A report recalled from the Bihar campaign of 2015. Even then, the “outsider” Owaisi had a fifth column buzz about him. But he was clear and insistent his wasn’t a passing visit to the Muslim-preponderant Seemanchal region of Bihar. He stayed, and this time, in 2020, he won five seats in the Assembly.
There’s a bit of Hyderabad in Kishanganj. But only a bit, insists Asaduddin Owaisi, emir of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and, after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the most talked about outsider of this election.
Owaisi is by now weary and more than a little annoyed of the insinuation that defies banishment: that he is the Modi-Shah fifth column in Bihar, sent out to divide the minority vote and create cracks for the BJP to slip through. “Just look at how small our entry is, just six seats in one pocket,” he protests, “And I have openly declared that on the 237 seats that we are not contesting, people should support secular parties and defeat Narendra Modi. Am I conspiring to bring down the anti-Modi coalition with six seats?”
We are in Owaisi’s camp quarters, the charmingly christened “Chanchal Palace” – no royal estate, merely a mofussil hotel as un-palace like as it can get. Owaisi, looming of built, probably doesn’t fit straight on the beds they provide. It will be a while before he sets out for the day. He is kitted out in crisp whites, before he leaves he’ll pick one of several trademark striped sherwanis that hang on the wire curtain behind him.
He’s been here several weeks now, living out of a suitcase and a duffel, and a personal retinue that serves up traditional Hyderabadi fare once each day.
Why has he travelled so far from home to cough dust in this bereft Bihar outback? “For no other reason than to inform Muslims, and also Dalits, of another voice, another tone. I would not have been required to come here if parties that claim to espouse Muslim interests had been true to their word. Muslims have been used and cast aside, called to iftar parties and been bidden goodbye, that can’t work any more. I have come here to do duty, this is more than politcal, this is a social mission I have been driven to.”
Elections can be, in a manner of speaking, occasions for diagnosis and prescription —what’s wrong, what can right it. The people do it, and they do it very often with contrary, even conflicting, assessments of disease and cure. Bihar has lived a schizophrenia for three decades now, bossed in equal measure by two remarkably different men. One, a man of spellbinding charisma and chutzpah who came from nowhere to unleash a ruling manner all his own. Subaltern hero, unshakeable guardian of communal concord, a captivating political entity. But he was woefully lost on governance and often in abject abuse of power. The other, an introvert, almost babu-like of mien, a dour doer, who made correction and revival his mission, a power-beaver adept at locating the means to back his ambition. But he turned out a whimsical proposition, implacably averse to conference, loose on convictions and so spectacularly promiscuous to the purposes of personal power that he lost way and political credibility to the left and right of him. Neither Lalu Prasad nor Nitish Kumar brought to the table what they began by promising its people: ‘Naya Bihar’.
For the better part, this piece must be a repetition of things already said, for Bihar often seems struck by amnesia over its own sorry past; the more things refuse to change, the more they seem to forget what hasn’t, the more they remain swayed on the disarrayed booty of their unfulfillments. We can still be moved and motivated by the promise of drinking water, as if it were a promise of magical novelty.
The ‘Naya Bihar’ slogan is an old one. Every time it rings off a new throat, Biharis begin to stir with hope like only the hopeless can — this time, surely. They’ve discovered, unfailingly, that the shimmer that promised to relieve them of their scorched lives was a mirage, no more. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be a Bihari. I can begin to exult in the smallest things at home — 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, an office that isn’t a runaround, an officer who minds an office. Can that happen? And when that happens, will it last? The Bihari cheer always comes stained with doubt: how real or durable can any of this be? That doubt has reliably and regularly choked the prospect of cheer.
To emerge from the looming shadows of Lalu Prasad is a tough task; to begin to cast your own even tougher.
Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD, anointed heir to Lalu Prasad, has debunked punditry and prediction and given the lie to his own default lassitude to make a phenomenon of his campaign charge in Bihar.
Win or lose, this election Tejashwi has made himself the man to watch in Bihar beyond the conclusion of the current contest. There’s a mandatory caption to the images of Tejashwi amid rapturous throngs wherever he goes: Lalu remains a force to reckon with even from his continued banishment in jail.
Paradoxically, this also makes the RJD’s run on the ballot double-edged. The more Tejashwi is seen to be the aggressor-trailblazer, the more likely it is to consolidate the ranks of his adversaries.
