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Benighted Bihar's misfortune

"Political wisdom" is progressively being transformed into an oxymoron in India, and events in Bihar are a constant and dramatic reminder of this collapse of intelligence. This has been a long, sustained, relentless process, and there have been few and diminishing exceptions to this trend. Nevertheless, behind what appears to be the ordinary play of partisan politics, there are deeper struggles that are being played out in the country, and these will have far reaching consequences - including some startling outcomes for parties that fail to adapt to the undertow of surface events.

A sitting Minister of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government at Delhi is reported to have alleged that Bihar MLAs were offered Rs. 3 crore each by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - along with a number of other benefits, such as cabinet berths and MLA tickets for their wives - in their efforts to form a Government in that benighted State. As with all such allegations, there is little evidence for such transactions, but they will nevertheless be widely believed. That is because such horse-trading has become routine in hung assemblies, and, in any event, the credibility of politicians has fallen so low that the public is altogether willing to believe the very worst about them.

There is a temptation to say that this does not matter. Even where evidence is ample, as was the case in the transactions between Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MPs and the Narasimha Rao dispensation at Delhi in July 1993, nothing comes of it, since the legal system appears impotent to address the issue of political corruption. But Shibu Soren has certainly paid a political price for the "JMM bribery case", as was evidenced by his electoral misfortunes in the State that he did so much to create, and by his failure to cobble together a Government in March this year, even after he had been sworn in as Chief Minister and despite particular efforts by the Congress and a partisan Governor to secure this outcome. There is increasing evidence that political opportunism and the general commerce in MLAs and MPs, while it has certain short term personal and partisan benefits, inclines to be politically counter-productive in the medium and long term.

But the current contretemps in Bihar are not just about the allegation of proposed payoffs to MLAs - an allegation that has been endorsed, among other persons of some prominence, by the Prime Minister, who spoke of "horse-trading of the worst type". Indeed, there is much to suggest that developments in Bihar had begun to threaten the ruling alliance at the Centre, and it was more this threat of destabilization that provoked the abrupt dissolution of the State Assembly. But in this, the UPA has once again endorsed the "rule by proxy" of former Chief Minister and India's current Railway Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav - and this is a decision that will inflict costs, both on the country and on the future of the UPA in Bihar.

There is, in all this, a failure to understand that the Laloo Prasad Yadav brand of politics - despite its extended and inordinate success in Bihar - is essentially on the wane and will fail to carry the future. The manipulation of caste and communal sentiments - the MY (Muslim-Yadav) formula - can no longer win an election and, where particular segments of the population were willing to vote on the issue of their security alone in the past, it is now evident that they are demanding something more, as the pinch of the collapse of governance, of developmental works and projects, and of welfare schemes and services, becomes unbearable. Further, though the 'Fodder scam' case appears to be going nowhere, it is evident that the misdeeds of politicians are now etched deeply in the public mind, and the polls become an occasion, in some measure, for settling accounts. If these premises are correct, whenever elections are held in Bihar, the results will be even more adverse to the UPA than they were in the elections of February 2005. And if faith is being placed on some extraordinary transformations under President's rule in the intervening months, the fact is, Bihar does not have the administrative machinery to bring about a miracle which would change public perceptions in this short interregnum.

The UPA is apparently failing to take note of the very deep resentment against policies that people in Bihar increasingly feel are cynical in the extreme. The effort to out-do Laloo on the 'secular' platform is a case in point - with promises now being made by certain political formations that the next Chief Minister will be Muslim. The truth is, not even the Muslims are now galvanized by these ideas, since past policies have not benefited the minorities in any measurable way. The minority communities still remain the most underdeveloped, and all the 'special programmes' and 'concessions' directed at them have been exposed as mere window dressing. What such 'secular' (more appropriately, 'reverse communal') posturing actually does, is create a wider space for the operation of majoritarian communal organisations - hence the steady, though far from spectacular, expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State and region. It is useful to notice, here, that the recent split in Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) was not in favour of Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), but away from it, and towards the BJP-led NDA. The so-called 'secular alliance' appears to be losing ground here.

In the public mind, moreover, the return of Laloo's RJD is tantamount to the return of Shahabuddin, of criminals at the centrestage of State politics, of the most cynical clique of looters, and of a morally and politically bankrupt leadership that has steered the Bihar to steady ruin for nearly a decade and a half. Parties that are seen to endorse the continuation of Laloo's rule - whether directly or by proxy - are not going to endear themselves to the general masses.

Unfortunately, all this does not necessarily auger well for Bihar's immediate future. None of the political formations in the State appears to have a clear understanding of the public mood or any coherent and concrete programme to address urgent and rising popular grievances. In this, Laloo has been extraordinarily successful - there has been a total 'Laloo-isation' of politics in the State, with almost all political parties attempting to seize power through variations of the same formulae of caste and communal pandering, on the one hand, and criminal violence and intimidation, on the other, that he has entrenched over the past many years.

However, if any one of the prominent formations in Bihar has the imagination - or even the reasoned opportunism - to tailor a campaign and a manifesto that taps into the prevailing and deep public discontent, it would secure the necessary, though marginal, 'swing' in voter participation and in votes, to radically alter the arithmetic of power in India's most unfortunate State. This will, of course, be resisted - possibly violently resisted - by those who stand to lose in the bargain. It remains, however, to be seen whether the people of the State can engineer even a qualified victory for themselves; or will they remain the ultimate losers?

(Published in The Pioneer, May 28, 2005)





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