Saturday, November 13

The Cycle Diaries: Bihar 2010

My apology to Che-lovers for the title, but the pull of the wheel has been strong in this space these last few days, and it sounded like a good time to talk 'cycle politics' in my beloved home state! For the politically disinclined or oracularly averse (you would be hard put to find self-respecting Biharis willing to go by either description) the crucial eastern state is mid-way through polls to elect a new Vidhan Sabha. Truth to tell, in the fractious cauldron of Bihar's polity where caste often looms larger than life, the election appears a close call. (At the very least, it may not be the cakewalk for the ruling NDA that the Media would have us believe). The battle is, equally, critical to fortunes of at least two regional satraps with thinly-veiled national ambitions. For the country's largest party too, a toehold in Bihar is crucial to its longer term consolidation plans.

Naturally, with such high stakes, it is a no-holds barred fight, with participants of all ilks looking for and playing up the minutest of issues. One idea that has thus taken centrestage is the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana. The scheme is simple enough: it entitles girls who pass Class VIII in government schools to state support in form of a free bicycle, or INR 2000 to buy one. (It should come as no surprise that though the Nitish Kumar government has extended the scheme to boys, it is only the promise of female empowerment implicit in its original version that has caught everyone's fancy in one of India's most backward states.)

On his part, Nitish has not shirked from riding the bicycle into the grime of electoral debate. He has extolled its virtues, from obvious aspects like education enabling gender equality to deft positioning as a lesson in striking balance. The latter in particular is a veritable coup d'maitre: in a single turn of the pedal, it transforms the potentially conflict-creating shades of any force of female assertion arising from the scheme, and adds character of blend and acceptability. The logic is pithy, indeed vital in the extant male dominated quasi-feudal milieu, but clearly there is bigger game afoot.

In the larger picture, Nitish knows that the issue of governance played more than its part in pitchforking the NDA to power in 2005 (and reinforced in 2009) when his predecessor's much-vaunted contempt for vikas as a demotic issue came up electoral turtle. (Go back in history and one could make an equally good case via Rajiv's freshman promise and appeal to change in the massive post-Indira assassination mandate.) In short, development may not be an absolutist winning ticket but it can be a great consolidator in electoral sweepstakes. The wily politician in the Bihar CM reckons he needs every card on the table to retain the edge in its complex electoral arithmetic. (The same come-all desperation also motivates his covert appeasement of neo JD-U converts and the occasional bahubali, moves that are termed capitulation by pro-vikas votaries in the intelligentsia.)

At the same time, the pragmatic Nitish recognizes he is no Narendra Modi, missing the BJP strongman's masterly leveraging of the governance plank, and indeed his enviable track record. Even Modi's biggest detractors (and Bihar's CM does occasionally assume that garb) cannot turn from the single-minded determination that Chhote Sardar brings to Gujarat's development agenda, or his patience-is-not-a-virtue attitude to execution. Unfortunately Bihar under NDA rule has mostly struggled to shrug off the negative growth RJD legacy and actually partially benefitted from its shrunk-denominator effect. In a nutshell, it is no one's case to argue that no good has come about in Bihar post 2005, but its pace has been painfully slow and corruption has continued to sadly fester. The incumbent CM therefore has little choice but to root for the symbolism in the bicycle scheme.

The compulsions for Nitish's main challenger are of course entirely different. Shri Laloo Yadav is looking for a way out of political Recycle Bin, hoping that the cycle of change makes people vote RJD's lantern back to power. The path is hardly rosy and the 70+ one-time kingmaker has struggled to brew a concoction to renew his spell, apart from hope in Rambilas Paswan's vote-transfer ability. After initial flirtations with the development plank by pointing to his record as Railway Minister (a claim made hollow thanks to Didi's revelations) he reportedly tried one-upmanship too - promising Class IX students motorcycles if victorious (so much simpler to match 1-kg rice with 2, alas!) but thankfully did not persist. It is, after all, one thing to turn animal fodder into millions, and quite another to conjure up finances for a mere-paas-motorcycle scheme (petrol bhi hai?). And then there is the minor happenstance of students not being of driving age, a fact that Nitish was quick to drive home, calling his bete noire's schemes as "always meant to land you jail"!

We have had some RJD leaders attempt murder-by-whispers too, with talk of how bicycles were being used to finance eloping couples, inter-caste marriages and what-not. Such slander campaigns sit light though, and most Biharis are too politically adept to miss the attempt to wash over Lalooji's misgovernance credentials (he once publicly castigated his trusted lieutenant, Raghuvansh P Singh, for mentioning development during an election rally, calling it an avoidable digression from the fight against communal forces!). Hence, his core support base more or less intact (though there is some talk of post-Babri Muslim angst changing this at a local seat level), Lalooji has been left to ponder where the additional numbers will come from. One can never write him off too soon, but it has till now sounded like a far cry from the days of samose-mein-aloo.

In a few days from now, we will get to know how it stacks up. Yet, irrespective of party inclination, a political lesson cannot be missed and is a harbinger of hope for the Bihari in me. Holding its own amidst the high stakes and tightly strung social equations, the humble bicycle, campaign rally exhibit extraordinaire, epitomizes the inevitable drive of economic progress and inclusive agenda. Or as a much wiser man once put it, one cannot fool all the people all of the time!


Learner said...

Thanks for this, Amit. I do hope Nitish Ji comes back to power. Jai Ho.

Echohum said...
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Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

A close call it was not dude but I am happy for Biharis and hoping some people I know take plunge soon too. Right partner?!