Bihar's election results have profound implications for India
By Swapan Dasgupta
Throughout last Wednesday, as Bihar celebrated the return of the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party Government with an awesome majority, politicians and pundits were repeatedly asked: is this a landmark election? In academic usage, a landmark election is one that indicates a sharp rupture with the past and sets the parameters of a new pattern of political behaviour. As such, the question was misplaced. By definition, a verdict on which election is 'landmark' and which is routine can only be determined with the wisdom of hindsight.
When it voted out Winston Churchill and the Conservatives so unexpectedly but decisively in 1945, the British electorate was unaware that it was doing more than changing the occupant of 10 Downing Street. Yet, in hindsight, 1945 marked the formal end of an old order and the creation of a new consensus centred on an ever-expanding welfare state, a consensus that endured till the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In a similar vein, the Indian electorate probably felt that a new idiom of politics was being ushered by Rajiv Gandhi's staggering victory in 1984. In hindsight, however, 1984 proved to be a false dawn. By 1989 and 1991, the framework of modernity that the young Prime Minister believed he had heralded was overwhelmed by more indigenous impulses centred on social and religious identities.
It is entirely possible that a future generation may look back on contemporary assessments of the 2010 Bihar verdict as naïve over-statements. Those celebrating the apparent demise of caste in the political arena could well reappear in 2015 to concede that age-old social institutions have the ability to endure a one electoral typhoon. Who knows, Nitish Kumar may well end up disappointing those who have reposed extraordinary faith in his cleansing abilities.
For the moment, however, every Indian—barring the incorrigibly partisan—can take enormous pride at the dramatic transition of Bihar from medievalism to fledgling modernity. In earlier years, a Bihar election was the occasion to display the rotten underbelly of Indian democracy—an occasion when the people and the state cowered before rival warlords and mobsters. With six phases, the just-concluded elections may have been too long-drawn out, suggesting the Election Commission's wariness. But there was something revealing about an election campaign which was both bloodless and unscarred by intimidation and booth capturing. It certainly held out lessons in democracy for neighbouring West Bengal which suffers from an enhanced self-image of enlightenment.
More important, for a state where women's participation in elections lagged behind men's by as much as 15 per cent in the early-1990s, the statistics of this election told the story of an emerging Bihar: male turnout 50.7 per cent, female 54.8 per cent. This is a story that Lalu Yadav could not comprehend.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal leader's complete bewilderment at the outcome wasn't entirely disingenuous. Like many Indians, particularly those inclined towards the Left, Lalu has attached primary importance to social justice over economic development. For him, it was more important to put his energies behind the political empowerment of 'backward' communities than ensuring that Bihar was linked by a network of motorable roads. In statecraft that was reminiscent of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Lalu's approached empowerment through the 'swagger' test. In the final years of Lalu-Rabri raj, social justice came to imply the ability of a community to enjoy immunity from the police. It didn't matter that this swagger of the newly empowered meant a rise in extortion, kidnapping and the forcible occupation of property. To Lalu, swagger symbolised the establishment of new hierarchies, with the oppressor and oppressed changing roles.
Having emerged from the same Lohia-ite stable, Nitish Kumar's commitment to social justice was no less profound than Lalu's. He too sought change to ensure that an accident of birth is neither weighed against an individual nor held up as a badge of permanent privilege. But whereas Lalu imagined that governance was merely about manipulative social engineering, Nitish saw opportunities in the new climate of economic freedom. If Lalu equated the construction of a bridge with greater opportunities for policemen to reach a village and apprehend a deviant, Nitish saw improved connectivity as greater opportunities for commerce and employment.
Lalu had a natural sense of humour and loved playing the buffoon. But underneath his caricatured commitment to social justice, he was inherently suspicious of modernity. He equated it with social snobbery and a complex web of rules that discriminated against the subaltern castes and Muslims. He coupled this with a fear of an unknown world dominated by technology and high finance. He was the embodiment of a permanent India-Bharat schism, a divide that has also been romanticised by the Maoists and their fellow travellers.
India's pragmatist reformers have always nurtured doubts over the electoral viability of their modernist vision. In 1991, India hesitantly changed course from a state-controlled economy to a market-driven one. Yet, there was always a deep-seated reluctance to expose this shift to a frontal electoral test. The desire to introduce economic freedom was always masked in the cloak of either state-run welfarism or nebulous talk of development. With economic liberalisation invariably insulated from economic discourse and often undertaken by stealth, politicians felt the need to introduce an emotional element to their political conversation with the electorate. Invariably, these took the shape of explorations of identity.
It was also a feature of conventional thinking that the electorate of poor states have very nominal expectations of development. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politically effective governance came to mean effective management of castes. The election defeats suffered by Shanta Kumar in Himachal Pradesh, Sunderlal Patwa in Madhya Pradesh and Kalyan Singh (in his first stint as Chief Minister) in Uttar Pradesh were held up as warnings against putting efficiency over political calculation. Even the formidable Narendra Modi was warned by a section of his party to desist from taking legal action against farmers caught pilfering electricity because of its potentially damaging electoral consequences.
In the past five years, Nitish Kumar hasn't done anything revolutionary. He focussed single-mindedly on three issues: the liberation of Bihar from a state of widespread lawlessness, the construction of roads and bridges, and incentives to improve the school enrolment of girls by offering them free school uniforms and bicycles. All three measures were measured by instant and visible returns. The enhanced personal security for ordinary citizens and better communications led to the immediate release of suppressed demand resulting in increased trade and commerce and, most important, an appetite for a better life. And the sight of rows and rows of girls in uniform cycling to and from school invoked quiet pride in a society where the demand for education is insatiable.
The support for the NDA in this election cut across castes and communities. According to the post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the NDA won majority support among all the upper castes, all the backward castes apart from the Yadavs, and all the Scheduled Castes apart from the Pasis and Dusadhs. The Muslim vote was split in three, with the Congress also making a mark. What bound Bihar together was a common yearning for a better life, the underlying logic of economic reforms. Nitish demonstrated that when it comes to aspirations, there is no difference between India and Bharat. Bihar 2010 marks the triumph of earthy modernism over subaltern conservatism. It's a victory that has profound implications for the future of India.