Writings on the Wall is a metaphor that emerged from travels across the subcontinent, particularly, but not necessarily, through elections. Zip across the cities and the fast rurbanising countryside, your eyes, ears and minds wide open, and it’s the writing on the walls, or what echoes off them, that tells you what is changing and what isn’t. It tells you that change in India never slackens, never fails to surprise you. Particularly how logically our people have moved from grievance to aspiration, and now to assertion and ambition. So in the poorest India, such as in Bihar circa 2005, nothing was selling on the walls because nobody had the money to buy anything. Five years of rapid growth and the return of the rule of law under Nitish Kumar, and the walls were selling branded underwear and English-medium school education. By the time of the 2014 parliamentary elections, the hottest selling items were coaching classes for IIT-JEE and medical entrance examinations.
This progression up the value chain was fully reflected in electoral fortunes. The first election in 2005 was inconclusive. It banished Laloo Prasad Yadav from power after 15 years of misrule, despite his ossified OBC-Muslim votebank, but didn’t quite give Nitish a majority. The second, in the same year, was more decisive. That was when Laloo’s call to “season your lathis in oil as another battle for empowerment was on” lost out to the Nitish counter: “Times when soaking lathis in oil got you empowerment are over, now you get it by filling your pens with ink.” Nitish in power kept his promise and after five years of growth was rewarded with a mandate nobody in Indian democracy had got until the Aam Aadmi Party’s sweep of the national capital last year. He had read the writing on the wall and tailored his message accordingly; Laloo chose to stay frozen, and paid the price for it.
The other marker we brought back from that first election travel in Bihar in 2005 was how many people walked barefoot. By 2010, this had changed dramatically. At a Sonia Gandhi rally in Begusarai, I actually walked through the crowd looking for bare feet; while I did spot a few, these belonged to people who were carrying their footwear, mostly Chinese flip-flops, in their hands, not willing to risk losing them in the crush. Chappals on your feet; decent, branded underwear...that was 2010. In 2015, there is a new marker of change and upward mobility: the smartphone. At Laloo’s rally in Minabazar near Muzaffarpur, Nitish’s in Jhanjharpur in distant north, you see hundreds of faces—curious, focused, smiling—holding up smartphones, recording videos of their leaders as they speak. There are smartphones at Narendra and Sushilkumar Modi’s rallies too. But Laloo-Nitish have a poorer, less literate, poorer caste, rural vote bank.
If even that Bihar has now moved on from dragging bare feet to shooting videos with smartphones, you know India’s poorest large state (Bihar constitutes about 9 per cent of India's population but contributes only about 3 per cent to its GDP) has undergone a quiet, peaceful revolution. It has seen phenomenal growth rates, a boom in agriculture—even in this drought year, all you can see are endless fields of bountiful, ripening paddy, interspersed with clumps of arhar (tur, or pigeon-pea) daal. From being an area of darkness, literally, more than 90 per cent of Bihar is now electrified, getting a decent 16-22 hours of power. When we first spotted the signs of resurgence in Nitish’s Bihar in 2010, its nearly 10 crore people still consumed the same power that Gurgaon consumed then. Today, it is four times as much, near 4,000 MW. The IAS officer Nitish assigned to bring about this change, Pratyaya Amrit, talks with passion about the changed attitude of his staff, customers, billing and collecting his dues, on replacing old, small and good-for-nothing transformers (“which my chief minister mocks as tullu transformers”) and tells you something civil servants of ordinary citizens would rarely say to you: “In government, let me tell you, everything is not lost.” Nitish Kumar’s signature scheme—free bicycles to girls going from Class 8 to 9 in schools, later extended to boys as well—continues to be a hit. Meanwhile, he has launched another imaginative initiative, to provide sanitary pads to rural girls through self-help groups.
Nitish, as you’d expect, is not at all unpopular. In fact, he is perhaps the most widely respected leader in all of Bihar’s political history. Nobody, not even his bitter political rivals, speak of him disparagingly. Nobody addresses him with that informal, dismissive Biharism: Nitishva. Even for rivals, he is Nitish babu. Yet, he has the fight of his life on his hands—and that despite conventional caste arithmetic being on his side—after Laloo and Congress joined him.
