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Road test done, now for road map
Like middle-aged Pappu who passes his intermediate in the famous chocolate ad, Bihar too seems to have cracked a preliminary exam much after other states have. But people here are happy. No one expected this even five years ago. There is a semblance of a road network now, real estate is booming and there are more jobs. If Nitish Kumar wins a second term as CM - and he probably will - his real success will be to sustain this growth and have development defeat divide.
The urban clutter of Patna extends for 10 kilometres into Phulwari town. Beyond that, chequered fields appear and a newly tarred metal road turns parallel to a dry canal. The two villages of Bhusola and Koriyawaa lie diagonally across. On the morning of November 9, people here woke up early and lined up in serpentine queues outside schools that had turned into polling booths. It was the fifth phase of polls in a protracted month-long election in Bihar.
In Bhusola village, after casting votes, the women went home, heads covered and huddled in groups. The men, meanwhile, hung around a chai shop, reading the papers and sipping tea. "The road is good. Land prices have gone up. There is a sense of security, " said Sanjay Singh, seated on a bench. "Land prices don't matter to us, hum to mazdoor log hai, " interrupted an old man, Shiv Narayan, hunched on the ground. "But we are happy there is a road and we can walk and work without fear. " The air was relaxed, the conversation upbeat. Everyone agreed Nitish Kumar deserved a second term.
It, then, felt like a sharp jolt to cross the road and arrive in Koriyawaa village to hear one of them say, "There is no water in the canal and our crop is dying. What use is this road?" The men were angry, energetic, and had a long list of woes. Ram Prasad Rai called out in a sharp, mocking voice, "Feelle good, feelle good dikhaa raha hai, lala se lekar gwala tak pareshaan hai (they want us to feel good but everyone from farmers to traders are unhappy). "
This was inverted reality: in Bhusola they showed you the road, and in Koriyawaa they pointed at the dry canal. It would sound strange if you didn't know that Koriyawaa was a village predominantly of gwalas, or Yadavs, the caste men of RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar's principal rival.
"Yadavs are upset over the loss of power. They are voting aggressively for RJD, " explained someone in Patna. "But Yadav consolidation cannot bring back Lalu to power, his MY (Muslim-Yadav votebank) has cracked, " quipped another. "Nitish is getting EBC (extremely backward caste) plus upper caste plus Mahadalit vote, " said a third, and then the conversation rapidly descended into the familiar babble of complex and perplexing caste configurations that underline Bihar's politics.
Anywhere in India, it would be perfectly normal to discuss the influence of caste on electoral outcomes. But this election, Bihar is peculiarly poised. Long condemned as a casteist cesspool, in the last five years India's poorest state has hit the news, both in the country and outside, for a small but significant turnaround in its fortunes. (See 'Capital Churn' )
The election results, not surprisingly, are being breathlessly awaited - not since it is a close contest, in fact, the consensus is that the present government would safely win a second term - but since a verdict in favour of Nitish Kumar would indicate a big change: Bihar no longer votes for jaat, but for vikaas.
As of now, it is not quite so. Travelling in Bihar, it is hard to miss the optimism, but equally hard to escape the old conversations focused on caste. Political scientist Yogendra Yadav wrote: "Will this hope translate into votes? Or will caste trump development, as the media puts it? I have always been uneasy with this formulation... Most voters, in Bihar or anywhere for that matter, view governance or development from their own social location. " This explains why Bhusola sees the road, while Koriyawaa sees the canal. Or why candidates and constituencies are picked on caste calculations.
But hinting at what could be new this election, he continues: "Caste appears to be the only factor when there is not much to choose from in terms of development or governance. If a government is seen to have done work, then a small slice from each of the caste-blocs shifts sides. This is enough to change electoral outcomes. "
Rajendra Yadav could be part of that slice. In his mid-20 s, the contractor says he agonised long and hard before voting, and finally cast it for JD(U). "It was not easy. The entire clan and village were voting for RJD, " he said, stroking his new, shiny-blue bike. "But I felt if this government returns, who knows, this motorcycle might turn into a car. " Further ahead, in a Muslim cluster, a truck driver said roads were better, his trips shorter. He voted for Nitish, so what if the CM was in alliance with the BJP. In Vaishali, a Bhumihar woman mukhiya narrated with relish how she defied the caste writ in her village. "The men said we should vote for independent candidate Manoj Shukla, our jaat bhai (caste brother), but I said I will vote for Nitish ji. "
The groundswell of goodwill he attracts is unmistakable, but Nitish Kumar, the pragmatic politician, is not banking on it. In the last five years, he has cleverly and carefully expanded his base among Muslims, backwards and dalits. Supporting the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, but divided along caste lines like others, he drew up special benefits for Pasmanda (backward caste) Muslims and gave their leader a Rajya Sabha nomination. Among the dalits, he bunched all other groups, barring the Paswans (supporters of the Ram Vilas Paswan-led LJP), and carved out a new category called Mahadalits.
But perhaps the most politically astute move was extending a 20 per cent reservation in panchayats for the extremely backward castes. With neither the organisation nor the aggression of the Yadavs or Kurmis - the two backward caste groups who made the most out of Mandal - the EBCs have tasted power for the first time at the grassroots level. "We feel we have gained maan samaan (dignity), " says Rajendra Sahni, in Aurangabad. The EBC support is significant. They may be splintered into a hundred caste groups, but en bloc they form at least onefourth of the voting strength, claims Uday Kant Choudhary, a prominent EBC leader.
But did winning support at one end of the caste spectrum erode support at the other? For a brief moment, it seemed so. A move towards land reforms (through the bataidari law) turned tricky and controversial. A clutch of upper caste landowners and leaders revolted. Launching a kisan mahapanchayat, they issued dire warnings over how the government was out to disenfranchise landowning upper castes.
"Of course, we are apprehensive of the bataidari kanoon (law), and we do not like the reservations, but we have no option, " said a group of Rajputs near Hajipur. "And who can deny Nitish is doing good work. Bihar ka badka naam ho raha hai (Bihar is earning a good name for itself). " Resentment among upper castes exists, but it has been diluted by development. Nitish Kumar has played caste, but also outplayed it by evoking regional pride.
"It is not as if Bihar has taken off the lens of caste. It is just that the power of this lens has changed, allowing for a better visibility of development, " concludes Yogendra Yadav. "It is a powerful change".
It may not translate into votes everywhere, but its power lies in the way it is changing the way people think. As the old, primordial pull of caste competes with the new, emerging experience of change, the outcome can be both funny and poignant.
In Vaishali, in a Paswan cluster, Sanjay reels off the many ways in which life is better - schools, hospitals, roads, security. So did he vote for Nitish? "Vote to hum jhopdi ko diye hai (I voted for the hut), " says the farm hand, pointing at the mud hut symbol of Paswan's LJP. Then he adds with quiet pride, "Lekin sarkar Nitish ji ki hi banegi (But Nitish will form the next government). "
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