The BJP might, in fact, be not too displeased to see a surging Tejashwi; a section believes it can feed off a revived RJD by fanning fears of a return to “Lalu raj”. The BJP remains Bihar’s largest single force, the most resourceful and the most adept at twisting the course of the campaign to suit its ends.
Tejashwi’s feisty barnstorming across the state has forced hectic revision of how he was earlier assessed by ally and adversary alike; suddenly, in the turn of a few weeks, there is no Bihari leader able to match his ability to pull crowds and swing them.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has been put deep in the shade with paltry pickings, unable to contain the vexation at the manner he is being thwarted. Tejashwi’s only real competitor at the hustings is a man not in the contest for Bihar — Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To many, Tejashwi’s abandon of manner on stage and the energy he is bringing to crowds is a reminder of Lalu in his heyday — in a marked change of mien, he isn’t delivering speeches any more, he is conducting a dialogue, his meetings have become raucous gigs.
Or, the roots of the animosity between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. Excerpt five from my book
In 2005, Nitish did not want Narendra Modi to come to Bihar to help with the campaign, not even after he fell short in the first elections in February. That defeat did not tempt him to import Gujarat’s rising star to see if he could add to the NDA kitty. Some in the BJP did suggest it, but Nitish rejected the offer out of hand. The anti-Muslim violence under Modi in 2002 and his subsequent defence of it — calling it a ‘natural reaction’ to the burning of a vestibule full of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra — Nitish believed was one of the reasons Vajpayee lost power in 2004, almost against the run of play. In 2002, Nitish did not part with the NDA, but he took his reservations to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who attempted feeble and oblique corrections. Vajpayee reminded Modi of the obligations of rajdharma, a concept of kingship that imbricates the great Hindu epics. The BJP, though, patted Modi on sans an ion of censure, and celebrated his politics of fracture in Gujarat. After the defeat in the national elections of 2004, Nitish argued, albeit only in private, that Modi had rudely shaken down what Vajpayee had assiduously built up — a liberal, secular temper of governance. ‘Poore Hindustan ke Musalmaan aur dharma-nirpekshtabkon mein bhay aur asuraksha ka message chala gaya Modi ki wajah se, NDA ko haani hui, divisive neta is desh ko acceptable nahin hai,’ … A message of fear and insecurity has gone out to Muslim and secular sections across the country because of Modi, the NDA has suffered. Divisive leaders are not acceptable to this country.
The one thing he had resolved ahead of coming to power was never to allow Modi anywhere near Bihar. Nitish had very different ideas of how he wanted to run the state, should he get the opportunity. When he got it, in November 2005, he presented the parameters of the alliance to the BJP. The alliance would run on a special arrangement: it would be guided by secular ideas and policies of the kind Lohiaite socialists espoused; minority protection and promotion would be one of its directive principles; the BJP or the Sangh would cease to press the Hindutva agenda; Bihar would remain off-limits for Narendra Modi’s politics.
Of course, none of this was written down, as such agreements between political parties seldom are; they are letters of trust notarized in the court of public opinion. Arun Jaitley and Sushil Modi, Nitish’s university friend, who became the deputy chief minister with charge of the finance portfolio, would be the executors of this compact on the BJP’s behalf; Nitish, already signed on as junior NDA ally, promised to play by the BJP’s national ambitions. Sanjay Jha was the intermediary between Nitish and Jaitley, ferrying messages to and fro, helping iron out what differences came up.
In Nitish’s first term, barely any arose. Jaitley and Sushil Modi remained honest to the coalition’s unwritten code, even through periods they may have had cause to quibble. Nitish reopened proceedings on the anti-Muslim violence of 1989 in Bhagalpur, a consequence of the BJP’s Ayodhya temple campaign. The guilty were located and punished. Properties sold by panic-stricken Muslims were restored to them or cash compensation handed out. The government also opened its purse-strings for minority welfare programmes. As finance minister, Sushil Modi signed the cheques; in the BJP’s annals, he must rank as the man who has handed out the biggest kitties to Muslims. He did so uncomplainingly and often at the cost of being chided by partymen.
