The long road to nootan Bihar


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DURING Chhat, Bihar’s most ardently celebrated festival, the participating men and women break their fast in the evening with kheer. But should the believer come upon any gravel in the sweet dish, she must immediately go back to fasting. The lore says the Bihari does not chew; she only swallows. The story seems to make the fit in more ways than one. Much like the fasting Bihari, when it comes to Bihar, the national media doesn’t chew, it only swallows.

A little over six years ago in February 2005, on the eve of the first of the two assembly elections that year, the big headline from Bihar featured a kidnapped schoolboy and a monster (de facto) chief minister. Fourteen-year-old Kishalay Gupta had been abducted in Patna. Lalu Yadav was the Union railway minister seen to rule Bihar through his wife, Rabri Devi. Though Kishalay came back home 48 hours before polling began, pre-election coverage oscillated smoothly from outrage over the kidnapped school children of Bihar to pundits’ predictions of cracks in Lalu’s M-Y vote.

In the aftermath of the 2010 October-November Bihar assembly polls, Nitish Kumar is the much-awarded chief minister who has renewed his mandate. His newly re-elected government has been making news with a steady trickle of ‘good governance’ measures. Nitish is seen to preside over a dramatic turnaround in his state, where the good forces of development have finally trumped the bad forces of caste.

Are we still refusing to chew? When it comes to Bihar, do we still swallow whole? We need to keep that question with us, even as we acknowledge that something has indeed changed in Bihar, both in the ways in which it looks at itself and the ways in which it is looked at.


To begin with, the last assembly election was the first election in Bihar since 1990 that was not about Lalu. His victory had signalled the end of Congress dominance in the state, a year after Congress’s single party rule had collapsed at the Centre. Even the election Lalu lost in October 2005 after a reign of 15 years, directly and by proxy, had been more about the loser than the winner. By 2010, however, the state had moved on from its prolonged Lalu moment, made up of his charisma and radical politics of the early years, propped up later by the inability of his opposition to organize.

The 2010 election was about Nitish Kumar and his many initiatives for a revival of governance and a return of the state to spaces it had receded from. It was about the unprecedented number of convicted criminals and the large-scale construction of roads; also about the halting and awkward revival of schools and hospitals.

In a state where caste identity remains a marker of deep social and economic inequality, however, it was also about Nitish’s own brand of caste-ism, or as the euphemism goes, social engineering. In his first five years in power, with targeted transfers, reservations and special schemes, Nitish wooed a ‘coalition of extremes’ – the upper castes at one end and the Extremely Backward Castes and the Mahadalits at the other, apart from women and pasmanda (backward) Muslims.


Nitish also benefited from a larger change. Several of the reasons that contributed to Bihar’s estrangement from the ‘national’ political imagination in the 1990s had lost their edge by the end of the first decade of the new century. Beginning in the ’90s, the urban middle classes, keepers of the national debate, have had to come to terms with a shift in the centre of political gravity away from themselves. Due to a host of factors, including the rearrangement of equations by Mandal, especially in the northern states, and the wider effects of economic liberalization, power has, broadly, passed from the Centre to the states; from national parties to regional outfits; from upper castes/classes to backward castes/classes.

From the perspective of the urban middle classes, there has been some return to order. The contest seems to have settled down between two coalitions at the Centre, each run by a national party that seeks to domesticate its regional partners. A process of bi-polarization is visible in many states. Not in Bihar.

Here, the political field remains carved out into many mutinous pieces. Ever since Lalu’s second victory in 1995, national parties have been cast in supporting roles as regional outfits battle it out for power. For the foreseeable future, the fight for Bihar will be an internal matter of the bloc of backward castes and the small sliver of upper castes that once ruled the state may not manage a casting vote.

By the time Nitish won Bihar, however, the sense of siege that had gripped national conversation because of a resetting of the rules of the political game, so evident in the feverish chatter about ‘instability’ in the ’90s, had subsided.

In other words, though it is fashionable to see Nitish as a spectacular break from Lalu, the two men are joined to each other. Nitish’s success hinges on the routinization of the political change presided over by Lalu as also on the exhaustion of its radical charge. He benefits from his predecessor’s failures to enlarge his own political moment by deepening ‘social justice’ beyond the displacement of upper castes in power by the upper OBCs, or by linking it with a broader development agenda, and also from his considerable achievements.


When I first travelled through Bihar on the eve of the February 2005 assembly polls, the two statements I came across most frequently, sometimes in the course of the same conversation, were: Jiske paas kuch haiyye nahin, usko kya chahiye (What could he want, he who has nothing). Lalu humko awaz diya (Lalu gave us a voice). If the latter spoke to Lalu’s achievement in opening up new political spaces for backward caste assertion, the former testified to the terrible limits of that magnificent achievement.

The major turning points in the democratization of the social profile of the Bihar Vidhan Sabha,1 came in 1967, 1977 and 1990. By 2005, the big story was this: Bihar led the way in the non-violent transfer of power from upper caste to OBC politicians in the Hindi heartland that Jaffrelot has called the ‘silent revolution’. The proportion of OBC MLAs had doubled from 20 per cent in 1952 to 42 per cent, whereas the percentage of the upper caste MLAs was halved from 46 to 26 per cent.


