Change Is In The Air

Change Is In The Air

by Surajit Dasgupta - Saturday, September 12, 2015 10:06 PM IST
Change Is In The Air

A report from the trenches as Bihar prepares for the election. As the two alliances face up to each other and turn abusive from Day One, what is clear is that this is going to be a very nasty fight.

Recently at the BJP and JD(U) headquarters in new Delhi, I interacted with a posse of electronic media journalists talking about Bihar. A majority of them hailed from the state, but, like me, are domiciled in Delhi for about two decades. I wanted to know from them what the electoral mood of their native place was like. They painted a rather uncertain picture while giving a slight edge to Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance. On asking them whether it was their impression or a field report, they said this was what their news channels were reporting. I inquired whether their reporters were based in Bihar. No, they said, their correspondents were all Delhi-based.

My visit to Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Hajipur and Patna, my talks with election ticket aspirants, the crowds at Prime Minister Modi’s rallies—and not merely my long familiarity with Bihar and Biharis—projects a different picture.


The driver who took me from Patna airport to the hotel that was to be my base in Bihar wants change. The one who drove me to Muzaffarpur wants change. The scores of people I talked to out of a lakh who assembled at the Chakkar Maidan of the trans-Ganga town to see Narendra Modi want change. Travellers in the passenger train to Hajipur I interacted with on the way back to Patna want change. People at the Hajipur auto-rickshaw stand want change…

As for BJP workers, no matter whom I asked for an estimate of the crowd size, they counted the figure in lakhs, even though the capacity of the venue was 80,000. The crowd in Gaya was even bigger, said my source in the Intelligence Bureau (IB). In Saharsa, it was 2.5 lakh with about 40,000 not being able to make it to the ground. On landing in Patna, I was told by a group of local social media activists that, while the “Modi wave” had not waned, it had not waxed either. But these numbers show no sign of people’s fatigue with Modi.

All around the first venue and on my way to it, I did not run into a single truck laden with people. The eager listeners are pouring involuntarily from across Bihar for all these rallies, say locals. I had seen them walking to the venue in hordes from the Muzaffarpur railway station and two intercity bus terminals even as residential areas were emptying, with everybody heading towards the ground.

They are unhappy with the Nitish Kumar government. Though he is still deemed Mr Clean—although not to the extent that Delhi-based commentators believe he is—they are apprehensive of a return of Lalu Prasad’s “Jungle Raj” under a JD(U)-RJD coalition government.

Intellectuals in Bihar point to the “neglect” Bihar has suffered from successive Central governments. The masses at large are sensitive to the refrain that poor Biharis migrate to better-off states in search of higher incomes; they want the government to invest/spend more in Bihar.

The social media activists who congregated for the Muzaffarpur rally from all over the country were badly hassled by the potholes on roads and abrupt jerks their SUVs withstood on the bridge over the Ganga, but building and maintenance of infrastructure like roads are sadly not high on an average Bihari’s list of demands. And BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi is certainly not the face of change they want to see after the Assembly election, should the NDA win. He was, after all, the Deputy Chief Minister when the NDA ran the Bihar government under which no great development initiatives were taken, though there was enormous relief when that dispensation cracked down on the rampant crime associated with the Lalu regime.

The heat was terrible at Muzaffarpur, but it could not dissipate the spirit of the people. When some could not bear it anymore, they took shelter beneath the trees but did not leave for home before the event was over.


After landing in Patna, I had tweeted that the condition I saw the place in was not different from what I had seen till 1989 (when I was a resident of Bokaro Steel City who frequently travelled to Patna, Darbhanga, Laheriasarai, Barauni and Purnea where some of my relatives lived). The capital of Bihar has several flyovers now, but they are in no way as well-planned as those in Delhi. They are more like the ones you see in Kolkata; once you are on top of a flyover, you are not sure of the relative placement of the landmarks of the city around that area.

