One murky morning in the January of 2006, I started randomly in a car headed towards Bakhtiarpur. The gloom was natural for winter, but it also seemed to be thick with the dust of a people’s smashed spirit.
Barely weeks ago, Bihar had said a resounding “no” to a politician who had been undoing it stitch by stitch for so long, the people had little memory of a social fabric. But the stunned voter did not fully comprehend what he had done, what her defiant vote might beget.
I went to the town where Nitish Kumar grew up; I went to the village where his forefathers came from. I asked pointed questions of a farm worker in Bhojpur, accosted a milkman on the edges of Patna.
It was a trip through a broken land: holes for highways, one-legged bridges, crime on its toes, growth on its heels. But what stood out was that the people were short on trust. They said they did not know how much hope they could invest in Nitish Kumar. But they knew they wanted out a man named Lalu Prasad. The tussle between despair and daring was palpable.
They had used democracy to break a long eclipse, but could this achievement mean their lives changed as well. And if yes, how long before ransom was not the only thriving business in the state? There was no telling.
The Bihar voter of 2005 was deeply anguished and embarrassed by the clown representing them. But they had elected him three times, had they not? Wasn’t all the damage and indignity self-inflicted? Had they not failed themselves.
A few days ago, I spoke to a senior Muslim voter in Muzaffarpur. “I voted for Lalu Prasad’s party three times. We trusted him with our lives in the early 1990s and owed him our vote,” said Syed Hasan Jafri. “But we were tired of this slavish loyalty… one should not cast one’s ballot out of fear. That damages the society.”
If people such as Jafri took a small and shaky step in 2005, that sense of collective helplessness was utterly rejected five years later when Nitish Kumar was returned to office.
I have visited Bihar four times since and see signs of a revival everywhere: a booming housing market, gleaming shop windows, inflation, women out in the evenings, two new roads to my village in Champaran.
One can furnish piles of data here, such as double-digit growth in 2005-10, near 100 per cent fall in the kidnapping trade. But the numbers spring from a bigger achievement: the people’s regained faith in their ability to govern themselves well. This nourishes India’s true achievement: democracy.
In this turnaround also lies a new challenge. In electoral politics it’s called the hope fatigue. If Bihar is peaceful today, so are most other states. If Bihar is growing, so are many others, only from a much higher base. While Bihar is still talking agriculture, other poor sates such as Odisha are rapidly industrialising. People do not vote out of fear for long. I asked one ruling party MLA, Rajib Ranjan of Islampur, if his government is alert to this. “We are very much aware,” he said. “The second term of Nitish government is all about development, not about keeping Lalu Prasad out.”
Good intentions. But people will soon wish to see work beyond roads and prosperity beyond a Patna property boom. Roads must lead to factories and offices where young people make goods and write software. Freedom from hunger and fear, if fully achieved, could soon be taken for granted.
Elsewhere in the world, and to some extent in New Delhi, there is doubt if governments can take care of people. In Bihar it’s if people can take care of their government.
When I come next time, it won’t surprise me that if by then Syed Hasan Jafri is tiring of voting out of hope. Or MLA Ranjan is having to make a stronger case for himself.