2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

From Gujarat Into Bihar: After the Mahatma, Narendra Modi

Recently in Patna: Not since Indira Gandhi has any non-Bihari come to dominate the state’s political discourse as the BJP’s prime ministerial pick from the far end of the country, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi.

The central clue to Modi’s pre-eminence on the poll run is merely this: both Bihari protagonists, chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JDU, and predecessor Laloo Yadav of the RJD, have all but forsaken cognition of each other and narrowed focus on Modi as their chief adversary, the man to beat in this summer’s Lok Sabha election.

Nitish brought his protracted quarrel with Modi to a head last June, severing his 17-year tryst with the BJP even at the cost of losing majority on the assembly floor and losing out on the support of key upper caste sections. “Modi is a socially divisive and economically non-inclusive politician, a threat to pluralist India,” Nitish has repeatedly remonstrated in advocacy of his decision. More recently, as battle-lines sharpened and stakes rose, he has also been driven, in unlikely fashion, to pit himself in the race for prime ministership.

Laloo, on the other hand, has mocked Nitish’s “secular” avatar, emphasized his long conjugality with the BJP and foregrounded himself as the vanguard of the battle against Modi. “History will tell you, and the future will prove, the strength and force to fight communal and fascist forces like Modi resides in me, none else. I stopped (L.K.) Advani’s communal rath in Bihar, Nitish was the one who flagged it off again, tell me what credibility does he have?”

The battle for Bihar is not among Biharis, as it has been for more than a quarter of a century; the battle for Bihar has become a battle with an insistent, and visibly irrepressible, outsider. The state may, in fact, seem to mirror a medieval India paradigm — divided home armies up against an aggressive interloper. “Modi is probably pleased no end he is marching in to a bitterly divided opposition in Bihar,” remarked a Patna-based academic and social sector activist who wished not to be named, “In fact, the local BJP should be grateful they have someone like Modi at the helm in these elections, minus-Modi, the BJP in Bihar isn’t up to much.”

He’d touched off another clue to why an outsider has come to soar over the battlements being readied in Bihar. The Bihar BJP, though not shorn of talent or experience, doesn’t possess a protagonist to match either a beleaguered Nitish or a convicted Laloo. A senior BJP leader admitted as much. “We have a ready vehicle in the state, we are well organised. We may even have a driver in SuMo (the former deputy chief minister in the Nitish government, Sushil Modi) but the horsepower to match Nitish and Laloo is only coming from NaMo. Itna jaan leejiye, bina NaMo ke, Bhaajapa kitna bhi cheekhti-chillati, Bihar mein jada kuchh kar nahin paati…Remember this much, however hard the BJP may have screamed and shouted, without Narendra Modi in Bihar it would not have been up to much.”

Nitish and Laloo have alike contested Modi’s sustained lead in opinion surveys and the catching murmur of a Modi wave in Bihar. They’ve put it down to “noise of the chattering classes” and very often, to “corporate influence” on mainstream and social media. Both camps appear charmingly persuaded by the “silent voter” punching Modi a surprise rebuff on the voting machine. But Modi’s centrality neither is able to deny, implicitly or explicitly.

Senior observers of Bihar recall two non-state actors who have come to dictate, even dwarf, the local menagerie in the modern era. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, beginning with his Champaran offensive of 1917 and thereon through the freedom movement. And then Indira Gandhi with her “Garibi Hatao” populism of the early 1970s and her post-Bangla liberation “Durgavataar”, through to the abrogation of Emergency in 1977. When she was returned to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi resumed her domineering posture, picking and packing off Bihar chief ministers at will. But since the late 1970s it has been a barely-interrupted run of Bihari suzerains — Jaya Prakash Narain, Karpoori Thakur, Jagannath Mishra, Laloo Yadav, Nitish Kumar. Modi’s appearance on the stage — no less bellicose for Nitish’s eight-year banishment of the Gujarat chief minister from these parts — could well break that chain.

Saibal Gupta of Patna’s Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) is reminded of quirky parallels to the unfolding Bihar scenario. “There was one Gujarati called Mahatma Gandhi who came to loom over the landscape in the last century,” he said, “Now, in the new century we have another Gujarati in the person of Narendra Modi who seems to be all over the place.” Gupta couldn’t resist a piquant quip to his analysis, though. “The first Gujarati we call Mahatma made history in Bihar, this second one is trying to repeat it, but his intervention on the electoral scene may well end up hurting Bihar’s hallmark pluralism, who knows. I am unable to tell whether this repeat of history will turn out as tragedy or farce.”

In the immediate, at any rate, it will only turn out as verdict of the people. Modi is in the midst of a fierce push to overrun Bihar and the effort is for nobody to miss. His campaign has achieved industrial gauge to the cottage-industry effort of his rivals: a rash of rock-concert scale rallies amplified electronically to present and faraway audiences, overheated social multi-media platforms chugging 24/7, many more acre-lengths of vinyl bill-boarding than all the competition put together: Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar! Everywhere you turn in Bihar, that slogan resonates. A colleague who returned last week from a down-to-the-ground trip across the Saran home patch of Laloo Yadav sounded like he hadn’t surprised himself like that in a while: “Everywhere there’s talk of Narendra Modi, it’s like a chant coming at you on the road, in trains, in the qasba bazaars, even in villages,” he gushed, “Modi is the one man everybody wants to talk and hear about. Could it be merely curiosity? Kuchh ajeeb hoga is election mein…Something strange will happen in this election.”

It is probably attestation of that mood that by far the heftiest gains of pre-election floor crossing in Bihar belong to Modi and the BJP. Nitish and Laloo have poached on each other with meagre benefit. The JDU snatched D.P. Yadav, Ghulam Gous and a handful of RJD legislators. The RJD re-acquired the formidable infamy of Pappu Yadav (cleared by the Patna High Court last year of the murder of CPM leader Ajit Sarkar) and the rather insignificant Bhagwan Singh Kushwaha. The BJP, by contrast, has extracted chunky pounds of flesh: the entirety of Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and its Pasi voter-base, Laloo’s right-hand veteran, Ram Kripal Yadav, and Upendra Kushwaha formerly of the JDU.  Last week, it also plucked out Nitish’s industry minister Renu Kushwaha. “This is weather-vane season,” a top JDU MLA who is himself in a dilemma over jumping ship to the Modi armada wading into Bihar, “Look up and you’ll know which way the wind is blowing.” Up from where we stood on a central Patna crossroads was a mammoth image of Narendra Modi bearing down.

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