| The long shadow
Bihar has already seen two rounds of voting in an election which seems to be an unending affair. That is because of the Election Commission, which decided in its wisdom that the polls could be fair only if held in small installments, thus enabling the maximum possible deployment of policemen in every round. And at the end of each stage of polling, there has been applause for the EC for ensuring a kind of peace never seen before in the state. This makes one wonder.
There has always been a general feeling that elections in Bihar are a no-holds-barred affair and thus not quite democratic. This is not borne out by one's experience. Yes, every election has seen people getting killed but the disturbances have never spread all over the state. There have been only a few guilty constituencies, and even in those the outcome has never been questioned as not reflecting the electorate's mood. No place in Bihar has seen such mayhem as witnessed in Meham, Haryana in the late Eighties.
Yet tales continue to be told, thanks largely to the electronic media. Photos of gun-wielding men on horseback, their faces covered, would cause a lot of concern in New Delhi and elsewhere but in Patna the knowledgeable know how these are 'arranged'. My first experience of this was when, during an election, the staff photographer arrived with a picture of an armed man sitting on a throne. He explained that the man was a bahubali candidate from a certain constituency. The picture did not look right and it soon came to light that the man had been persuaded to pose in such a manner. But why' The photographer's answer was that he thought it would go well with the general impression that elections in the state were all about muscle ' he had certainly kept in mind the fact that he was working for a national daily with editions in various cities. How deep that impression has become is evident from the EC's schedule, which perhaps would have been more in keeping with places like Afghanistan.
This is not to suggest that strong- arm measures are not adopted in Bihar. Indeed, they are. But then that's the picture all over the country. Why single out Bihar' Is it because a backward caste leader has been ruling the roost there for the last fifteen years and not bothering to conceal the amount of pleasure he is deriving from this' Also, will this over-stretched schedule, the massive presence of cops and various rules prevent unsavoury candidates from winning on behalf of different parties and as independents' In fact, thanks to the EC, they will be able to claim with a lot of justification that they really represent their people and no question should be raised about this. Their credentials thus established, they will certainly be able to go about their ways in a much more brazen manner. In the long run, how does the state benefit from such elaborate bandobast'
The most talked-about feature of the polling so far has been the voter turnout, which, incidentally, has not been close to even 50 per cent. There are various theories doing the rounds on this. One, that vigil by the EC kept booth-snatchers away and hence the fall in percentage. Well, the snatchers may have been kept away, but what kept the genuine voters away as well' The answer, perhaps, is panic. In the countryside, armed policeman is an object of fear and not without reason. This time, with so many of them and with shoot-at-sight orders issued, many obviously chose to stay indoors. At Raghopur, they must be complimenting each other for their wisdom, on seeing what happened to a fellow man who was less careful and fell to a Border Security Force bullet.
The poor turnout, of course, does not make the Bihar election a sham, as it had been in Kashmir earlier or in Assam when there was a boycott call. But at the same time, it does not provide the ideal of democracy in motion. A third theory ' that people stayed away as they were busy with preparations for Diwali and Chhat ' can be thrown away without a thought. The highly conscious voters of Bihar would not allow any religious function to stand in the way of their exercise of franchise.
Politically, of course, this kind of a turnout sends a message. This is not in keeping with the claims of the likes of Nitish Kumar or Ram Vilas Paswan, who allege that fed up with Laloo Prasad Yadav, the people of the state are dying for a change. If that had been the case, then even fear would not have kept them away from the booths. Also, had the dominant mood been one of change, then the 'no changers' would have been out in strength, and despite the security cover, clashes would have been inevitable. This did not happen in the first two rounds and the pattern is unlikely to change.
Actually, why should the voters get worked up' Laloo Prasad Yadav has not become a bigger villain since February, neither has Nitish Kumar acquired a brighter halo. Hence there might have been a kind of voter indifference which perhaps acted with the fear factor to keep people at home.
Certainly not good news for Nitish Kumar or for Laloo Yadav, as this means that a clear mandate does not appear to be in the offing. But good news certainly for the independents who will win and buyers may once again be out for them. Of course, for Laloo Yadav, it will all depend on how the Congress fares. This time the two parties have gone for a pre-poll alliance which means that Laloo Yadav is not cutting into Congress votes as he did last time. The Congress, however, seems to be keeping its fingers crossed. Unsure of the outcome, the party kept the prime minister away from campaigning. Of course Sonia Gandhi is very much there and if she can get the Dalits to remember her mother-in-law and Belchi, then Laloo Yadav may become a happy man.
And what about Ram Vilas Paswan' Nobody is expecting much from him and his allies but the man himself is still sounding confident about installing a Muslim chief minister. Is he then hoping that a hung assembly this time will force either of the two sides to accept him on his own terms' If the race is close and if he emerges in a position to call the shots, will he demand the chief ministership even though outnumbered, and hope that one or the other combination will give in'
It is hard to conceive such a scenario at this stage but then politics does make strange bedfellows. For Paswan, the best thing that can happen is the RJD-Congress combine agreeing with him. In that case, he gets to eat the cake and to keep it too ' his party gets the chief ministership and he retains his berth at the Centre. Laloo Yadav, of course, will resist this tooth and nail but the Congress or the Communist Party of India (Marxist) may not be that averse to the idea, as it will mean keeping the National Democratic Alliance away.
The million dollar question is, how many seats will Paswan and the Communist Party of India get' If the number is too low, then the largest combine may not require them, as independents will suit its purpose. Actually, more than anybody else's, it is that ever-spoiler Paswan whose career is at stake.