Arun Jaitley famously said that elections are not about arithmetic but about chemistry. His party president Amit Shah elaborated on the formula when he said that mix hydrogen and oxygen, and you get water. In Bihar, I would extend it further to say that elections here, in 2015, are about trigonometry as two formidable triangles represented by the Maha Gathbandhan (Grand Alliance) and the NDA clash. Nitish’s JD(U), Laloo’s RJD and the Congress form the three sides of the first triangle; BJP, Jitan Manjhi and Paswan make up the second. Each of the six sides brings its own pluses and minuses. For Nitish, Laloo brings a formidable anchor-caste votebank in Yadavs, helps give Muslims a clearer choice along with Congress, but also diminishes his claim and promise of good governance. In fact, Laloo’s presence scares many of his supporters and hands the NDA its best weapon in the campaign: the threat of a return to Laloo’s jungle raj.
Similarly for the BJP, Paswan and Manjhi promise a sizeable bonus of Dalit and Mahadalit votes, but also bring negatives. Paswan has kept dodgy company with criminal sub-regional leaders. His son Chirag and a brother are already MPs and he has fielded two sons-in-law and one nephew on his ticket, negating the impact of the BJP’s dynastic rule rant against Laloo. In fact, his sons-in-law’s cars, with his party’s symbol ‘bungalow’ perched on the rooftop, are a source of much ridicule in the state. Manjhi is useful, but his presence is one more reason why the party has shied from naming a chief ministerial candidate. This should explain why we call it a study in trigonometry rather than arithmetic or chemistry.
Fortified by Laloo’s transferable vote, Nitish would have done alright but he is now a victim of his own success. His 10 years have given Bihar growth, but his electorate, particularly the younger section (Bihar is India’s youngest state), has moved ahead of him. The writing on the wall reflects something contradictory and sobering to the move from bare feet to smartphones. Where once we saw such writing selling English-medium education, top competitive examinations, the reality of poor quality education and a non-industrialised, non-job-creating state now stares at you in what is now sold more than anything else: competitive exams, but all for low-value, clerical jobs. Go with your eyes shut on any street in any rotting Bihar city (that is any Bihar city, regrettably) and three words—banks, SSC, Railways—leap at you. These are from academies preparing students for clerical jobs in nationalised banks, railways and subordinate services commission. The IIT/IAS dreams are confined to a very few in a rapidly but poorly educated young population. When there was no education, the same young Biharis were happy to be in villages or migrate elsewhere in the country to work as security guards if not as casual labour. But now, having had some taste of education, they want better jobs. However, neither the quality of their education nor the mostly agrarian economy of their state can promise them anything better than a clerk’s life. Here too, as one young person after another tells you, railways have frozen recruitments, so, “bhaisaheb, aap batayein hum jaayein kahan?”
Just like his successes, Nitish’s failures too are formidable. He has taken them a step ahead and brought in—to coin a new term out of the Congress party’s sad, old povertarianism—agro-povertarianism. Bihar’s agriculture has improved, you now see tractors with seed-drills, poultry farms, shops stacked with fertiliser and hybrid seeds in village shops. But nothing else has improved with the economy. It is as if the villages have become a little better, or let’s say less worse, but the cities have worsened greatly. Driving a couple of thousand kilometres from the west to the east in the state, you see no signs of a modern manufacturing or services economy. You can drive hundreds of kilometres and the only “industry” you’d see is of brick kilns that pollute, consume fertile soil and provide just a few jobs at the lowest and exploitative end of the value chain.
You could charge Nitish with agro-povertarianism because in 10 years he has brought no landmark progress to his state. No industry, no investment, no big educational institution; even Nalanda hasn’t progressed. His capital is a dump, with not one decent, branded hotel that a prospective investor could come and use, though there is a shopping mall with a bowling alley and a Mainland China. His capital’s airport is among the most dangerous in the world and he hasn’t even had the courage to acquire a little land to extend its short runway. The terminal is as it was two decades ago, falling apart. While no manufacturing has come to Bihar, Nitish’s bias against services is evident in how so little has been done to build even on the Gaya/Bodh Gaya circuit. Gaya can compete to be among India’s dirtiest towns, and much of its competition would probably come from Bihar itself. Just walk the streets of Darbhanga at night (they are too congested to walk during daytime): you hop from one garbage heap to another, pass herds of stray cows, dogs in wolfpacks. Even horses forage the rubbish for food, and your nostrils burn, with stench as well as diesel and kerosene fumes. The Laloo model—do nothing for the state but ride empowerment of the caste underclass—worked in the past. Nitish has managed to trap himself into a contradiction: done a lot for the state, made people expect much more, and then stopped short of genuine modernisation.