This process drew upon the long tradition of socialist politics in the predominantly agricultural state. From the late 1920s, peasant movements like the Kisan Sabha pledged themselves to class struggle against the exploitation of the largely backward caste peasants by the mainly upper caste zamindars.

A new consciousness in the peasantry grew alongside the political mobilization of the OBC in Bihar by the socialists in the 1930s and 1940s. Bihar became the first state to abolish the zamindari system in 1950 and the benefits of the limited redistribution were reaped by those who owned some land, mainly the upper OBCs. An early challenge to Congress domination in Bihar sprang up in the mid-60s in the form of the Triveni Sangh – an alliance of Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris. The ferment created fertile ground for backward caste mobilizations by Lohiaites in the 1960s and for the JP-led anti-Congress movement that acquired the character of a backward caste consolidation against the upper caste-dominated Congress in the 1970s.

It required a politician with the force of Lalu’s charisma and with his formidable communication skills, however, to make that change look irreversible. In the year V.P. Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report at the Centre, Lalu put his imprimatur on backward caste consolidation in Bihar. The tradition of struggle within the general framework of class contradictions helped the upper OBCs, led by the numerically significant Yadavs, to forge a political alliance with lower backward castes and Scheduled Castes behind Lalu to politically marginalize the upper castes. Muslim alienation from the Congress, especially in the wake of the Bhagalpur riots in 1989, contributed towards a winnable combination.


In spite of the churning, however, Bihar’s new power elite inherited a landscape of great social and economic inequality, even as it lacked an institutional memory of good governance. A major reason for both the inheritance and the absence, it has been argued, was the land tenurial system in the Bengal Presidency. In 1793, the then Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, settled intermediaries known as zamindars permanently between the peasant and the state. In contrast to the Ryotwari areas where there were no intermediaries to poach the surplus, the Permanent Settlement areas not only saw more exploitation of the cultivator, they were also less hospitable to incentives for production and rural entrepreneurship.

For a range of reasons, therefore, and not least because of his own lack of judgement and vision – attributed in part to Lalu’s social location in what has been termed as the ‘cockney elite’2 – the backward caste upsurge lacked a development agenda. It was overly dependent on Lalu’s charisma and his brilliant deployment of symbols, like the short-lived charwaha vidyalayas or the haircuts the chief minister gave to Musahar children. By the time Lalu got mired in corruption cases arising from the fodder scam, resulting in his stepping down and elevation of his wife to the chief ministerial chair, his government had yielded to caste senas and the bahubali in several pockets.


In February 2005, after 15 years of rule, the effects of the stalling of Lalu’s juggernaut were visible in the denuded landscape and political imagination. Distance was measured not in kilometres, but in the number of hours taken on the extravagantly potholed roads. The throb of the generator was loud in the town and in vast swathes of the countryside electricity was spoken of as a mythical thing. Voters obsessed about the local candidate, reflective not so much of a sharper tug at the line of accountability between government and the people, but of the disintegration of trust in the overarching slogan and the political party. The voter seemed most engaged, most argumentative, in the bahubali’s constituency where the party had yielded to the local strongman who also got elected as MP or MLA. In Lalganj, people recited Munna Shukla’s promise to turn it into ‘another Patna’; Pappu Yadav held sway in the Kosi belt and Mohammad Shahabuddin had been nicknamed the ‘guardian’ of Siwan.

Stories abounded of just how the buck stopped with Shahabuddin, who also held up one end of Lalu’s M-Y coalition in the region. ‘MP saab’ fixed the fee private doctors could charge in Siwan; he was credited with building the road, the college, stadium, hospital and market complex. He laid down the law against cheating in examinations and enforced it too. Contracts were awarded with his approval and he could acquire any piece of land. There was frequent violence between Shahabuddin and the CPI(ML), the only political force that took him on. He had a total of 52 criminal cases against his name; after his surrender in 2003, his durbar shifted inside jail.

Also visible in Bihar 2005 were the cracks in Lalu’s citadel. Educated, better-off Yadav families in Madhepura, one of the three districts in the Kosi belt along with Saharsa and Supaul that make up the so-called Yadav heartland, complained loudly about Lalu’s rule. Their reasons ranged from the lumpenization of their political representative to the neglect of governance. While upper class Yadavs had never wholly supported Lalu anyway, their disaffection was spreading.


The RJD had also been overtaken by an explosion of ambition in Yadav ranks, a phenomenon the shambolic party could neither co-opt nor manage. There were as many as 71 applicants for the ticket from Madhepura alone in the October 2005 polls. Panchayat elections held after a gap of 23 years in 2001 had thrown up an army of half-empowered mukhiyas and they all wanted to be MLAs.