By the by, that chiding turned to rebuke. During a leadership meeting in Delhi in 2008, some colleagues charged Sushil Modi with having become more loyal to Nitish than to the objectives of the party, of having turned the BJP in Bihar into a ‘subservient tool’ of Nitish. The chief minister is pursuing his political programmes and objectives, they complained, the BJP is at a standstill, it is not able to express itself, it is not able to expand, it has been reduced to Nitish’s ‘B’ team. Some of these voices belonged to party leaders from Bihar, men like Bhagalpur MP Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Sushil Modi turned to them and wondered if the party wanted to be part of the Bihar alliance at all? He underlined the framework under which the government ran and told his colleagues he would like to hear their views on whether they thought those terms worth their while. His critics went quiet, but that did not mean they were pleased. They wanted to control Nitish rather than be controlled by him, to dominate Bihar’s decision-making, its political discourse. Nitish was not even bothering to consult them, leave alone yield them space on government and governance matters. He was happy to deal with Sushil Modi and, in Delhi, with Jaitley. ‘What use is being part of a ruling coalition in Bihar,’ one BJP MP carped privately to me during that period. ‘What use is it when I cannot even recommend someone for a petty job, cannot assure a small contract, cannot manage to have a troublesome officer transferred? Nitish has hijacked this alliance and our own leaders have allowed him to.’
This lobby had its counterpart in Patna, equally irate, reduced to colourful cribbing: hum log is sarkar ke napunsak dulha hain, we are the impotent grooms of this government. Men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Naveen, both MLAs, men like Giriraj Singh, minister in Nitish’s government. Some of them had begun to spend time in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad as guests of the Gujarat government. Nitish had a good sense what was taking them on journeys across the subcontinent, what they might be coming back with. Narendra Modi was up to something, and he did not like the thought of it. But still it did not bother Nitish as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.
Excerpt Four from my book is a swivelling snapshot of what power and its sudden loss can do. Here’s Laloo Yadav at the height of his reign, and after losing it
It was a private coronation with a public message. Sometime in mid-1995, twenty-two years and nine children into their marriage, Rabri Devi decided to change her manner of referring to Laloo Yadav. She began calling him Saheb. All these years she had done with a common enough pronoun: eeh, the untranslatable third person singular Bihari wives are wont to use for their husbands. When they had got married in 1973, Rabri Devi had neither sense nor cause to call her husband Saheb. She was a village girl of fourteen and probably unaware of the weight of words. And Laloo Yadav was no saheb. He was, in fact, serving time at the other end of the social order, among those the sahebs lord over. He was a lowly employee of Patna Veterinary College, a clerk who brought tea to tables and carried files from officer to officer. Eeh sufficed.
Through several lightning leaps up the ladder of rank and fame, Rabri Devi had found no reason to alter Laloo Yadav’s domestic description.
Then, quite suddenly, after the assembly elections of 1995, she went on an urgent hunt for alternatives. Her husband had won a remarkable victory in the face of heavy odds, not least of which was the messianic Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, out with rockjawed determination to grab glory by enforcing a blemishless election in Bihar, the graveyard of free and fair polls. Seshan had choked the state with paramilitary forces. He had postponed elections four times. He made daily threats of countermanding the process altogether at the sight of the slightest misdemeanour. The campaign had become a duel between the chief election commissioner and the Bihar chief minister. Laloo Yadav had been relatively unbothered by the Opposition but Seshan had worried him. This scourge is meant to ensure people vote but he is going on postponing their opportunities to vote,” he would complain aloud at his daily morning durbar, issuing colourful threats that sent his audiences in raptures. “Seshan pagla saand jaise kar raha hai, maaloome nahin hai ki hum rassa baandh ke khataal mein band kar sakte hain” (Seshan is behaving like a raging bull, he does not know that I can tame him and tie him up and lock him among the cows in my shed). The night Seshan had faxed his fourth postponement order to the chief minister’s office from Delhi, Laloo Yadav had been a bit of a raging bull himself. He had called up the state’s chief electoral officer, a copybook bureaucrat called R.J.M. Pillai, and blasted him as only Laloo Yadav could. “Ei ji Pillai, hum tumra chief minister hain aur tum hamra afsar, ee Seshanwa kahan se beech mein tapakta rahta hai?” (Pillai, I am your chief minister and you are my officer, where does Seshan keep dropping in from?). Before Pillai could begin to stutter at the other end, the chief minister had let loose the second burst of fire. “Aur fax message bhejta hai! Ee amir log ka khilaona le kar ke tum log garib log ke khilaaf conspiracy karte ho? Sab fax-foox uda denge, election ho jaane do” (And he has the temerity to inform me on fax! You people are using expensive toys to conspire against the poor? I’ll send all your fax machines packing, let the elections be over).