You can see that he has figured it now. He is breaking away from Laloo in his campaign, promising computer training and English education, particularly to Dalits and Mahadalits. Not knowing English, he says, is giving his people an inferiority complex, and no education is of any use these days unless you learn to use computers. The point is, has he left it too late?
I like to quote from a speech that former US Secretary of State George Shultz once made, famously predicting globalisation. Three inventions—the microchip, satellite and the wide-bodied jet—he said, were making the world a smaller place. The equivalent of these three in rural and rurban India now are the smartphone, motorcycle and cheap college education, even if of indifferent quality. The first gives you connectivity, the second mobility and the third a degree of social equality and caste anonymity. This is a post-ideological, impatient generation that prefers first names and does not feel encumbered by caste loyalties or parental preferences. They are inclined to look at elections much more as a transactional phenomenon: what are you going to do for me? They are bored with old politics, even in Bihar, where it’s as much of a passion as cricket in all of India. I see how, reading the walls at Jhanjharpur in northeastern Mithilanchal where Nitish’s rally is held in a stadium named jointly after Lalit Narayan Mishra and Karpoori Thakur, two old stalwarts who fought on opposite sides for almost two decades. It was inaugurated jointly by Nitish and Sushil Modi when they were cabinet colleagues; now of course they are rivals. I try chatting up some young people on this brilliant set of concentric political ironies in one place. But they are bored. They want to know why Bihar can’t build a Gurgaon, what exactly has Modi done in Gujarat, why are we journalists so obsessed with caste? They say Modi is so confident despite being a chaiwala’s son, they say he has enhanced India’s global status, made our armies much stronger. The young prefer Modi.
The most important thing the writing on the wall in Bihar tell you is, the new-gen backward caste Indian thinks like the “forward castes” once he is empowered by some education and technology. This young voter is peeking out of the dugout and happy to give someone new a chance: ek baar dekar dekhte hain inko bhi. He doesn’t see this election as make-or-break, and he might see a dozen more in his life. Modi’s appeal cuts with this generation and if these voters come out in large enough numbers on polling day, they could alter the arithmetic, chemistry and even the trigonometry of Bihar politics.
Essentially, this Bihar contest is a clash between two decelerating forces: Narendra Modi as the Vikas Purush of 2014 and Mandalite-Muslim vote-bank politics. The result will tell us which one has slowed down more. But whether Nitish and Laloo lose, or win, the decline of caste-based empowerment politics now looks irreversible with the rise of a generation that uses only its first name.
Postscript: Narendra Modi has latched on to great ideas in cleanliness and ending open defecation. But I wonder if it would be possible unless we somehow get rid of our cultural, traditional tolerance of shit, faeces, crap, refuse, whatever synonym you prefer, whether human or bovine, in our households and around. Our society has the unique and embarrassing distinction of having the highest incidence of open defecation in the world, much higher than Pakistan or Bangladesh. I suspect it has something to do with the glorification of dung as a “clean” utilitarian natural resource rather than looking at it for what it is. It can be used as manure, but why not bury it in a pit to compost rather than leave it exposed in heaps along village streets? Why heap dung-cake on walls behind which you live? If you accept one kind of faecal matter so willingly in your homes, you find it convenient to leave the other kind outside your homes, or just beyond the periphery of your village. Why waste time, money and water on toilets? I know it is dangerous in these times to question the miraculous qualities of anything the cow gifts us, but crap is the natural, pan-national smell in much of rural India and unless you unlearn the unquestioning acceptance of one kind, you will be more tolerant of the other. My travels through Bihar only confirm my belief in this “poop-sociology”.
Former US secretary of state George Shultz once said three inventions—the microchip, satellite and the wide- bodied jet were making the world a smaller place. The equivalent of these three in rural and rurban India are the smartphone, motorcycle and cheap college education, even of indifferent quality. The first gives you connectivity, the second mobility, and the third a degree of social equality and caste anonymity.
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