The really swish thing to do for visiting journalists is report Patna by night. No, the story isn’t Patna’s radical transformation into Beirut or Paris or even into the latest version of Baghdad, where the icons of modern civilization, nightclubs and bars, now jostle for attention with American soldiers and native bombs. Patna is a staid and quite conservative city, whose worst vice is the blitzkrieg of mosquitoes that descend upon the visitor at sundown with unerring inevitability. (The relationship between mosquitoes and the local administration is one of mutual respect: they leave each other alone.) The done thing is to sear notepads with observations and conversations on change, report the tinkle of rickshaws through city streets as night cools the city, and tape the guffaw of after-dinner chatter at the paanshop. Five years ago, when Lalu Yadav was famous merely for being a Chief Minister of Bihar rather than a management guru of Harvard, voices sank to a whisper at night as fear of kidnapping emptied Patna’s streets. Normalcy, that collection of minor amusements and sedate details of daily existence, is the big story of this Bihar election. The JD(U)-BJP alliance led by Nitish Kumar is ahead in the battle because the government has restored Patna to the comforting sphere of the ordinary after its extraordinary collapse of confidence during the Lalu regime.
A hot lively wind was blowing through the bright dust-flecked afternoon when I landed. This is the famous north Indian luh, which seems to boil the body beneath the skin. We drove out of the city, southwards, through the second Lok Sabha constituency of the capital, Patliputra. So far, only one of the city’s two seats, Patna Sahib, was worth a photographer’s attention. Making predictions is always a slippery business, but the consensus is that the contest between Shatrughan Sinha and Shekhar Suman is over bar the voting. Sinha is an authentic star, Suman has the look, feel and language of an also-ran. Sinha has the combined wind of a working alliance behind him. The confidence level of a campaign is always evident from the behaviour of its campaign. My trusted informant was my driver, who had done four days of duty for Suman Shekhar. Laws of libel prevent this item of an election diary from being more comprehensive. In comparison, the gentle manners and soft demeanor of Shatrughan’s wife, Poonam, who is in Patna Sahib while her husband tries to stoke his party’s fire across the country, evoke admiration. “This is Patna,” says my driver. “I may be in the front of this car and you at the back, but you have to treat me with dignity. I do a much more honest job than the politicians, don’t I?” Right, on all counts.
The second Patna seat was fated for an anonymous destiny until 16 April, when polling ended in Chapra-Saran, where Lalu Yadav was given a sharp reminder of the temperamental nature of democracy. As we have noted, predictions are perilous, but a candidate gets some hint of the news in his gut during the evening’s post mortem. If the gut begins to feel hollow, it’s bad news. The first clue comes from those manning the polling booths. Party volunteers read the telltale signs as voters arrive and depart. An effective indication of allegiance is which party’s workers a voter has sought assistance from. Unwilling to be messengers of disaster, the volunteers feed a gradual drip of alibis during the conversation. No one can gauge the precise numbers, but experienced politicians know instinctively when they need to take out an insurance policy. Lalu Yadav was lucky, since the spread of elections across three phases in Bihar gave him just enough time to bid for a second constituency. He chose Patliputra not because of its urban segment, but because its rural hinterland is a Yadav stronghold.
Warning: It would be a mistake to write off Lalu. News of his setback in Chapra could instigate a Yadav reaction in his favour. Lalu altered the momentum of his campaign as well after the first phase, shifting gear to attack the Congress as a co-accused in the demolition of the Babri mosque because he discovered that the Congress, while unable to find support from any other community, was attracting the Muslim vote that would have consolidated behind Lalu’s lantern. There is nothing sentimental about an Indian election.
Our politics does not function with the easy split-and-revive spirit of an amoeba. We talk glibly about UPA partners regrouping effortlessly after the polls. Politics is a human endeavor. Candidates fight elections with a ferocity that non-participants can barely envisage. This ferocity leaves scars. Scars can bleed. Lalu’s outburst against Congress may have been festering for a bit, but the explosion came when Congress put up a last-minute candidate in his second constituency that would do maximum damage to his chances. That was personal.
The “Third Front” and the “Fourth Front” may not agree on much, but they seem to be suggesting that even if they get together to patch a post-poll alliance, they will not accept a Congress Prime Minister. The Left is particularly bitter about Dr Manmohan Singh, who has recently begun to find virtues in those he scorned not too long ago. Precisely one year ago Dr Singh told the country, from the floor of the Lok Sabha, during the debate on the nuclear deal, how delighted he was to say to be rid of the Left, which had apparently treated him like bonded labour. I suppose it is a reasonable trade-off: no harm in returning to bonded labour if the Prime Ministership comes along with it. But Marxist politburos have longer memories than Congress Prime Ministers.
Much merriment among tense politicians desperate for some light relief over a district magistrate’s decision to arrest and jail an elephant in Uttar Pradesh. Reason? The elephant is Mayawati’s election symbol. Why the jollity in Bihar? Lalu’s symbol is a lantern, a more reliable source of light in many parts of Bihar than the tepid electricity that filters through the faltering grid. A wit wondered what the election commission proposed to do with everyone’s hands on the day of the vote: a hand, after all, is the Congress symbol.
- In Mail Today