As Bihar enters another election season, here’s the first of select excerpts from The Brothers BIhari, the lives and times of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar and the state they have taken turns to boss for three decades now
Appan maath ke tetar kakro sujhaai chhai?
(Does anyone ever see the bump on their own forehead?)
Midway through the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign that would decimate both of them, Laloo Yadav vehemently asserted his rejection of Nitish Kumar. Journalist Madhu Trehan had brought her multimedia portal ‘Newslaundry’ team to Patna and persuaded Laloo to sit down for a live studio interaction that would be aired on NDTV. I was among those invited to the makeshift studio on the upper floors of Patna’s Maurya Hotel and I asked Laloo if he would, in order to fend off what he called the ‘grave threat’ of Narendra Modi, consider joining hands with Nitish Kumar.
He stared coldly at me a moment, as if I had tossed him an incredulous query, then said: ‘But I thought you knew Bihar, Thakurji. This man (Nitish) has been sitting all these years in the BJP’s lap, he unseated me from power, he is the BJP’s pet. How could you even ask if I will join hands with him? Out of the question, Laloo Yadav is here to fight communal forces and those that connived with them to serve their own interests. Hum Nitish se haath milayenge? Hunhh! Kabhi nahin, never.’
A year later, months short of the battle for the Bihar assembly, he quaffed the poisoned chalice and announced Nitish Kumar not merely a lost-and-found ally, but also his leader. Narendra Modi cannot be allowed to take Bihar, he said, he would ‘do anything’ to quash the head of the ‘communal serpent’. Even become number two to his chief political adversary in Bihar.
They began as socialist mates of youth, fell bitterly apart, fought the most fabled battles, said the most terrible things of each other, took turns vanquishing each other and lording over Bihar. Now, panicked by the threat that the Narendra Modi juggernaut will come to roll across Bihar yet another time and snatch from them their realm, they were together again, two rivals in a desperate SOS clinch to save it. An unlikely, unwieldy tandem, but all the same a most engrossing one, chalk and cheese trying to smelt an uncertain alloy as battlement against the formidable siege laid by Prime Minister Modi’s BJP.
They seemed no longer masters of the Bihari game they once were, Laloo and Nitish.
In October 2013, Laloo had been convicted in the fodder scam and been virtually debarred from the electoral arena for life; unless a higher court overturns that sentence, Laloo will not be able to contest polls or hold public office until 2024. His eldest daughter Misa, the only one of the clan to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election, was beaten by his former lieutenant Ram Kripal Yadav. His two sons, Tejeswi and Tej Pratap, equally keen to inherit the father’s twisted crown, weren’t of age yet; neither gave any hint they possessed their father’s genius for the political stage. He headed a dwindled party and a demanding family.
Nitish kept his family banished from politics, but he was in a trough of his own making. Since severing ties with the BJP on the Modi question in the summer of 2013, he appeared to have lost both focus and momentum as chief minister; his concern, suddenly, was not governance but survival. Under attack from his ally of nearly two decades, he moved to shore up his defences. Administration took a back seat, political manoeuvring gobbled up his attention. The battering at the hands of Modi in the Lok Sabha polls shook him up. He quit office, installed a Dalit from his menagerie called Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister and retreated from public vision. Mauled, he quietly licked his wounds. By the time he returned as chief minister, cajoled by partymen and having had to fight off Manjhi who had by then developed a fair appetite for power, another battle loomed in his face.
Had he made a mistake in jolting an alliance that had run smoothly for eight years, and given Biharis the hope that things could change? Had Nitish sacrificed Bihar’s interests in order to wage a personal battle against Narendra Modi? Had he jeopardized his own political future? Nitish suffered for breaking ties with the BJP, but it is unlikely he was unaware of the consequences when he finally took that plunge. He sees Narendra Modi’s mien and politics as so antithetical to his own, there wasn’t a common ledge between them. Modi was, to him, a divisive, sectarian leader who had fundamental quarrels with syncretic India. Modi cut such a radical contrast that Laloo Yadav, a man Nitish fought most of his life, whose brand of politics and governance he battled against, became suddenly more acceptable. For better or for worse, a life-long adversary as late-life ally.
Someday soon these men will slip out of these pages and become greater or lesser. There are no last words on lives; they end in ellipses, often suffixed with a question mark. The protagonists of this volume are a work in progress; when the last word has been written, a trail would already have leapt off it. There will be more to tell. Part of the charm and challenge of this pursuit has been the chase itself.