In fact, after going around the place, I must say that the situation is worse than what I had witnessed for 14 years in the 1970s and 80s. Inside Patna, there is no last-mile connectivity. Only a reserved auto-rickshaw can take you to all destinations; the shared ones may leave you a half-to-a-full mile away from the doorstep you must reach; you have to walk that distance.

The busy streets in Muzaffarpur and Hajipur are ridden with potholes and the lanes in Patna turn muddy even after a drizzle. The state capital also has the dubious distinction of being named the dirtiest in the recent Swachh Bharat survey. If Patna is so awful, you can imagine the condition of the rest of the state.

There are quite a few parks I could locate in Patna that had been “beautified”. But the locals I spoke to were not impressed. They demand better utilisation of funds, and they allege that these parks are instances of the nexus between the state government, architects, contractors and builders.

As I said earlier, Biharis are not as impressed by Nitish Kumar’s “honesty” as the commentators in Delhi are. They also talk of antisocial elements in the JD(U), whose percentage is as woefully high as of those in other parties. And they would like the BJP to project someone other than Sushil Modi as the Chief Ministerial candidate—or project none at all— because he was the Deputy Chief Minister when Nitish Kumar was on a “development” spree.

My traveling companion, social media activist Rakesh Ranjan explained what Lalu Prasad’s “Jungle Raj” meant. “In 2002, all ATMs had their shutters down,” he said, describing a spate of dacoities and murders that took place around these locations just after bank customers had withdrawn cash. “In 2010, when I visited Patna again, I saw all ATMs open. That’s the only change Nitish Kumar brought in.”

Ranjan and his friend Panchdeo Pandey, another social media activist, had many other horror stories to tell. This one is on the state of infrastructure and basic amenities: “If a villager in Bihar falls ill at night, he must survive till the next morning. Then he must survive the roads to the hospital,” they said.

The people are poor, very poor—poorer than an average slum dweller in Delhi. Reminiscent of my years in Kolkata, I found some of them quarrelling with auto-rickshaw drivers to save a rupee on the fare demanded.

Bihar’s farmers, when I visited in late July, were anxiously waiting for the passage of the amendments to the land acquisition law so that their latest generation can get industrial jobs. That was, by the way, the only bottom-up approach they appreciated. Otherwise, they insisted that Bihar is backward because all Central governments neglected it, while not hesitating to exploit its resources. However, their hopes have since been dashed.

Every Bihari wants infrastructure growth. But the irony is that while he says caste is an overriding factor that can trump Modi’s development plank, none of them is ready to shun caste. He wants the NDA to put up candidates judiciously, keeping in view the vote banks.

Bihar is also a typical socialist state where politicians are perceived with great cynicism, yet the government is the solution they seek!

We have all studied in schools why Africa was once called “the dark continent”. For similar reasons, Bihar is a dark state. It’s working demography badly needs strata other than a high percentage of IAS officers and a higher percentage of daily-waged labourers. No “package” can do to Bihar what the Suez Canal did to Africa. The industry is a must. The model has to be bottom-up and not top-down.


Aware of the realities of Bihar, the NDA has been rallying on stage a line-up of faces representing various castes, especially the so-called downtrodden (OBCs and Dalits): from Ram Vilas Paswan to Jitan Ram Manjhi (both SCs) to Upendra Kushwaha (MBC who regard themselves as Kshatriyas) to Nand Kishore Yadav (OBC). Rajiv Pratap Rudy is a Rajput. Sushil Kumar Modi is a Bania. BJP’s Bihar unit president Mangal Pandey is a Bhumihar Brahmin. Union Ministers Jayant Sinha and Ravi Shakar Prasad are Kayasthas. With Narendra Modi— a Gujarati OBC—as the alliance’s mascot, the NDA in Bihar looks like a caste kaleidoscope.

And given the constant complaint of “neglect” by the local people, the Prime Minister reminds the audience again and again that his council of ministers has more than a good representation from Bihar.

