Revenge of Hema's cheeks
by M J Akbar
Third Eye - India Today column
For 15 years BJP leader Hema Malini's filmstar cheeks have felt the laceration of Lalu Prasad Yadav's electoral sarcasm. On November 24, those patient cheeks took their revenge. Lalu has lost to Nitish Kumar before. This time he was demolished by the BJP as well. Within minutes of the start of the counting process Lalu looked so 19th century, a relic adrift of a Bihar weary of puerile jokes and self-loathing, eager to edge its way into the mainstream of the Indian dream.
Every election offers a surprise, or it would be a carbon copy of the previous poll. Flux is the essence of democracy just as static is the sting of autocracy. The re-election of NDA in Bihar hid a shock for those commentators who determine the contours of conventional wisdom from the safety of a potato couch. The BJP won 91 out of the 102 seats it contested, a strike rate that is so unique that it could unnerve friend as it easily as it might enrage a foe.
Neither rage nor bragging make for good politics, because the first is not a rational answer to a problem, and the second is puerile. The Congress is not going to collapse and disappear just because it has won only four seats this time. Lalu may be depressed but he is not dead. His vote has declined by 9 per cent from 2005, but it is still more than 25 per cent, sufficient as a foundation for restructuring. Politicians do not come to an end, until the end comes to them.
What should worry the Congress is a political displacement that just might overflow into adjacent territory. Rising prices and a repeated whirl of corruption charges have dented Congress support when the party expected that victory in 2009 would lead to rejuvenation in the Gangetic belt. In Bihar it expected an alliance of upper castes and Muslims to provide the boost. Upper castes went to the BJP and Muslims shifted to Lalu, Nitish and, to a small extent, the BJP. The third is clearly remarkable and could be called the Ayodhya dividend. The BJP's decision to accept the Allahabad High Court verdict, irrespective of its outcome, and its stricture to spokesmen against provocative comment or behaviour, sent a positive signal. BJP leaders are pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of the younger voter. They should not be. The young, of any faith, want peace and a route map to jobs.
Nitish Kumar's vote added up because he did his arithmetic soon after coming to power five years ago. When development is a word and an objective, its political benefits are not always apparent. In Bihar development had a face, and the face was that of a woman. There was a 10 per cent rise in the turnout of women, and all of it went as reward to a ruling alliance that had delivered by giving women security and empowerment. Bihar is the only state that has given women 50 per cent reservation in panchayats, which have a budget of Rs 8,000 crore. Do the math. Gender bias in public-or indeed private-life is a primary symptom of stupidity, and Lalu might have paid a price for his overly aggressive objections to women's reservations in parliamentary elections.
Will the Bihar results have any impact on Delhi? For starters, the NDA is back in business after an extended spell of bankruptcy. There is a sudden spell of nationwide instability that makes you wonder if all political columns should be left in the expert hands of astrologers. Chief ministers have been placed on rocking chairs; on the day Nitish Kumar returned to power, a Congress chief minister lost it in Andhra Pradesh and a BJP chief minister teetered at the edge in Karnataka. You might consider this pedantic, but on November 22 the Government of Dr Manmohan Singh lost the support of Mamata Banerjee and the DMK on the key issue of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G scam. Even the DMK, which is the target, thought a confrontation was not worth the effort. These parties have smelt the street and sniffed the odour of putrefaction around the carcass of old politics.
The old politics of caste and corruption has been buried in Patna as well by the Nitish avalanche. Its ghost might hover for a while, but if it is dead in Bihar it can't really survive anywhere else.