and stranger enemies. When the elections in Bihar are advertised as a clash of titans — of Nitish Kumar vs Narendra Modi — one wonders where old loyalties went. Mr Kumar was an old partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party alliance and hostile to Lalu Prasad Yadav. This election saw a new configuration of Lalu-Nitish-Congress against Mr Modi and one wondered at the sheer temporariness of politics. It is almost as if ideologies and histories do not matter when power and survival are at stake. Both the BJP and Mr Kumar were desperate to claim Bihar, and Bihar ironically became the sign of the future. The Bihar result will signal the future of the BJP, the future of Mr Kumar, a place for the Congress, all within the future of a rule game called democracy. For all its drama, one did not know whether it was a clash of personalities or a clash of ideologies.

Oddly, what we had was three authoritarian styles disguised as populist politics — Mr Yadav, Mr Kumar and Mr Modi — playing out the musical chairs called electoral democracy. For all the rhetoric of politics, the only music heard was the calculus of caste. Each leader had to calculate how much of the caste pie he could bite off. The vision of the future was the vision of the caste pie. High caste, low caste, EBC, OBC these were only categories of the continuation of the caste game. Speak any language of the secular from governance, to caste, to affirmative action — one had to only rub the sheen off the word to understand the reality called caste. Oddly, when people talk of change, they are speaking modemisms, but the language of electoral politics merely speaks the dialects of caste.
Each party added to the language of caste the parochialism of a different language. Mr Modi and the BJP added the parochialism of communalism, the threat that Mr Kumar might give Muslims a share of the caste pie while Mr Kumar, in the final stages, played shamelessly to the Bihari/Bahari opposition. Watching the elections, one realised the organised hypocrisy of all parties where modernity and universalism are mere pretexts hiding the interests that drive power. Bihar as power politics presents a dismal picture. Words like governance and development are used by confronting sides, but what one sees is the power of the state as the main employer and caste as the gate for entry.

The state is the great mother of the Bihar electorate and employment the umbilical connection with the state. Thousands of Bihari males who are employed outside has skewed the sex ratio. Yet, the question remains whether all this change has affected the attitudes of women. One also needs to ask whether the youth of Bihar share the aspirations and admissions of their cohorts and whether this too can affect state politics. Sadly, change displays a deceptive set of messages for anyone who watches Bihar as a political spectacle.

As a spectacle, the election was epic drama. Beyond the two titans one saw the return of Mr Yadav, playing the Falstaff of politics. He has been banned from standing for elections, but he has fielded his sons, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap like morse codes of the future. Mr Yadav messages that dynastic patriarchial politics is a part of Indian social life and he is unembarrassed about it. He does not appeal to history, like Rahul Gandhi; he presents it as a blatant part of his politics. Family, party, state merge in this wonderland of democracy.

Yet, beyond all the clowning, Mr Prasad is back as a serious contender. His grassroots connection and his Lohiate past, even as a populist licorice, make sense. He is condemned for his “jungle raj” which was and is seen as an anathema to governance. Yet, to the lower castes, it was an effervescence and assertion of power with all the populist instability it entails. The BJP does not understand the nostalgia, even the affection that man invokes. His election as affable entertainment cuts to the roots of political loyalties. Also, he has the organisational base critical for votes and so Mr Yadav returns as an elder, a not-too-insignificant part of Bihar politics.

The two politicians who cut a sorry figure are actually Ram Vilas Paswan and Pappu Yadav. They play sour-grape roles that does not quite match the ebullience of a Lalu-like politics. One realises that in politics, it is not often that a politician reinvents himself. Often it is crowd, the voter, who reinvents him and this is what happened to Mr Yadav. He returns as a symbol of Bihari pride and nostalgia, of paternalistic affection at a time of modernist change. There is a human quality to him, an outreach effect at the level of personality that makes Mr Kumar and Mr Modi appear like cold figures. Mr Yadav surprises even writers like me in his ability to be continuously relevant. One realises that as outsiders we apply abstract concepts to politics while Mr Yadav lives it out, however outrageously.

Next to Mr Yadav, Mr Kumar and Mr Modi look distant. Mr Modi exuded confidence. He presented himself as a national leader bringing the magic of development to the “jungle raj” of Bihar. The message works as the BJP juggernaut runs roughshod over Mr Kumar’s effort. He looks efficient and Mr Kumar looks, for a while, like a hardworking but not too successful student. For all its high-caste bias, the BJP pretended to treat as the black box of Bihari politics till Mohan Bhagwat’s demand to review reservation created a pandoras box of politics, which revealed each party in true colours.

Suddenly, Mr Modi’s body language acquires a swagger. He regressed to the 2002 days as he confidentially told a crowd at Buxar that Mr Kumar is planning to plunder the caste cake for a minority community. Mr Kumar also plays dignified and pious in the beginning talking of his hard work but he too succumbs to the populist seductions of Bihari and bahari binary. Political hypocrisy hides the Manichean world that politicians belong to. It is almost as if Mr Bhagwat’s speech triggers Mr Modi’s regress and Amit Shah’s jingoism about the crackers bursting in Pakistan if the BJP loses. It has already been decided now.


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