Laloo and Nitish together make a seamless continuum of the narrative of contemporary Bihar. Two of its great sons, who embossed the state with their imprint on either side of the millennium. One made a story of hope wantonly betrayed, the other ventured its unlikely kindling in the mire of collective cynicism and resignation. They make a strange diptych, Laloo and Nitish, a fracture of the same bone, separated by radical contrasts yet locked on the hinges by an uneasy sameness. For far too many reasons, understanding Laloo is critical to understanding Nitish, and very often the opposite is equally true. One significant change they have together wrought on Bihar is that, like in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, upper-caste dominance of politics has become a thing of the past. In the twenty-five years since Laloo came to power in 1990, the transfer of power hegemony from the minority upper castes to backward and Dalit representatives has become complete; that process is in irreversible stability, the pyramidal order of caste dominance turned on its head.
When I wrote The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar in 2000, Nitish Kumar was barely necessary to the narrative; he made sundry appearances, very often roaming the footnotes. By the time the book was revised and reincarnated in 2006 as Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav, Nitish occupied the better part of two new chapters. In 2006, Laloo was already gone a year from power in Bihar, swept aside by a dam-burst of unfulfilled aspirations; Nitish had begun to step ahead, squeezing Laloo out to the footnotes of the new Bihar story.
But should we call it that yet—The New Bihar Story? A part of me hesitates. A part of me celebrates. I am attached to the Bihar story because I was born a Bihari and proudly remain one. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be Bihari. I can begin to exult in small things—a length of pucca road, a stable hour of electricity, a school that has students and teachers in it, a health centre that isn’t padlocked. But the cheer always comes stained with concern. How far will the new road penetrate into the dark and flung corners of Bihar? How durable is any of this?
I have often found myself collared for being harsh on Bihar and its people, for using the advantage of exile to probe and expose warts I was privileged enough to have left behind. But it was also a wrench, as all departure from home is. There may well be merit to some of the carping that has come my way. But there is no merit, in my book, to romancing misdemeanour. I have often been tempted to quote to my critics passages from a speech the Nigerian Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe made to a Western audience in Paris. It was a discourse titled ‘Africa is People’ and it should rank as compulsory reading for anyone trying to understand the complexities of our world. I merely quote this: ‘I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings. And I am hard-headed enough to realize that we must not be soft on them, must never go out to justify them. But I am also rational enough to realize that we should strive to understand our failings objectively and not simply swallow the mystifications and mythologies cooked up by those whose goodwill we have every reason to suspect . . . I understand and accept the logic that if a country mismanages its resources it should be prepared to face the music of hard times.’ Bihar has much to learn, a long way to go. Its leaders alone cannot carry the burden of that journey, its people will have to.
Perhaps a good place to start would be to stop imagining the world to be shaped like a spittoon. The mouthfuls of masticated paan Biharis are wont to spit any and everywhere must rank high on the catalogue of uncivil liberties they feel entitled to. To have a dual-carriageway in Bihar is to find ways of violating the one-way regime, to wade your vehicle—four-wheel, two-wheel, bike or bullock-cart—in the face of oncoming traffic. To find a padded seat on the bus is an invitation to stab it and rip the foam. Correction: the delight of deflowering virgin foam is reserved for those who bother squeezing into the bus; the best seats are still on the top, whether or not the inside is entirely taken. The New Bihar Story awaits the courtesies of its people.
Bihar was never at a loss for those who set out to build it. In the narrow firmament of Bihari consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, Samaritans and messiahs. Srikrishna Sinha and Anugrah Narayan Sinha, JP and Karpoori Thakur, Ram Lakhan Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or in disregarded town squares as busts routinely shat upon by birds. For all the retrospective reputation they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.
Eighty per cent of Biharis have no access to toilets. A mere 16 and a few decimal per cent receive electricity at home when supply flows. Forty-three per cent of rural Bihar is still not connected to roads. Less than 10 per cent are able to use modern banking, and the Internet barely a per cent. A mere 7 per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided the lurch of development is. We could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only 10 per cent had a bank account and 80 per cent used cell telephony.
The depth of the poverty of these indices is best sensed by comparison to how they read till just a few years ago. These are vastly improved figures, buoyed by consistent double-digit growth under Nitish. Bihar topped national gross domestic product (GDP) ratings in 2011-12 at 11.3 per cent and yet it had a glancing acquaintance with subsistence. But Nitish’s decision to break with the BJP resulted in a setback to the process of building; politicking returned centrestage to Bihar after the summer of 2013, governance took a back seat. At the pronouncement of the twelfth Five-Year Plan in December 2012, the state topped all Indian states with a growth rate of 10.9 per cent, a stellar achievement considering it was buried at 2.6 per cent in 2005. But even with lead ratings, Bihar struggled to match up; Nitish’s predecessors had accumulated Himalayan deficits over the decades.
