Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bihar's Gift

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By M.J.Akbar : Bihar's Gift

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card.
** Law and order at the top
** Naxalites
** Economy
** Urban Renewal
** Hindu-Muslim relations

No matter which way the numbers are stacked, there is only one clear winner in the long-drawn Bihar Sudoku: a Sikh gentleman generally resident in Delhi who barely intervened in the turmoil of India’s most turbulent state except to give Lalu Prasad Yadav the chance to convert what was a self-inflicted wound in March into suicide in November. When the Almighty was writing Dr Manmohan Singh’s destiny, He took a lot of care to ensure that every loophole was properly sealed.

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

If Nitish Kumar believes that he can do everything, he will achieve nothing. Bihar is not suffering just from the sins of Lalu; Lalu was only the most cynical of a long line of chief ministers who compounded a disease that began in the Sixties. It might shock readers to know that Bihar was consistently ranked among the best-administered states in the Fifties; but there is no point discussing how prosperous Bihar was when Chandragupta Maurya was in power.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card. I was going to put "law and order" at the top but felt, on consideration, that it might be too ambitious. If the new chief minister can ensure order, even if he cannot implement the full majesty of the law, he can claim distinction. There has to be a curb on the dacoits and gunmen who form a parallel, and more effective, administration. He should import high-profile consultants who can draw up, and perhaps oversee, a comprehensive plan that addresses the menace district-wise. On a practical, and politically incorrect level, a few trigger-happy policemen might be needed.

Priority number two will be Naxalites. Bihar shares a long border with Nepal that is porous for criminals, smugglers and those who dress up violence in ideological clothes. The sharp escalation of Naxalite violence across the country is also an indictment of the Union home ministry. As far as this terrible problem is concerned, Delhi’s response is to jerk a knee before the cameras whenever a story bursts on the front pages, and retire hurt when the news disappears from public view. Clearly, unlike straight crime, there is a social dimension to this problem, which has to be addressed politically. Nitish Kumar must involve the Leftist parties in a bipartisan effort that must be transparent and sincere. The chief minister will probably run dry of his resources of sincerity after a year’s pressures and strains, so it is best that he start doing something right away.

Third: the economy. Nitish Kumar should stop trying to think of the answers, because there is no answer that will take less than fifteen years to implement. He will have long passed his sell-by date by then. But there is something that can be done, which is a deft combination of the cosmetic and practical. Bihar is littered with tombstones of projects aborted. For decades, its leaders have laid the foundation of grand schemes that never saw as much as a wall being built, let alone a chimney constructed. The chief minister could go back to what had been sanctioned (this will save a lot of time), get a fast-track reassessment done, offer the best terms to industrialists of repute, and bring at least a few tombstones to life.

Fourth: urban renewal. If someone were to control the mosquitoes of Patna, he would be renamed Chandragupta. Disease is another name for neglect and filth. So far, the city’s services ensure little more than comfort for the residential area of the political class, up to a point. There should be a ministry for infrastructure in the Bihar Cabinet, with a politician of some ability heading it, and a strong bureaucrat in charge. To treat a road as a joke, as Lalu did, is to sign the death warrant of the economy.

Finally, the government will be severely tested on Hindu-Muslim relations. So many of Lalu Yadav’s crimes were forgiven because he was absolutely flawless in ensuring peace between communities so easily provoked into violence. His government imploded because even Yadavs and Muslims deserted him in large numbers. Nitish Kumar found a brilliant political answer by creating his core vote around backward castes other than Yadavs, but there had to be a spillover from the Lalu vote to ensure such a comprehensive victory. Lalu was complacent because he was convinced that no one would get a majority, and no one was better than him in cobbling a coalition. Complacency is the blood brother of power.

Nitish Kumar’s problem is accentuated by the fact that the BJP is his ally, and too many of its leaders find Muslim-baiting irresistible. But the challenge is greater than being the good cop of the alliance. Nitish Kumar has to use power to create a vote base as solid as Lalu’s. Only then can he hope to change political equations. If he grows, he will be a potential leader of a Third Front. The "if" should be written in capital letters. A key to his future will be the level of trust he can create among Muslims. I suspect that he will at some point announce a job reservation for backward caste Muslims (akin, in some ways, to the 4% Karnataka model rather than the hurried, ill-thought Andhra scheme that was punctured by the courts). This will create friction with the BJP, which will do him no harm either.

If victors are hard to identify, losers are not. Victors demand applause; losers invite sympathy.

The biggest loser in Bihar was Shatrughan Sinha, because he decided to lose when his side was winning. All wars have collateral damage, the serious-sounding term for being shot dead by your own side. Shatrughan Sinha, erstwhile filmstar and BJP-minister pulled off something spectacular: he shot himself dead. No wonder his nickname was Shotgun Sinha. I hope this gives pause to the myth that filmstars enable you to win elections. This proposition was always demeaning to the Indian voter. To collect a crowd is not synonymous with collecting votes. Former filmstars make a difference when they become politicians, in the extraordinary manner that N.T. Rama Rao did, or Jayalalithaa has done.

Lalu Yadav may have suffered a setback, but he is still in play. His fate will be determined by the quality of Nitish Kumar’s performance as chief minister.

And thus to the question that I hope has been nagging you: how has Dr Manmohan Singh become the winner of the Bihar election? In just about every which way.

Defeat in Patna has made Lalu Yadav impotent in Delhi. After the first Bihar elections, Lalu was powerful enough to demand and obtain a disgraceful recommendation to the President dissolving the Bihar Assembly without due consideration. If he had won, he would probably be discussing a better portfolio for himself at the Centre — for starters. Now, the Prime Minister can take Lalu’s support for granted. An occasional smile will be sufficient to keep him happy.

A simple fact will explain more. Dr Manmohan Singh has never been in danger of being destabilised by the BJP-led Opposition. Why would any party of the ruling alliance exchange the comfort of power for the uncertainty of an election? The only party that might conceivably have an interest in another election is one that hopes to do much better. For the past year, voices have been gathering strength in the Congress that, with the BJP in disarray, a midterm election could win the party up to 200 seats. The additional seats would come from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra (where the Shiv Sena is fading into inconsequence). It is axiomatic that another election would mean the end of Dr Singh’s tenure in office, irrespective of how the Congress fared.

The defeat in Bihar has ended all talk of a midterm poll. Unless some seismic event takes place that no one can foresee, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh is safe for the rest of its tenure. The accidental Prime Minister has become a politician of substance.

- Back to Main Blog

1 comment:


Dear Mr. Akbar,

Well said..if Nitish does not perform Bihar will lose.

Appreciate your article.