Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.
All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.
Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Lalu Prasad after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”.
“Kaam dikh raha hai Nitishbabu kaa, chunaav mein zero par hain (Nitish Kumar’s work shows but, in this election, he is a cipher).” It’s a wistful claim government official Shyam Sharan has just made, not a wishful one. “We hear all the time good work is rewarded by people, in Chhattisgarh, in Madhya Pradesh, in Gujarat, but here we have not risen above biradaris (caste and creed). What incentive is there for a politician to work if he cannot win a vote on it?”
En route from Patna we have leapt across a super-fast lane that is the reward of the Nitish years. We have passed a new eruption of prosperity — tractors and crop threshers, automobile showrooms and goods depots, shopping arcades where there were only shanty rashes, culverts and bridges where waters gaped. “I doubt many will remember any of this when they go to vote. He has governance but no gathbandhan (alliance),” Sharan tut-tuts.
He is taking a drinks break in a highway dhaba that’s partially air-conditioned and possesses power backup, just in case. He and his colleagues are headed to election deputations in Mithilanchal, Kosi and Seemanchal, politically critical north Bihar regions that vote on April 24 and April 30.
It’s scorching beyond the wattle awnings of the crossroads dhaba, but scores of men are lined up in the sun along the roadside. Many of them carry garlands, their eyes are fixed in the far distance from where a caravan is soon meant to emerge. Alok Mehta, RJD nominee for the Ujiarpur Lok Sabha seat, is to pass by on way to filing his nomination in Samastipur. He is getting, from the looks of it, a frontrunner’s reception to the Samastipur collectorate. In next to no time, a torrent of SUVs and sedans, tractors and minivans, will course down the road and leave it littered with sundered garlands.
Mehta is a Kushwaha (Koeri vegetable growers) and a one-time MP. His chief rival is the BJP’s Nityanand Rai, a Yadav and himself a former MP. This contest contains critical clues to what Nitish misread, or did not read at all, a jigsaw of the twisted ways in which party, personality and caste affiliations work matter more than anything else.
Ask around and you’ll quickly gather Rai is not the favoured one of his caste brethren. Reason? Lalu, the greatest of all Yadavs, has fielded Mehta and so the Yadav vote goes to a Kushwaha, not the BJP Yadav in the fray, despite all the noise to push Narendra Modi to prime ministership. Ujiarpur is neither about Nitish or Narendra Modi, it is about the Kushwaha-Yadav vote combining with the minorities to secure the upper hand.
“Koi lahar nai hai, sab sameekaran hai,” one among the throng waiting for Mehta told us, “Bihar mein jaatiya sameekaran ke bina kaun chunaav jeeta hai?” (There is no wave, only caste combinations; who has ever won an election in Bihar without that?”)
Such is the roll of fortunes across most of Mithilanchal, Kosi and Seemanchal. In Darbhanga, the uppermost possibility is that the RJD’s M.A. Fatmi will squeeze through two Maithil Brahmins fielded by the BJP and the JD(U) — sitting MP Kirti Azad and challenger Sanjay Jha.
In Madhubani, there’s every prospect that Abdul Bari Siddiqui, another Lalu man, will unseat Hukum Dev Narayan Yadav of the BJP because it no longer enjoys the vote that came to it courtesy the alliance with the JD(U).
In Supaul, the contest is again between Ranjeeta Ranjan of the Congress-RJD combine and the BJP’s Kameshwar Chaupal. In neighbouring Madhepura, it is directly between Ranjeeta’s husband and jailbird Pappu Yadav of the RJD and Vijay Kushwaha, a new convert from the JD(U) to the BJP.
And Sharad Yadav of the JD(U), you’d fairly ask? Fortunate if he is able to follow third in Madhepura, is the verdict ringing across town. It is two incumbencies the veteran Sharad is battling — his own and Nitish Kumar’s.
Farther afield, in Purnea, and the minority concentrations of Araria and Kishanganj, the RJD-Congress tandem only gains profile as the BJP’s chief challenger. In fact, Lalu Prasad has almost made it a bipolar affair in these parts, slicing Nitish’s JD(U) out.
A grating irony, considering it was Nitish who broke his tested alliance with the BJP thinking that would bring him into trusted inheritance of Bihar’s Muslims. But he never became a credible bulwark against Modi, he never did secure an alliance with the Congress, the big “Dilli” party. And Lalu Prasad never did lose his core vote among Yadavs and Muslims.
When he lost Bihar in 2005, it was not owing so much to the scandalous misgovernance under him as to the fact that the BJP and Nitish firmly joined hands. The moment they parted, Lalu Prasad jumped into the breach. Just how credibly, we heard the other day from the withdrawal statement of the JD(U)’s Kishanganj candidate, Akhtarul Iman. He did not want the minority vote split. The message for Muslims from that declaration: vote Lalu because he is a better bet against Narendra Modi and the BJP.
Lalu Prasad’s on a comeback trail in Bihar and he may have halted Modi’s advance mid-street in the process. Nitish, meantime, may want to grope at faded dreams twisting in the pall of wayside dust.
North Bihar votes on April 24 and April 30