Fence-sitters beware: Nitish draws battle lines

Bihar CM is back in game with Sankalp Yatra, federal front plans

ajay

Ajay Singh | February 5, 2014


Nitish Kumar addresses the ninth edition of his Sankalp Yatra at Lakhiserai: going by the numbers, the rally is a success.
Nitish Kumar addresses the ninth edition of his Sankalp Yatra at Lakhiserai: going by the numbers, the rally is a success.

“Namak ki vyavastha to kar di hai, roti ki vyavastha kab karenge?” (You have made arrangements for salt but when will you arrange for breads)? A white banner bearing this demand and fluttering in the midst of a surging crowd of thousands who came to attend Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's ‘Sankalp Yatra’ in Lakhiserai district was indeed an aberration.

But such aberrations abound and catch the media's attention in today's Bihar. In a society ridden with multilayered consciousness on caste, corruption, criminality and communalism, Nitish seems to be fighting a unique political battle. After a gap of nearly three months since he broke up with the BJP, his mass contact programme through a series of 14 rallies planned across the state is a huge success by any standard.
In Lakhiserai, which was the ninth rally, the response of people was visibly overwhelming.

However, there is marked change in the composition of crowds. Unlike the past when the BJP-JD(U) alliance was intact, the absence of the elite and affluent upper caste as well as a preponderance of backward classes was quite conspicuous. “I have closed my (hair-cutting) saloon to attend the rally,” said Ram Chandra Thakur when this correspondent asked him what attracted him to Nitish' rally. “He has done a lot for people like us,” he said which sounded like a judgment on the Nitish government's performance.

Thakur's opinion found resounding endorsement from several others who belong to the same socio-economic strata. But being passionately judgmental is a typical Bihari trait not endemic to one section of society. Rather, its prevalence was evident when a group of people, demanding regularisation of their contractual jobs with the state government, displayed the white banner and marked their dissent with the chief minister's campaign which is aimed at reiterating his ‘resolution’ (sankalp) for good governance.

And Nitish's resolution is not ordinary. For the past three years he has been making commitments which were outright crazy at first glance. For instance, he vowed to make Bihar a power-surplus state though it was not generating any electricity at all. From where was he going to get it from? But Nitish found a way out by reviving the state’s own power generation facilities and procuring its share from the centre's power plants in the state.

By now the state's image of an area of darkness has substantially changed. In Lakhiserai, power supply is by and large uninterrupted. "Now people do not ask us to provide roads but demand transformers to ensure quality power supply," said Rajiv Ranjan Singh ‘Lallan’, the MP from Munger constituency which includes Lakhiserai. Even in rural areas power supply is assured for substantial part of the day and night, a situation inconceivable in not too distant a past. Bihar's transformation is believed to be a major cause of envy for neighbouring villages of Uttar Pradesh where the power scenario is grim.
Nitish's another resolution is even more daunting. He promises to root out corruption from a bureaucracy which is lazy, venal and subversive. For the first time, he has introduced a system of sacking a government employee found involved in corruption. Such a drastic step is clearly aimed at instilling fear among the lower rung of bureaucracy, at the block level, which often creates hurdles in governance and delivery. Obviously this move has enraged a large section of employees who regarded corruption and non-performance as a matter of entitlement with their government jobs.

But nothing goes unchallenged in Bihar. In Patna's chatterati circles one can find a deep sense of dissonance with the government's moves. "Who are they catching? They are penalising only petty bureaucrats while top officials go scot-free," remarks a senior bureaucrat who thinks such moves are mere cosmetic efforts for image-making with no far-reaching consequences. Such utterances are more reflective of deep-seated cynicism of the Bihari elite than ground realities. Though corruption has grown keeping pace with the growth in the state's economy, people's awareness of entitlements has also grown exponentially. This has created a peculiar situation in which people's aspirations for effective governance is forcefully resisted by a slothful and corrupt bureaucratic apparatus.

Nobody realises this dilemma better than Nitish. For the past one month he has been giving enough indications of delineating a new contour of politics in Bihar. For instance, his unambiguous stance is that if his party gets a drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections, his government would not survive even for ten days. “Don't live under the illusion that the vote for the Lok Sabha would be different from the vote for the state assembly,” he told his audience in rally after rally. That is a clear attempt to counter the BJP's sustained campaign that its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi would be best suitable for the centre while Nitish may be good for Bihar.

The underlying theme of Nitish's message can hardly be missed. He is clearly hinting at a distinct possibility of political uncertainty in case his party is marginalised in the Lok Sabha polls. Such a scenario is quite scary for the people of the state who dread the prospects of a return to the past. This fear is further amplified by an attempt of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to evoke sympathy on caste and communal lines after his conviction on corruption charges and subsequent incarceration in a Jharkhand jail.

Along with his mass contact programme, Nitish has initiated a process of rebuilding a federal front to formulate a coherent response to the BJP at the national level. In his view, the federal front would be a loosely knit coalition of regional parties like JD(U), Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (Secular), AIADMK, Babu Lal Marandi's Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) , CPI and CPM.

Will that be an effective coalition against the Congress and the BJP? To this query Nitish replies that the coalition would certainly provide an alternative to the dominant discourse and each party would strengthen the other to build a powerful alternative non-Congress, non-BJP formation. “This is not an ordinary but a transformative battle I am fighting," he says, adding that Bihar will change forever if the battle goes in his favour.

His vigorous campaign in the state is bound to polarise the electorate in an unlikely manner. Without losing the sight of identity politics, he has been mobilising people on pan-Bihari lines which is usually less seductive than caste and communal appeals. “I am fighting for transformation of Bihar and it is now time to take sides and shed neutrality,” he says. Summing up his conversation with me, he quotes renowned Hindi poet Ram Dhari Singh ‘Dinkar’: “Jo tatastha hai, samay likhega unka bhi aparadh (History will take note of the culpability of those who have remained neutral)."

By all indications, the 2014 electoral battle in Bihar would hold the key to the country's future politics.

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