Loud wave, quiet undercurrent

Poll abuzz with divide & distractions

By Sankarshan Thakur in Samastipur
  • Published 10.10.15
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Trust Bihar with the delights of the oddest distraction. There's a war approaching its final acts over who's to rule the state, but in the box cinemas of the interiors a quite removed and international narrative is trying to grab eyeballs - a newly minted Bhojpuri film called Patna se Pakistan.

Whoever could be bothered? But then whoever's to tell the impossible vaults the Bihari imagination can begin to take? Stop and listen to what makes Amarendra Shukla so angry. Bear with him if you will, be a little patient. Shuklaji actually didn't offer us a choice; he railroaded into us at a roadside vegetable mandi in Vaishali and began to hector unbidden.

"You know what is happening here? Nitish Kumar is slaughtering cows, packing them secretly in trucks, despatching them to Bangladesh from where they are sent on to China. Why do you think Nitish Kumar is so soft on Bihar's Naxals? It is because he has a secret deal with China, he is their agent, selling them cows, and he thinks he can win an election here, a Chinese agent?" He has revealed the secret of his ballot before he could be asked. It's "phool chhap, phool chhap, phool chhap, phool chhap" with all the emphasis of the quadruple; if only he could he would cast the vote for everyone all day at the polling station, just leave it to me, I am the wise one here. Alas, the rules don't allow such privilege, not even to high-minded Brahmins of the Shukla-class.

Poster of Patna se Pakistan in north Bihar’s rural interior and (below) Amarendra Shukla, the angry old man of Vaishali. Pictures by Sankarshan Thakur

It's a fair guess he would have voted Nitish in 2010, then the darling of Shuklaji's BJP. Lo, what evil hour did it dawn upon him he was in unholy embrace of a Chinese agent?

Shuklaji won't brook the intervention of a question, much less any reminders to that thing called reason. He is taken by a raging tremor, his lips quivering, spit escaping his mouth with every expelled syllable. "Listen to me, listen to me, you will have to, I am a retired government servant." Soon enough he would also let us know he was owed a hearing by sole dint of being a Brahmin. "Nitish and Lalu are no-gooders, nonsense people, they want this battle to be between forwards and backwards, they want to insult us, they are rank casteists, nothing else, thieves and scoundrels...There is a word in English called thhethar, that's what they are. Lalu is worse, he is a thhuthur..."

The Oxford English Dictionary won't mention it, nor its American, and more inclusive, cousin, the Merriam-Webster. "Thhethar" is Bihari colloquial for irredeemably stubborn; thhuthur is the Shuklaji patent for worse. In truth he can't be bothered if they are English words or Swahili or merely provincial onomatopoeia; he is revelling in incorrectness, he can't begin to stop himself.

He has gathered a motley crowd behind him, he's oiling his rhetoric for the audience so his word can travel faster, farther. "These backwards, lowly people lowly tricks, they are dragging us behind, they are building a front against forwards, can't you see how ugly it is?" But have the "forwards" of the BJP not built a front of castes themselves? "Oh yes, of course," Shuklaji affords himself a gulp, then thunders back, poking their hot air around him with flying fingers, "Oh yes, but you see the forwards, the Brahmins have standards, we do it with higher ends, we have standards, Sir, remember, we have standards, this other lot don't, they are just power hungry opportunists selling cows to China. Those who don't support forwards can have no standards."

The trigger to Shuklaji's palpitating anxieties are not far to seek. And they are plentiful, quite deserving of the Brahmin's ire. Around most chowks of town and hamlet in rural north Bihar, towncriers are pronouncing a "BJP lahar" to anyone who cares to listen. Beyond them, in quieter country, there are currents running contrary. These voices lack the social confidence yet to accost you on the highways, but should you take the trouble to seek them out, they aren't afraid to speak. "To me the choice is clear," Ram Kumar, goldsmith, and therefore a lesser backward caste, told us, "The man who has done the hard work for us is Nitish Kumar, schools and scholarships for children, cycles and uniforms for the girls, cheap rations, the return of roads and electricity. How can we desert such a man, go ask among the poor, you will get your answer."

But isn't the BJP too offering vikas? Isn't Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising to flood Bihar with the riches? "But why desert a man who has worked for us?" counters Parichhan, a daily wage labourer from Bishunpur, "Nitish-Lalu ko vote nahin denge to garib kaa gardan kat jaayega" Parichhan is touching his ears, biting his tongue, as if to say a vote for the BJP would mean betrayal. Parichhan and his fellow farm workers speak of many anxieties: rising prices, the closure of the Indira Awas Yojana, a rural housing measure, the non-arrival of Modi's promised black money bonanza, their empty zero-balance Jan Dhan accounts, the "threat" that reservations for them might be scrapped. "We know where our interests lie, who has worked for us in Bihar, who will protect us. Nitish Kumar has not at all done badly."

Near Kalyanpur, a small retail hub between Darbhanga and Samastipur, a group of men sit lounging under a tree, shaded from the sun that remains harsh. As conversation hots up over who is winning who isn't, one of them peeps out from behind his newspaper and says, "To tell you frankly even being an RJD worker I voted for (Narendra) Modi in the 2014 election because we want to be rid of the Congress and Modi seemed the only man. That sentiment is now exhausted, this election is for Bihar, and we know Modi is not a candidate for chief minister."

The 2014 Modi wave trampled over traditional voting patterns and seduced large sections of the backward and extremely backward voter. It isn't as if all of them have deserted the BJP. Some have begun to regroup under the Lalu-Nitish Mahagathbandhan, others remain on the fence, trying to divine the drifts. "Dekhte hain (Let's see)" is what you hear very often on and off the road. That is not necessarily a refusal to reveal preference; it may come from genuine confusion. Will the Nitish-Lalu tandem work? Will it work better for Bihar if the state and the Centre have the same government? Or should Nitish be trusted with his record?

Yadav clansmen gathered at a cattle fare short of Samastipur betray no confusion, though. "Abhi nahin to kabhi nahin," says Anandi Rai, out with a Rs 60,000 price tag on his buffalo, "Apna raj nahin chhenane denge." (If not now, never, we will not let our rule be snatched away.") Anil Yadav, listening on, throws in his bit: "Agda-pichhda ki ladai hai, soch leejiye kaun jeetega. (It's a battle between forwards and backwards, you can tell who will win.)"

It isn't long before a man pronouncing himself Jitendra Kumar Singh tears into the conversation from nowhere, verily the avatar of Shuklaji of Vaishali. "There is not backward forward, nothing," he intervenes, "Only phool chhap, only Modi, lahar hai lahar hai. Ask me if you have to, what will these people tell you?" Close by, almost too close for comfort, a buffalo decided it was time to empty its bowels.

Trust Bihar with the oddest distraction; this one delighted nobody, though, or perhaps just the buffalo.