If right wing social media users have been lamenting the fact that the leaders of the BJP did not fan out across the country to explain to the people why the NDA’s amendments to the UPA’s land acquisition law were badly needed, the issue was addressed at the Parivartan rallies organised by the ruling coalition. Before the arrival of the Prime Minister, several BJP leaders explained to the people the proposed changes in the law in as lucid a manner as possible. The simplest of them was “a plot of land worth Rs 1 lakh will fetch you Rs 4 lakh”. This was being heard from every stage.

And it was striking a chord with the audience. With public support appearing to grow, Union ministers are now gathering the courage to tell the people that Nitish Kumar has failed to stop the exodus of the workforce out of Bihar. Mind you, if worded carelessly, this would sound like a Raj Thackeray questioning an Indian’s right to move, settle and work in any part of India.

There are two refrains in the BJP’s “parivartan” campaign:

Nitish Kumar has a big ego.
He will bring back Lalu’s Jungle Raj.

One was not sure the first could pay electoral dividends, given the fact that Indians are now used to personality cults in politics. That the Bihar Chief Minister “betrayed” the BJP cannot, again, be a problem of the masses. However, in Saharsa, the Prime Minister gave an example of how a leader’s ego could harm his people. He recalled the occasion when the Nitish Kumar government had returned the relief amount sent by Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat following devastating floods in the Kosi river.

In Muzaffarpur, the PM said, “Aapne ek vy- akti ke prati gusse mein aa kar ke poore Bihar ki vikas yatra ka gala ghont diya” (To vent your anger with one person, you halted the progress of Bihar). He said Bihar had entrusted upon Nitish Kumar the task of extricating the state from the “Jungle Raj” of the Lalu-Rabri regime, but the Chief Minister was now allying with the same party. This certainly is a better argument than telling the people again and again, which other NDA leaders did, that Nitish had betrayed their coalition government.


Narendra Modi’s uncharacteristic appearances in the rallies underscore the importance of caste politics in Bihar. Scheduled speakers on the dais keep speaking one after the other even after the Prime Minister arrives by helicopter. This is unlike what one had witnessed in public meetings since the day he was made the BJP’s— and then NDA’s—Prime Ministerial candidate. The organisers had to ask every leader to wind up their speeches before Modi arrived on stage. Even if it meant that the leader sulked.

The difference in Bihar is that here we do not merely have leaders lined up who could sulk if not given a chance to speak. Here we have entire castes that would sulk along with their “representatives”.

And these contractors of castes have tasted blood. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) have demanded 80, 60 and 67 seats from the NDA alliance respectively. In the 243-seat Bihar Assembly, it leaves the BJP with a ridiculous 36 seats—even lower than the 102 seats it used to contest in as an ally of the JD(U). Obviously, these demands will not be conceded. The BJP’s internal assessment is that the alliance will win at least 140 seats in the elections while it wants to stake claim for about 170 nominations. Manjhi could be marginalised as most MLAs who had supported him in the power struggle with Nitish Kumar have already joined the BJP.

At the time of going to press, it seemed very likely that BJP would contest 160 seats, LJP 36, HAM 21 and RLSP 18, with eight seats still being negotiated.

But, while this caste line-up and zeal of the crowds may please the organizers of the rallies, the BJP has no room for complacency. It might well have to tackle the displeasure of sub-castes like Mayawati has been confronted with for the past few years. In Uttar Pradesh, all Dalit castes complain that their star leader favours Jatavs, her own caste. They have, therefore, drifted to other electoral choices. In Bihar, there is a subdued feeling among the downtrodden classes that the Paswans have appropriated the Dalit legacy. Since Musahars are not the only Maha Dalits as classified by Nitish Kumar, others might feel the gamut of privileges the NDA can offer to Maha Dalits are being exploited by Musahars alone.

