Bihar's Mythic Development
No Looking "Backwards"
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, December 1, 2010
India, once considered a natural democracy, now needs shaky excuses to be so sanctified. Bihar, one of the most backward states in the country, has elected Nitish Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (United), to power in a ‘stunning victory’. The bellicosity of commentators to be flagholders for such a myth has to be read to be believed.
It is amazing that this glorification is for his second term. Everyone knows that ruling parties have an edge to bulldoze their agendas. Such agendas may include pushing all the real issues under the carpet.
Bihar’s backwardness had little to do with the existence of scheduled castes and more to do with the manner in which they were treated. In Nitish Kumar’s utopian state, caste has got sidelined. This is not cause for celebration but concern. We are talking about a large segment of society being covertly discriminated against by two deceptive options – co-opting and debarring. The larger political spectrum that is being hailed has, in fact, narrowed it to the pyramidal apogee by selective probity.
One report came up with a rather dodgy analysis: “The Bihar results will have rippling effects in other areas where negative agendas of caste and communal forces do not allow people-driven agenda of development.”
Caste and communal forces are about people and do not spring from the bottom but the top; they have been traditional vote-banks thus far. They remain so, but in a non-conservative fashion by being covered beneath the veil of poverty. It is a real issue. However, the trick here is not to deal with poverty but make it a palpable saleable idea. Water, food, education, healthcare, electricity, roads are necessities that are sold as comforts. There is a reason for it; it is to set the ground for the development agencies to send in their quotations. The people of Bihar are not going to say “let there be light” and have shining bulbs nor will dry taps start running by the mere expedient of thirst; roads won’t be tarred for bare feet. All these require raw material, infrastructure and money. The poor obviously do not have money. Therefore, the rich come into the picture.
The rich in Bihar belong to the feudal class or criminal gangs. Both have tremendous political clout if they are not already in politics. It is pertinent to point out that both these categories are extremely caste conscious. The landlords use labour belonging to the lower castes and consolidate their position based on such bondage. Crime, too, relies on caste equations to settle scores. Therefore, the current development will need to not only factor in such disparities but also rely on them. Since over 80 per cent of the population is Hindu, communal politics can be reined in by sheer force. It ought to surprise no one that Nitish Kumar has been an ally of the right-wing parties.
During this election, he skirted Gujarat’s Narendra Modi’s involvement in electoral matters. This was seen as keeping away from a controversial figure. On the contrary, Bihar has cunningly emulated the Modi formula; the snub to Modi could have been a tactic or an ego trip. Either way, he is the role model here. The difference being that Bihar has been considered a backward region, Gujarat is not. But the economic saviours have worked along similar lines by co-opting those they have scant regard for. In Modi’s Gujarat the Muslims have stood by him despite the horrific establishment-engineered riots and killings of 2002; Nitish’s Bihar has used the abused members of society to the same effect by showing them glittering streets and whitewashed ideas.
The female voter turnout has been much-lauded without seeing the larger picture. This is not about empowerment or a woman’s natural understanding of development. Bihar, for all its progress, still has a large number of migrants to other cities. The question to ask is this: if the growth rate is 2.5 per cent more than the national rate of growth, then why have these sons of the soil not returned?
Iconoclasm has the ability to camouflage all con jobs. It is a rather sad statement that the original patented hero of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, is seen as a beleaguered has-been today. Despite his not-so-clean record and his scams that were out in the open for all to see, he had made Bihar into a brand of sorts. It was not mere rural hubris. If his was a one-man show, then no one really knows of any prominent people in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet. Lalu made no attempt to hide the caste of his candidates; at the national level this is an important element if the reservations policy is to be made use of by adhering to authenticity rather than fakery.
It is also an irony that while Bihar under Lalu Prasad was the only state to prevent the rath yatra of L. K. Advani from passing through in what was to turn out to be the worst communal divide after Partition is now dependent on the BJP. Long before talk about development, Lalu had the courage to appoint backward caste priests and shankaracharyas. These were quite possibly gimmicks, but for a country that still has such an aversion towards Dalits this was a strong statement.
Development must include political vigilance and progressive inclusive thinking. The end of the road is not roads.