Driving about in North Bihar: The countryside lies liberally sign-posted with the clarion of a flaming war — hunkar! khabardar! lalkar! parivartan!
From the ultra Left CPI(ML) to the ultra unpredictable Laloo Yadav to the ultra nationalist Narendra Modi, a multitude of armies is laying siege to Nitish Kumar’s shaken bastion. A tussle unlike Bihar has seen in recent years is in the works.
At the Hajipur crossroads between the districts of Purvanchal and Mithila, Narendra Modi bears down a gigantic vinyl billboard, fist clenched, gaze belligerent, cry vociferous: “Hunkar Utha Bihar!” It may be no more than visual symbolism, but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s smiling visage on a welfare banner flutters dwarfed underneath. A rag-tag red flag party is filing past, en route to yet another rally in Patna.
It’s months to go for the Lok Sabha poll, but in Bihar the trenches have been dug. “Nayi khalbali machi hai rajneeti mein, gathbandhan tootne ke baad sabko chance nazar aa raha hai,” the Bihari street oracle has spoken almost before the question can be popped, “Bahut dangal hone wala hai.” (A new scramble has broken out in politics, after the alliance broke, everyone is seeing a chance, we are in for a freestyle bout.” Bitter this campaign will be, and for the combatants also wearying, but whenever have Biharis been averse to an extended dose of political drama? They are almost smacking their lips at what could lie in store.
Not far along the road running east of Hajipur, a wayside eatery has installed what’s evidently a brand new big-screen televison monitor in the main hall. “For cricket?” But of course, no; for the news. “Far more entertaining,” said Manoj Sharma, the owner, “Huge numbers gather when Narendra Modi speaks, and he is speaking somewhere every other day and someone is replying to him. Good for business to have this TV.”
The chowk and chaupal chatter is clearly dominated by the newest entity to come dropping into this eddied crucible: Narendra Modi. He partly owes his pre-eminence on the discourse to the muse of censorship; Nitish was able to keep Modi proscribed from Bihar’s political stage so long, it whipped an exaggerated appetite for the man — what’s so special about him that he had to be barred all this time? what kind of speaker is he? Why can he not speak in Bihar as he does elsewhere?
Modi had become an enigma; more than just the BJP’s votaries had begun to want to explore it first hand: what’s this man all about?
His loud and explosion-ridden debut just over, a variety of reactions have begun to whirl around him — excitement, hope, bafflement, fear, even indifference. “Halla bahut hai Modi ka,” cautioned Dheeraj Kumar, pharmaceutical agent whose work routinely takes him to remote pockets of north Bihar, “There’s a lot of sound and fury around him but don’t forget he is not a local man, people vote on caste lines, and those lines are fairly rigid in Bihar, people have their favoured leaders, they don’t mind a bit of entertainment on the side.”
Deeper into the Musri-Gharari bazaar, where Dheeraj had stopped to grab lunch, Modi’s arrival on the scene was a matter of more positive notice. “A new man with new bold ideas,” said Manik Gupta, a hardware merchant, “People are tired of the same old leaders and the same old slogans, why not give him a chance? He makes me feel proud to be Indian, few other leaders do.”
Gupta’s circle of “people” evidently does not include Paritosh Mahto, an aspiring civil servant. “What does Modi mean for us? Does he even know our problems? You don’t become a leader by shouting and screaming from the stage, and that is what he does all the time. Has he walked even a kilometre of Bihar? Hawa ek cheez hai, zameen kuchh aur… A wind is one thing, the ground quite another.” But are the young not especially inspired by Modi? “Depends on what kind of young you are, and where you come from,” Paritosh retorted, “If you are in the town area, everyone is going crazy over Modi, it would appear. If you go into the villages, people are quieter, busy with their chores.”
The responses coming off the cluster of men gathered for afternoon prayers at a mosque near Muktapur were always going to be a no-brainer. “Hamen to pareshani hoti hai Narendra Modi ke aane se, saaf baat,” said Maulana Rahat Ali, motioning us off as if he feared getting into any discussion, “Jahan jaate hain haalaat hangami ho jaate hain, Allah bachaye.” (We are troubled with his arrival, plain thing to say. Wherever he goes there is tumult. May Allah have mercy on us.”
So who might the maulana be betting on to ensure temporal protection of his spiritual plea? Nitish Kumar? Lalu Prasad? The maulana isn’t yielding. “Ganeemat hai ki hamare rehnuma hain, abhi bas yahi.” (The solace is we do have patrons and protectors, for now just this.)
Might there lie a caution for Nitish that the Muslim elder didn’t resort instinctively to him, not even after his bitter split with the BJP, not for all his high-decibel jousting with Narendra Modi?
It is probably not without reason that when Nitish’s party delegates gathered at Rajgir at the start of the week, they appeared a dispirited lot, at a loss for where they were headed. It is probably for good reason, senior JDU colleagues found themselves compelled to sound an alarm — don’t take Modi for granted, don’t ignore voices from the ground, don’t insulate yourself from party ranks. Listen!, a crisis is upon us, heed its dare.
It troubles JDU ranks that they’ve lost an old and strong ally; it troubles them that their new foe is formidably led; it troubles them that their government has tripped time and again in recent months, and a sense is growing that it isn’t meeting aspirations it fed.
Perhaps Nitish turned pugnacious beyond his mien at Rajgir as much to rebut Narendra Modi as to recharge his party. Its a pitch he will have to maintain and amplify in coming weeks if he wants to keep abreast of his competition.