Nitish achieved the impossible but was finally devoured by the very change he unleashed
Ajay Singh | June 11, 2014
Tucked a few yards away from the Gandhi Maidan police station in Patna, a restaurant called Mainland China is a new destination for the city's cosmopolitan elite. Its ambience is no different from that in any restaurant of this global chain in the national capital region. So is the quality of food – with no tinge of Bihariness. Those serving you food would speak in English which is as good or bad as in Delhi.
This is not the only symbol of an aspiring Bihar. You will find innumerable signs even during a brief stay in Patna to confirm that the Bihar capital has been desperately trying to metamorphose into a megapolis. In the Maurya hotel, you will find girls chaperoning guests with ease and gait that come from confidence.
Contrast this with the past image of Patna as a wild city where a goat could be slaughtered for feast right in the lobby of a hotel. In the early nineties, buying a Maruti car or an expensive motorbike was a sure-shot invitation to robbery. The entire state was in the grip of a political culture in which the rule of might, not law, was the norm. This dreary past is conclusively buried so deep that tales of disorder and criminality appear fictional today. It would be naive to think that Bihar has changed overnight.
The mask of social justice and secularism wore off only after 15 years of mis-governance during the Lalu-Rabri regime which patronised criminality and political lumpenism till the advent of the Nitish Kumar era in 2005. Nitish, supported by the BJP's powerful organisational and propaganda machinery, captured people's imagination with a slogan ‘Naya Bihar Nitish Kumar’. Indeed, he became the symbol of an emerging new Bihar. What one witnesses in Patna's restaurant or plush hotels are the signs of deep cultural and economic changes in Bihar's society.
But the Lok Sabha elections proved it once again that change tends to devour its own agent. There may be many reasons for the debacle of Nitish and his JD(U) but none of them damaged him so much as the forces of change unleashed by him.
Agriculture registered a constant growth of nearly 10 percent giving fillip to wealth creation at an unprecedented scale. This led to reverse migration: people who had left the state to seek jobs found remuneration at their homestead no less rewarding. There are umpteen stories of great successes in rural Bihar duly facilitated by a culture in which talent and innovation are promoted.
The rising literacy rate, particularly among girls, reduced the fertility rate and brought the population growth under control. This was a positive change given that certain areas of the state do figure among the world's most densely populated regions. Nitish's ambitious project of empowering women in local bodies was premised on his understanding that they play much more critical role in shaping society than men. “A woman in a village would not tolerate if her children are deprived of education due to teachers' absenteeism,” he once said while explaining the 33 percent quota for them in local bodies.
Yes, Bihar has transformed a great deal. No longer will you discover Bihar with a jolt while driving from Uttar Pradesh. (Now it is the other way round.) Bihar is no longer an area of darkness after the sunset. The energy consumption has gone up four times along with improvement in power supply. Bihar is no longer the butt of jokes.
In less than eight years, cynical pessimism was replaced with confidence all around. Nitish's resounding mandate in the 2010 assembly elections was nothing but an overwhelming endorsement of his image of a change maker. But Nitish is by nature not given to exuberance. In his second term, he at times found himself ranged against the forces his change had unleashed. For example, protests by contractual teachers in Lakhisarai and Begusarai demanding regular jobs were indications of growing impatience of the rising middle class with an administration not rising up to the expectations which were sky high.
After good roads that connect remotest parts of Bihar to Patna and a peaceful atmosphere in the state, people have been asking for more and get impatient if the administration is found wanting. A lethargic bureaucracy with its innate profligacy literally subverted the structural changes that Nitish had introduced. For instance, the institution of local bodies was rendered ineffective by a nagging bureaucracy. Funds poured in for rural development became a source of contention between bureaucracy and the emerging rural political class.
At the same time, the JD(U) did not have a parallel organisational structure that could make up for either bureaucratic deficiency or neutralise the propaganda against the chief minister. Nitish’s decision to sever the ties with the BJP after Modi emerged as its prime ministerial candidate did not go down well with many sections – especially the neo middle class in urban and rural Bihar saw in it Nitish’s resistance to change.
Modi not only captured the imagination of this class but also weaved a powerful narrative around the Gujarat model which promises prosperity and peace at fast pace. That Bihar will become El Dorado like Gujarat was the new dream that responded to the impulses of this rising middle class. Modi's caste background (OBC) and his machismo also provided an alternative political discourse that charmed a credulous audience on religious lines. Ironically, Nitish, the originator of the change, was successfully projected as standing against everything he actually stood for.
Nitish's opposition to Modi was seen to be motivated by his oversized ambition. His consistent opposition to Modi's idea of India was interpreted as an argument opportunistic in nature and facile in content. His doggedness in following an ideological path in tune with his own moral compass was dubbed as obduracy emanating from his arrogance of power. Evidently Nitish lost the power of logic in these irrational times of Bihar.
Perhaps, Bihar will emerge as the tragedy of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. There are all indications that the rebellion within the JD(U) stoked silently by the BJP would lead to the fall of the government and an early election within six months. This became evident when some rebels in the JD(U) propped up candidates for the three Rajya Sabha seats vacated by Ram Vilas Paswan, Rajiv Pratap Rudi and Ram Kripal Yadav. The minority status of the Jeetan Ram Manjhi government will make its survival untenable in the coming assembly session.
With prime minister Modi at the helm, the BJP is unlikely to spare any effort to ensure complete marginalisation of Nitish. At the same time, the forces of change unleashed in the nearly nine years of his rule are now under the influence of clever arguments and smart idioms which dominate the political discourse. So far as his own rank is concerned, Nitish continues to be vilified by his former acolytes in a manner which runs, if one borrows from Shakespeare, on the lines of “I love Nitish no less but I love Bihar more”. They are ready to do him in, if not physically then politically.
The Nitish regime was the most successful story in post-independence Bihar. Yet its denouement is evidently tragic. It is difficult to make a distinction between collective wisdom and mass delusion when gangsters, their wives and habitual political turncoats can ride on the wave of hubris and win elections, when leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad and Jagtanand Singh get defeated. At the moment, the story of change in Bihar would have a brief halt. But there is never a full stop in politics.
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