Or, why the “Naya Bihar” story still awaits the courtesies of its people
Excerpt Three from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to Elections 2020
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.
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 gone, 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 leave 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, the road’s toll-free. 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 deck, 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.