What the BJP state unit’s leaders are indeed disturbed by is the former Deputy Chief Minister’s “propensity to plant stories in the media to project himself as the most eligible Chief Ministerial candidate”, as an organiser of one of the Parivartan rallies confided in me. Whether or not the reports about the BJP in local Hindi newspapers are “planted”, they indeed give an impression that Sushil Modi is the only leader the party has. All have pictures of him prominently displayed alongside his charges against the ruling JD(U).

Nitish Kumar’s position is weaker but seldom talked about. He is not even an MLA; he is an MLC. His career betrays rank opportunism, but also good luck and perhaps better bargaining skills.

In all the elections the JD(U)-BJP alliance fought in its 17 years of togetherness, the smaller partner of the coalition always won a larger percentage of the seats it contested in, said former BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, who was part of many of those negotiations.

Nitish’s colleagues who had helped him get those good deals are all gone. They include one of the tallest trade union leaders the country saw in the last century, George Fernandes, who is now in a vegetative state. Prabhunath Singh fell out of Nitish Kumar’s favour when the Chief Minister grew wary of the former’s increasing influence in the party. His most vociferous lieutenant Shivanand Tiwari was thrown out unceremoniously a few years ago.

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s fate is all the more precarious. Convicted for his involvement in the fodder scam, he cannot contest in these elections. Since other members of his clan, including his wife and former Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi, are not believed to be vote catchers, the Yadavs, out of the formidable Muslim- Yadav vote-bank the RJD rode on for long, are disoriented.

It’s more so because Lalu’s brother-in-law Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav has long revolted and floated his own outfit, and is now an ally of the BJP. His Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) has an impressive following in the eastern and north-eastern parts of Bihar.

And the latest cause of worry for the “secular” alliances is the entry of Asaduddin owai-si’s Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (MIM) in the fray. As proven in Maharashtra recently, candidates of the Owaisis may not win a lot of seats, but they can certainly upset calculations in constituencies, bagging a chunk of Muslim votes.

On asking whether first-time voters would know or remember what Bihar under Lalu Prasad used to be like, the locals I spoke to said that the people of this politically conscious state get interested in the affairs of governance very young in their lives. Young voters should be retaining memories of the rampant loot, kidnapping, extortion and political murders under Lalu and then his wife Rabri, since many would have been in their teens in the period 2000-2005.

To add to Lalu’s woes, the investigative website Cobra Post recently revealed that upper caste militant outfit Ranvir Sena had carried out six massacres with the help of the local administration between 1995 and 2000 when either Lalu or his wife was the Chief Minister.


Lalu Yadav has reacted to Narendra Modi’s acronym that RJD stood for “Rozana Jungle-raj ka Darr” (Living every day in fear of the return of the jungle raj). He said BJP stood for “Bharat Jalao Party” (Burn India Party) and PM Modi was “Kaliya nag”, the demonic serpent that Lord Krishna killed. RJD spokesman Manoj Jha has said that a man who “officiated over genocide in Gujarat” had no moral right to question Lalu’s regime. But this counterattack will not wash as the riots of 2002 have no bearing on Bihar or they have simply been forgotten.

By the time the election draws close, the jibes and their counters might be forgotten. But people with a taste for Hindi classical literature have enjoyed Nitish taking a dig at Lalu, with a Doha (couplet) of Abdurrahim Khankhana:

Jo Rahim uttam prakriti, ka kari sakat kusang/ Chandan vish vyapat nahin, lipte rahat bhujang (If your nature is good, bad company can’t affect you, like a sandalwood tree does not get poisoned.)

Nobody believed Lalu Prasad when he said the lines must have been directed at the JD(U)’s old ally BJP. Nitish Kumar had preceded the Doha with the phrase, “Bihar’s development is my sole agenda,” which can only imply that he was referring to the present times and not the past, and therein he was suggesting he could develop Bihar despite the baggage of Lalu.

