2020, Bihar 2020, Column, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020: Naya Bihar is down to Biharis, not to the state’s politicians alone

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.

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Bihar 2020, Journalism, Telegraph Calcutta

Tejashwi Yadav emerging from Laloo Yadav’s Shadows: Why he has become the most watched Bihari leader this season and what that could mean

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.

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2015, Bihar, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate

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).

Continue reading “The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate”
2015, Bihar 2020, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

I often get collared for criticising Bihar, but I do that only because of my investment in Bihar and Biharis

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?

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Bihar 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar 2020: Nitish Kumar Vs. Narendra Modi Redux?

Is this going to be a de facto battle between the state’s ruling allies? Read on, and never exclude a twist in this tale

A sour irony is descending upon Nitish Kumar, aiming for a record fourth straight term as Bihar chief minister — his main ally, the BJP, is emerging as main opposition to his ambition.

As the Assembly polls near, the BJP appears less and less a coalition partner, more and more a challenger trying to manoeuvre itself into the driver’s seat and dictate power post-election at the expense of Nitish’s Janata Dal United (JDU).

Sunday’s decision by Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to reject Nitish as leader of the NDA in Bihar is a proxy ploy by the BJP not only to erode the chief minister of agency as unchallenged alliance leader, but also to chip away at his tally in the new Assembly to a degree that he is left emaciated.

Officially, the BJP still maintains Nitish will be the face of the NDA’s campaign, but it is apparent the chief minister is a placard the BJP is preparing to maim, even discard. Irrespective of the party’s official position, the LJP’s anti-Nitish overture isn’t without the BJP leadership’s endorsement; it is more likely a concerted move.

Chirag Paswan, put in charge of negotiations by his ailing father, met BJP president J.P. Nadda last week in the presence of home minister Amit Shah, the de facto party boss.

Long reined-in, the BJP’s renewed aspiration to pilot power in Bihar has been fed in no mean way by the limp RJD-led gathbandhan. Drubbed in two successive Lok Sabha elections and minus the stage and backroom abilities of Lalu Prasad, the gathbandhan (the Congress and the Left parties are part of it) holds out little promise of making a fight of it.

Continue reading “Bihar 2020: Nitish Kumar Vs. Narendra Modi Redux?”