The Bihari leader

October 14, 2015

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during an election campaign rally in Gaya on Sunday (PTI)

As Bihar moves to elect its new government, the question that is waiting to be answered is whether Nitish Kumar’s past performance will be able to neutralise BJP’s politics of polarisation.

Can the Nitish-Lalu alliance stop the Modi juggernaut?

People from the eastern state of Bihar are talking about a strange aspect of electoral politics. The common refrain appears to be that there is no anti-incumbency against its Chief Minister for the past decade Nitish Kumar. Everyone appears to be happy with his performance as somebody who has literally lifted the state from a much below-par performer and put it on the road to development.

Opinion poll surveys on the assembly elections, which got underway from Monday, may have differed in their assessment of who will win. But the common factor in all these assessments has remained the personal popularity of Nitish Kumar, making him the most eligible candidate for chief ministership. Indeed, the surveys claim that he stands ten percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Sushil Modi (not related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi) of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Of course, there have been chief ministers who have got elected for a third time like Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Shivaraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chattisgarh (all BJP) or Sheila Dixit of the Congress in Delhi. The difference between them and Nitish Kumar is that they represented states that had made some or considerable progress and built on that base. Sadly, development in Bihar was always treated as a joke.

Nitish Kumar changed that perception among the people of his state with some result-oriented work at the ground level. Concrete figures may appear too small, when compared with other major states, but the fact that there is some visible progress, is itself, making a difference to the fortunes of the alliance that he leads. It consists of his Janata Dal (United) or JDU, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtreeya Janata Dal or RJD and the Congress.

Strictly speaking, he and his alliance should have been countering a debate on his government’s developmental projects and how he quietly added the flavour of development after his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend again, Lalu Yadav, had brought in the politics of social justice to the forefront. But, the BJP’s all out effort to repeat its spectacular performance in the 2014 parliamentary election when it won 31 of the 40 seats from Bihar has led it to, yet again, indulge in the politics of polarisation. It has changed the electoral narrative.

BJP has, on the face of it, provided the usual offer of ‘give us a chance and see’. But has, in fact, indulged in the splitting of communities in its own inimitable style to build on its base of support among the upper castes. Like the effort to split the Yadav community, which has stood behind Lalu Yadav with the exception of 2014, by picking on one of his comments that even Hindus eat beef. The BJP’s chief campaigner, Narendra Modi, looked at it differently. He went on to say that the protector (the Yadav community) of the holy cow was, himself, talking of slaughter.

In the bargain, the young who very enthusiastically fell for the ‘Modi for change’ campaign in 2014 appear to have gone back to enjoy the earthy humour of Lalu Yadav. It has led to more consolidation in support of Lalu Yadav whose time-tested social axis of Yadav-Muslim votes has, in the past, led him to victory. Lalu Yadav can be credited with a gut strength that has often made him a hero. Like the way he had stopped the Rath Yatra of BJP’s L K Advani in the build-up to the demolition of Babri masjid. The question whether he will succeed in stopping the politics of polarisation in this election will be known on November 8 when the results are out.

Adding to Lalu’s axis is the community of Nitish Kumar’s and other backward classes that have also stood by the JDU-RJD alliance. But, the issue is on which side the extremely backward castes or EBC’s will tilt, more so, after the chief of the BJP’s mother organisation, the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, put his foot in his mouth by loudly seeking a review of reservation or affirmation policy for these sections. The mood of the EBCs is the critical factor that will determine whether the Modi juggernaut, slightly dented by its defeat in the Delhi assembly elections after winning all major state assembly elections, is still a force to reckon with or not. More importantly, the result of this election would have a bearing on the future politics of the country symbolised by two contrasting politicians and ideologies, Modi and Nitish Kumar.

Some more black
If somebody asks a question as to how intolerance hurts the image of a nation, there cannot be a better example than of the blackening of the face with ink of an organiser of an event where a book written by Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, was launched. It should be given to Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and then deputy prime minister L K Advani, that he went ahead with the event before going to a hospital to clean up. To his credit also goes the fact that Kulkarni invited the Shiv Sena leader to join the event and counter Pakistan’s viewpoint that channel two talks are meaningless until the situation on the ground level changes.

But, characteristic of the Shiv Sena, a regional outfit which once wanted to drive out all South Indians, then Muslims and then all migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it decided to let loose its goons to show its brand of intolerance. All because it has serious problems with its alliance partner, the BJP, with whom it runs the government in the western state of Maharashtra. But, the episode was only an extension of what has been happening in the country for some time. The recent killing of a man who was suspected to have consumed beef (incidentally it has been proved that the meat in his fridge was not beef) in his house has been belatedly criticised by none else than Prime Minister Modi.

That the President, Pranab Mukherjee, had already spoken recalling the core Indian civilisational values of diversity, tolerance and plurality has not helped clear the air, so far as the Prime Minister is concerned.
He repeated his old point of Hindus and Muslims fighting poverty together rather than fighting among themselves to drive home the point that intolerance should end. But, it has left many wondering whether he really meant it or said so to keep President Mukherjee happy. Many a time not initiating immediate steps to curb something is also a decision. May be, immediate action from his side would have set off different dynamics in the polity and given courage to the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, to ensure more effective policing to curb the blackening episode. May be, Fadnavis’ more assertive assurance would have given confidence for the performance of Pakistani singer, Ghulam Ali, revered in the sub-continent, in Mumbai.

Basically, the blackening episode would dampen, if not hurt, the image of India among its neighbours and other countries. As one former diplomat has put it, those countries may not be friendly towards India but the people look up to it because it is a democratic country. In other words, India is taking a risk on its moral image. This is the image that goes against the very image that the Prime Minister is attempting to promote abroad about India. In short, it means that the house needs to be kept in order for anyone to go out and enhance its image. Failure to do so hurts the nation.

For all the criticism by some sections of the bureaucracy as the most negative legislation that was brought in, in the last decade, the Right to Information Act (RTI) has been one of the most effective processes for transparency in governance. For the uninitiated, it means that any citizen can file an application seeking information on any decision, of course with the exception of security of the country. In many cases, decisions of the government in granting contracts have been taken to court on the basis of the RTI and peoples’ power has been exercised for the betterment of society.

On Monday, the RTI turned ten years. In this decade, the number of applications that have been filed annually have ranged from five million to ten million. There have also been several or numerous negatives or cases of misuse of information, including the killing of about 45 RTI activists. But, this is one legislation which in recent times has become one of the most dreaded tools in the hands of the people, a power that has only strengthened and deepened democracy. The extent of this power is evident from the fact that every political party in power has tried to either suppress information or hurl hurdles in bringing about the necessary changes to improve the efficiency of law. For instance, the RTI needed to be backed up with a strong legislation to protect the whistleblowers.

That it is a victory of the democratic process is also evident from the fact that the people who campaigned for it to make it into a law were led by social activists, Aruna Roy and Nikhil De. That by itself is a credit to the democracy that we live in. That’s why they deserve a salute.