Of them, only Laloo Yadav endures. Laloo is probably the most charismatic leader Bihar has seen; and at the peak of his power in the mid-1990s, he seemed invincible. But like many a political giant heady on power, he let his hunger and arrogance get the better of him. He came pregnant with a magical promise and delivered hell. The unmaking of Bihar was not Laloo Yadav’s single-handed achievement, though. At that a whole gallery of rogues and duds had taken turns before him. But if Laloo inherited a mess in 1990, he contributed chaos to it, like a tornado visiting the ravages of a quake and mangling the remains. If history will judge him as singularly destructive, it will perhaps also be because he was so long at the job. Fifteen years. Not enough time to build Rome, but sufficient to devastate an already fragile masonry. Personally, he indulged in misdemeanour so rampantly he eventually had to be excised from elections and public office. Even so, he remains a force to reckon with, a man who can still bugle the support of a substantial following. Laloo too debuted as saviour-messiah, remember? All through the early 1990s hope surged around him, until he took fright and leave of his obligations and caged himself in his palace of power, the very 1 Aney Marg which he started to believe was his for keeps.
There is a fragment of personal history to this two-storey faux Tudor bungalow set in a five-acre estate that gets its name from Bihar’s second governor, Madhav Shrihari Aney. My grandfather, Pushkar Thakur, was its last occupant before Srikrishna Sinha, Bihar’s first chief minister, moved in in 1949 and appointed the premises the official residence of the state’s chief executive. Pushkar Thakur was then welfare secretary of the state and lived on the ground floor. Justice Abhay Pada Mukherjee of the Patna High Court was on the first. Sepia prints of that time in the family albums show flowerbeds and rattan chairs set in rolling lawns. When I first went into 1 Aney Marg in 1992, quite unaware my ancestry had been part of it, Laloo had banished the flowerbeds and erected a cattle-shed, his cows grazed on the acreage.
For thirty years, perhaps a little more, Nitish had drifted in Laloo’s shadow. When triumph came his way, all Nitish had to do was snatch the prize that was a thing of Laloo’s crafting, the invincible arithmetic of backwards, Dalits and Muslims. An overwhelming chunk of the vote that Nitish counts as his own today—the Janata Dal (United) vote minus the BJP’s upper-caste constituency—- is what Laloo consolidated in the first place. What Nitish did was to give that gift the truth of Louis Aragon’s surrealist maxim—the marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real. Nitish touched the contradictions in Laloo’s seed of empowerment, smothered the pulpit populism, and gave impetus to the governance chromosome. Where Laloo was happy to merely grandstand from the stage, Nitish burrowed himself and got down to the job at hand. There’s no better illustration of this than Bihar’s high annual growth figures between 2005 and 2013.
Nitish brought to Bihar overdue corrections. For far too long, Bihar has remained a nationally accepted metaphor for a basket case: Bihar, off the map, irredeemably lost. You must be Bihari to feel the rough rub of it—an identity as allegory to mockery. Made in Bihar, manufactured defective. I have an indelible memory of a report on Bihar by Trevor Fishlock in The Times of London during the early 1970s. He called the state the sewer of India. The stench of it still hangs somewhere within me.
For far too long, Bihar has been symbolic of all manner of Indian ills—disparity and disease, maladministration, institutional breakdown, feudalism, casteism, wanton crime, endemic corruption, political profligacy, public cynicism. If you wanted a quick tour of the worst of India, you took a trip to Bihar. Generations of journalists, Indian and foreign, travelled to Bihar to embellish their state-of-India reports with its graphic inefficiencies. Sometime during the middle of Nitish Kumar’s first term as chief minister beginning 2005,, that began to slowly change. He was named ‘Politician of the Year’ by several television channels, newspapers and society watchdogs after his first year in power; he kept winning that award year after year until it began to sound routine. The Economist, which had once called Bihar India’s armpit, paid tribute to Nitish’s helmsmanship in a report. The cheeky title said: ‘The Bihari Enlightenment: India’s most notorious state is failing to live up to its reputation.’ That eased some of the burden of Fishlock’s damning, though very apt, verdict of three decades ago.
Bihar will remain a keenly watched space, and not merely because of the forty seats it brings to the Lok Sabha. It will be watched for what becomes of Nitish Kumar, and of Laloo Yadav, two of the most engaging political figures to emerge on the national scene over the last quarter century, and what’s to follow should their era come to a close, or be interrupted. Part of the reason for putting this new volume together was, for me, to make available to the interested a perspective on how the last quarter century has gone by in the life of Bihar and how it may have impacted national politics.