Disturbed by Nitish Kumar’s discomfiture in working with Lalu Prasad, Bihar Congress President Ashok Choudhary quoted another couplet by the same poet:

Rahiman dhaaga prem ka, mat todo chat- kaay/ Toote to phir na jure, jude gaanth par jay (Do not snap the thread of a loving relationship. It never joins after breaking; and if you try to join the parts, it leaves you with a knot.) Choudhary is concerned that taunts exchanged between Nitish and Lalu are leaving the cadres of allies unsure of the alliance’s future.

Meanwhile, adopting Narendra Modi’s tactic in Gujarat where he would project every attack by the Congress on him as an affront to six crore Gujaratis, the Bihar Chief Minister has tried to pay him back in the same coin by spinning the Prime Minister’s “DNA” comment as an insult to all Biharis. “Modiji says my DNA is bad. Since I am a son of Bihar, my DNA is Bihar’s DNA. Now I leave it to the people of Bihar to respond to the man who says their DNA is bad.” PM Modi had actually used the term “political DNA” in his speech.

Rather hilariously, Nitish has vowed to collect DNA samples of 50,000 Biharis and send it to the Union government, seeking an explanation as to what is wrong with the “Bihari DNA”.

Not to be cowed down, Bhojpuri singer Manoj Tiwari, who is the BJP MP from Delhi’s North East Lok Sabha constituency, said he was amazed that an educated Chief Minister of Bihar did not know that DNA could tell a person’s parentage, not his character, class or clan. Buoyed by the taunt, his followers on Twitter asked for several days on end whether Nitish Kumar was not sure who his father was!

At the Prime Minister’s end, Modi is using “tweet” as a pun. He mocked the Chief Minister who had once questioned his engagement in social media. “Woh bhi chahakne lage hain” (he has begun chirping, too), Modi said during the Muzaffarpur event.

Modi reminded Nitish Kumar that the latter had vowed not to seek votes for his party again if he failed to provide Bihar with 24-hour electricity supply, and questioned how he still had the gall to campaign for the coming elections. Incidentally, there was power outage in Muzaffarpur since 9 am that day. My mobile phone’s battery had drained out and I scouted the underdeveloped town after the rally. On my way to the railway station, no shopkeeper could help me get the device charged.

Lalu Prasad has also been lamenting the lowering of standard of the political discourse. He said, “What do BJP and RSS know about the struggles of those who go to jail? Falsehood, deception, cunningness and division in society are their means of livelihood.”

In a Facebook update, he likened himself to Lord Krishna, saying, “I belong to the clan whose Lord was born inside a prison, who, on emerging from incarceration, slew the unjust, sinful, hypocrite Kansa.”

This is in the league of Mithun Chakraborty’s 1980s Bollywood flicks where, whenever he was questioned about his record in police registers, he would reply: “So what? Mahatma Gandhi had been to jail, too!”


After the first Parivartan rally, Nitish Kumar had noted acerbically, “After 14 months Modiji finds time to visit Bihar,” and complained that the PM’s old promises were yet to be honoured. He raised seven issues, of which two relate specifically to Bihar: “You promised special status for Bihar. Fourteen months and people are still waiting,” he tweeted. In another tweet, he said, “With 14th finance Commission report and withdrawal of BRGF, Bihar to lose 50,000 cr in 5 years. Is this your cooperative federalism?”

Aware that the people of Bihar by and large believe that the condition of a state improves when money pours in from the top, Prime Minister Modi stressed on Rs 50,000 crore aid from the Centre to Bihar “and more” in Muzaffarpur. In Saharsa, the PM increased the amount to Rs 1.25 lakh crore. Nitish Kumar dismissed the announcement as “repackaging”, but the catch lies elsewhere. The JD(U) government was actually looking for “special status”, meaning loan waivers and moratoriums on repayments, and not a “special package”. Given that 50 percent of the cost of all state projects is borne by the states, it means Bihar is being pushed to invest an equal amount of Rs 1.25 lakh crore in infrastructure.

