This could well be our John F. Kennedy moment. On September 26, 1960, Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate in the US and came to be known as ‘Television President’. And the television became the most important instrument for election campaign. With the introduction of virtual campaigning, the Bihar assembly election will be the first of its kind in India and may completely change the grammar of campaign in the country. In this backdrop, a comparison between Nitish Kumar with Laloo Prasad is a challenging proposition. During the last election, Laloo had addressed 246 public meetings and Nitish 243. Behind bars now, Laloo won’t be a beneficiary of this new medium. A gutsy campaigner on the ground, he would have taken some time to get used to it. In contrast, Nitish Kumar is tailormade for the virtual mode of campaign, with his clarity of thought and articulation.
Unfortunately, the entire discourse on the election is revolving around seat-sharing and who will lead the government. There is practically no mention of manifestoes or minimum programmes for the two alliances. Indeed, the more serious problem is that there is not even a pretension of ideological moorings. This ideological issue is essential, as it gives a policy foundation to the state’s development. With both state and market having important roles, where does one go? The late Raghuvansh Narayan Singh, doyen of the socialist movement, had once mentioned in a hand-scribbled letter to Laloo “…how five members of one family replaced icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Jaya Prakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur in the party’s posters”. That could well summarise the state of affairs regarding ideological drift or stagnation. On the other side, if Nitish’s mentor George Fernandes were alive, his name would have been in mud, now that his companion Jaya Jaitley has been convicted by a Delhi court in a 2001 defence-related corruption case.
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Historically, the Socialist Party and its movement had powerful footprints in Bihar. It emerged out of the Kishan Sabha movement, but was formalised by Jaya Prakash Narayan in the early 1930s. It was the only party other than the Congress to have created a massive base for itself in Bihar. Advocacy for ‘positive discrimination’ by the socialist movement created an invincible citadel for the party in the state. Later, implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations heralded a turn to politics based on ‘positive discrimination’, which was further consolidated by the Mungeri Lal Commission. While the Mandal Commission facilitated the entry of ‘upper backwards’ in the state system, the Mungeri Lal Commission ensured the same for the ‘lower backwards’. Ironically, this policy was being implemented when the New Economic Policy was being ushered in, which meant retreat of the state and shrinking of job avenues in the state sector. This was also the period when the ethno-religious movement around ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ had started, possibly as a response to Mandal.
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The socialist movement gradually became dormant in Bihar, but Mandal gave a fillip to the ‘social justice’ movement. Laloo and Nitish were the initiators of this movement in the state. Nitish also played an important role in installing Laloo as leader of Opposition after Karpoori Thakur’s death, and later as CM. In those days, they used to be called the Siamese twins of the social justice movement in Bihar. But soon they parted ways over several issues, especially Laloo’s style of functioning. While Nitish is a copybook example as far as personal or administrative matters are concerned, Laloo was exactly the opposite.
When Laloo and Nitish parted, it was indeed a sad day in the annals of the social justice movement. Together, they had once empowered the ‘backward’ sections in an unprecedented manner. The number of privileged-caste lawmakers plummeted in the assembly, and the number of ‘backward’ caste lawmakers jumped. In the process, the stranglehold of traditional forces weakened. Among others, the immediate result of this new power scenario was that subalterns could go to police stations unhindered. After the parting, Nitish formed Samata Party under the tutelage of George Fernandes, and the entire thunder and glory of ‘social justice’ was cornered by Laloo alone. At one time, nearly the entire subaltern section of united Bihar was with Laloo. The Left parties and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha also supported him to the hilt. Laloo’s brand was further strengthened with successful handling of communal issues, and this gave him invincible reach among the Muslim-Yadav combination. Unfortunately, he ignored other issues of development, including the resurrection of the ramshackle state structure.
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In post-independent Bihar, accumulation has generally been the result of input-based corruption, where resources for development projects are devoured. If a road is to be built, the entire outlay goes into the personal accounts of the minister or his selected officers. In contrast, in Gujarat or other developed states, accumulation is based on turnover—the road is actually built, often facilitating business activities, leading to higher turnover or profits for entrepreneurs. A part of this higher profit is then shared with the decision-makers, which is corruption of a different kind. In this process, the state’s economic culture gets changed. The fodder scam was an input-based corruption initiated during the Congress regime, which got magnified during Laloo’s period, and he was implicated for it. Besides corruption, other indicators of governance were also dismal during Laloo’s regime. When he went to jail, his brother-in-law became the de facto power centre. In the process, not only did the kidnapping industry flourish in Bihar, but law and order actually crumbled completely.
When Nitish took over the reins of government, the ‘social justice’ constituency was in stagnation. The traditional elites had written Laloo’s obituary several times. In this situation, Nitish worked out a strategy of ‘coalition of extremes’. This entailed bringing traditional elites and subalterns into one front. In the process, he became both provider and enabler. The general population saw him as an important provider, as they were happy with the massive construction work that was undertaken, of roads, bridges, institutions etc. The law and order situation also improved. Bihar boasted of reporting the highest conviction rate—many big names in the underworld were put behind bars and convicted. The authority of the state was restored. The Bihar economy clocked the highest growth rate in the country. There was dramatic improvement on the electricity front. And things looked positive in the social sector too. The quality of life suddenly improved. The ‘Bihar model’ began to be discussed everywhere. Even Bill Gates visited Bihar several times. The shine on Brand Bihar saw Biharis, once inclined to hide their provincial roots, spelling out their background with pride. Not only did Bihar become a ‘happening state’, but there was a surge of Bihari sub-nationalism as well.
At the same time, as enabler of the subalterns, Nitish ensured a wider political space for them by introducing 30 per cent reservation for ‘backward classes’ in panchayati raj institutions. Over and above this, he not only introduced 10 per cent reservation for Dalits in these institutions, but also made similar space for Mahadalits—the most destitute section of the population. Laloo had earlier opened the gates for subalterns by giving tickets to ‘backward classes’ in assembly and parliamentary elections.
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Nitish’s steps were epoch-making, leading to the grand success of the ‘coalition of extremes’. Governance got teeth and Bihar got branding. On prohibition, though, Nitish was not fully successful. While its introduction was universally welcomed, its implementation was problematic. Illegal sale of alcohol is still widespread. And, although outlays in health and education have risen manifold, they are still not sufficient. One thing is certain, though: together and then separately, both Laloo and Nitish have changed Bihar from an insular, feudal state to the vibrant one that is today.
(The writer is member-secretary of Patna-based think-tank Asian Development Research Institute)