Nitish's latest yatra: Silencing a million mutinies in Bihar

With his latest campaign to demand special status to Bihar, Nitish Kumar attempts to subsume social contradictions into the larger cause of Bihari sub-nationalism

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Ajay Singh | October 13, 2012




The post-monsoon Bihar is a treat to those eyes accustomed to watching concrete structures. Vast expanse of verdant greenery dotted with thick growth of trees is a telling tale of the state’s continued defiance to rapid and mindless urbanisation. But for those know Bihar too well, behind the eye-soothing vegetation lurks a “million mutinies”.

As chief minister Nitish Kumar takes to the street to drum up support for a special status for Bihar – his dream political project of subsuming social contradictions into the larger cause of Bihari sub-nationalism, he has been encountering these mutineers. If he found a group of utterly casteist and criminalised people in Khagaria who pelted stones on his carcade, he faced a revolt within when a group of bare-chested ABVP activists protested in Beguserai. In the course of his Adhikar Yatra (journey for the rights), Nitish is having no respite as even primary teachers are up against arms.

At first glance, it appears as if Bihar is under siege. However, Nitish is unfazed. As his bullet-proof SUV zooms past lush green fields washed by monsoon showers and densely populated villages on the road to Katihar, he declares rather philosophically: “What you are witnessing in Bihar will be the last hurrah of forces thriving on social tension and conflicts.” And he is pretty sure that the investigation into stone-pelting at Khagaria would prove his prediction. “It was a well-organised and orchestrated event by forces identifying themselves with primordial identities,” he pointed out.

Nitish gave enough indication that he would not take the challenge lying down. Despite his sore throat and running nose and much against the doctor’s advice, he continued his tour to Purnea, Katihar, Bhagalpur, Navada and other parts of Bihar to muster support for the grand rally on November 4 at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. The significance of the rally lies more in its political content than its size which is expected to surpass all records. Close aides of the chief minister expect that the rally would easily gather a crowd of more than ten lakh. There is little doubt that it will be a nightmare for Patna and its infrastructure to accommodate such a large influx. But Nitish has no doubt that the rally would be a defining moment for not only Bihar politics but the national politics as well.

“The massage has gone down well among people that the special status to Bihar would bring about prosperity in Bihar,” Nitish told me while travelling from Purnea to Bhagalpur. He is confident that notwithstanding protests and clashes that marred his journey in some places, the people are receptive to his political message: the demand for a special status to Bihar. In his Bhagalpur rallies, Nitish carefully explained the meaning of ‘special status’ in the most simple and understandable terms. “The special status means more money to the state which in turn would be spent for people, including for those demanding higher salaries from the government,” he told the audience. Resounding claps his formulation evoke is a clear indication of the resonance the message has created among ordinary people.

For the first time in Bihar, Nitish has launched an essentially political campaign whose central theme revolves around the pride of Bihari identity. And he is unrelenting in his campaign as he proposes to take the battle to New Delhi by launching a similar rally in Ramlila Maidan sometime in November-end.

Apparently, he is keen to take this battle to its logical end by identifying the centre (New Delhi) as the “other” which is hell-bent to keep “us” (Bihar) backward.

And those who vouched for Nitish’s skills in oratory should not be surprised to see him emerging as a firebrand demagogue. And in his campaign, he is relying heavily on history to prove that Bihar is wronged since independence. In particular, referring to his focus on special status to Bihar, he said, “Let there be a constitutional mechanism to decide on devolution of funds to the backward states.” Obviously, he is averse to the planning commission relying on the Gadgil formula for allocation of funds. He is also opposed to the idea of discussing this issue in the national development council (NDC). “The NDC is not the right forum to take up these issues,” he explained. In his view, an acceptable constitutional mechanism has to be evolved to allocate the backward states their rightful shares.

But will that not mean subsidising inefficiency? Such questions would see Nitish in his real element. “We are neither seeking subsidy nor are we inefficient. In fact, the policies have been skewed in favour of certain states since independence to the disadvantage of states like Bihar,” he pointed out. Apparently there is a feeling in Bihar sustained by a large section of Bihari intelligentsia and industrialists that this state is wronged by policymakers who favoured Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana and others at the expense of backward states. Given a preponderance of backward states and their heavy political weight in the national scenario, Nitish’s message is bound to receive support from West Bengal and Odisha as well.

There is little doubt that Nitish’s political project is daunting one. In one stroke, he has been trying to subsume innumerable social contradictions into the campaign for a sense of Bihari pride whipped up by a sustained movement for special status for Bihar. That is why he has been only occasionally referring to Lalu-Rabri sarcastically as “pati-patni (husband-wife)” as part of the “other” in his campaign. It is quite understandable that the new syntax crafted by a new set of political grammar spawned by Nitish has clearly stunned his friends and foes. A large section of the political class is still hitching on to old and worn-out idioms and playing out social contradictions in sheer desperation. However, Nitish seems to be identifying his new friends and new enemies to play a larger role for the future.

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