That is, if, say, the Centre is spending Rs 54,713 crore on constructing 2,275 km of national Highways, bridges and rail overbridges, Bihar must spend another Rs 54,713 crore on the same. Similarly, the Bihar government has to spend Rs 21,476 crore on Barauni Refinery, a petrochemical plant, gas pipelines, LPG plants and petrodiesel pipelines from Raxaul to Nepal—because the Centre is spending as much on these projects.

This way, twice of Rs 16,130 crore will go into the 1,300 MW Buxar power plant and electrification of the dark parts of the state; twice of Rs 13,820 crore will fund the construction of 22,500 km rural roads; twice of Rs 8,870 crore on doubling and tripling of 676 km of railway tracks and electrification of 574 km of rail lines; and so on. The Ganga cleaning project is the only one where this 50 per cent clause does not apply.

The Union government is not willing to offer even this “package” to the current state government. At the Muzaffarpur rally, Union Skill Development Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy said in Bhojpuri, “Bandar ke haath mein nariyal ham-ni naikhe deb”, using a popular local idiom—We won’t hand over coconuts to monkeys.

But the “loss” of Rs 50,000 crore that Nitish Kumar foresees had been rubbished by Rao Inderjit Singh, Minister of State (Independent Charge) Statistics and Programme Implementation, Planning and Defence, in the Rajya Sabha way back in April.

He had explained how after NITI Aayog replaced the Planning Commission and states began receiving 10 percent more revenue, Bihar was to gain Rs 10,000 crore a year.

Let’s hope the BJP means that, with the help of the Bihar government that they hope to form post-elections, they would create a state that investors from across the country would be interested in, rather than a state to which the Centre keeps offering “packages” to no avail.

It is doubtful Nitish Kumar’s idea of sticking to the “DNA” issue will pay at the hustings. He has no answer to questions like this one every Bihari is asking.“Where is the electricity, Mr Good Governance? Was restless the whole night in humidity, and since the power supply resumed this morning, there have been three outages,” says a tweet posted on 9 August.

While Nitish Kumar is on an overdrive to inaugurate flyovers, the BJP is announcing one scheme for Bihar after another. Interestingly, the JD(U)’s flyovers are architectural nightmares, and BJP’s promises are reiterations of old commitments.

The Daniyawa-Biharsharif Railway line, a new IIT in Patna, inauguration of the Jagdishpur-Haldia gas pipeline project, and establishment of the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana (rural electrification scheme), and so on, have either been in the pipeline since the NDA formed the central government or they are fulfilment of promises made in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s era.


Conventional wisdom may go for a toss in the Bihar elections. Modi’s hallmark has always been the ability to defy television, pundits.

Gaya saw in him the version people witnessed in the first five months of 2014. He spoke of education, electricity and tourism. Modi spoke of ideas of transforming a lagging province and getting rid of the BIMARU tag. Paswan and Manjhi harped again on caste, but no BJP leader did. Not even Upendra Kushwaha or Nand Kishore Yadav.

Nitish Kumar said recently that investors would be attracted to Bihar if the Centre were to give it special status. With Lalu by his side, the hypothesis turns far-fetched. It is scary to be a businessman in Bihar if Lalu is at its helm. The Chief Minister must instead rue the fact that his government was stuck with policy paralysis much before the Manmohan Singh dispensation was afflicted by it at the Centre.

At a personal level, I would place Nitish in the league of many communist and socialist friends I have: they are honest to a T. That “honesty” has been the albatross around Nitish’s neck. He never gave a contract to a business house, lest somebody accuse him of corruption! How can you develop a province like that? By the spectacle of PWD-built flyovers?

Nitish Kumar must ask his friend Arvind Kejriwal; 10 times as many flyovers and the beautification drive during the build-up to the Commonwealth Games could not save Sheila Dikshit’s government.

BJP’s assessment of the situation is very close to reality. The NDA can well get there if Sushil Modi is not allowed to manipulate matters and the allies are not given to fighting a number of seats beyond their wherewithal.

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