In places like Muzaffarpur, disillusion over the shrinking of Lalu’s politics to ‘Yadav raj’ and then to ‘family rule’ lengthened with the evening shadows in the baithaks where JP-wallahs still meet to swap memories and draw succour from each other. For the small army of men and women who wage daily struggles for equal rights to land, water and education, Lalu’s great betrayal confirmed their cynicism about party politics. Yet their distrust was tinged with sadness.

When Nitish won Bihar in the second election of 2005, therefore, the steady weakening of Lalu had played a major role in the victory. There was also a new consolidation of the Extremely Backward Castes behind the JD(U)-BJP. A new passenger had been spotted in the February 2005 helicopter campaign: Udai Kant Chaudhary beside JD(U)’s Jagannath Mishra, or Jai Narain Nishad who had been given a helicopter to himself by Lalu, or Kishori Das ferried by Ram Vilas Paswan. Earlier EBC leaders invited mainstream politicians to their gathering; now the latter were holding EBC sammelans under their party banners.

The EBCs, about 108 castes in all, including the Kahars, Dhanuks, Kumhars, Lohars, Telis, Tatmas, Mallahs, Noniyas, Kevats and Paneris, make up more than 30 per cent of the state’s population, with no individual segment an overwhelming presence like the Yadavs. Scattered across the state and lacking a coherent agenda or articulate leadership, they have been largely subsumed in the undifferentiated category of the OBCs. While the upper OBCs, the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris rode the Mandal wave to the political spotlight, the EBCs have languished in the ill-lit margins.


There are accounts of how, in the early part of his tenure as chief minister, Lalu tried to outmanoeuvre his opponents by promoting EBC leaders. He upped the EBC quota in government jobs from 10 per cent in the Karpoori Thakur formula (Thakur himself was an EBC) to 14 per cent and after the division of the state, to 18 per cent. But EBC representation in legislatures did not grow like the representation of the upper backwards. In November 2005, however, 19 became MLAs – an all-time high.

In the mobilization of EBCs, Nitish was taking forward the process Lalu had abandoned. Once elected, he systematically got down to addressing other points of exhaustion, saturation or paralysis in Lalu’s political project in Bihar.


First, there was the physical return of government and its personification in the several yatras Nitish undertook in his first term – five in five years. During the last such tourathon, the Vishwas Yatra in 2010, I followed the chief minister to Madhepura. In the morning meeting in a village called Jorgama, dominated by Mahadalits, the other caste group apart from the EBCs that he specifically courted, Nitish showcased his team of bureaucrats. Seated in neat rows on the podium, they were on display; in the chief minister’s speech, each one was mentioned by name. In the afternoon, a district-specific report card was released for the last four-and-a-half years titled ‘Nyay ke saath vikas ke saadhe chaar varsh’. In between yatras, Nitish regularly hosted the ‘Janata ke darbar mein mukhya mantri’ at his residence in Patna, an interactive programme in which he met citizens with a grievance.

Nitish’s first visit outside Patna as chief minister had been to launch his government’s flagship programme ‘Aapki sarkar aapke dwar’ (Your government at your doorstep) in Sikaria in Jehanabad, a village with a substantial Kurmi population (Nitish is a Kurmi), and where the Naxal movement is said to have first struck roots in Bihar when it spread from its birthplace in West Bengal. The village got a brand new road to connect it to the Patna-Gaya highway, electricity, and a computer centre.

When I travelled to Sikaria in November 2006, the village seemed to frame the Bihar predicament one year after Nitish: a surge of expectations in a people suddenly touched by the government’s larger promise, running up against the government’s inability to deliver, especially at the lower levels of administration. Electricity had fled Sikaria because of a short-circuit; now a generator ran the computers. Villagers said they were waiting for the CM to drive down the road to their village again. That’s when the electricity cable would be repaired, the jobs would come, and so would the school’s midday meal.

On the whole, however, it was clear in 2006 that a mix of symbolic gestures and concrete measures had reinforced a sense of government in the people, across caste. The results were most visible in law and order.


In February 2005, I had been struck by the sheer lack of scandal with which residents of Bettiah town spoke of the kidnapping industry that the district of West Champaran had become infamous for. By the end of 2005, the dacoits still abducted and looted, but they were falling on bad days. The sugar mills had mostly closed down, so had the leather industry in Bettiah, plywood factory in Lauria, rice mill in Chanpatia, jute and paper mills in Bagha. Now they said, without horror or humour, that the ransom could be as meagre as ten lungis made of ‘chand chhap’ cotton, and/or torches to help the dacoits find their way in the dark.

One year into Nitish rule, the subject was already beginning to change. As I travelled from Gaya district south of the Ganga to Darbhanga in the north in November 2006, there were stories everywhere of how the new government was breaking or denting some of the old circles of impunity. In Belaganj, represented in the assembly by a bahubali since 1971 (except for one term in between), it had been noted that the rifle butt no longer jutted out as prominently from the window of the local bahubali-MLA’s Bolero. In Patna, according to the Indian Medical Association, about 20 per cent of the doctors had given up their private security between November 2005 and 2006. Even Nitish’s critics conceded that mahaul badla hai, the atmosphere has changed. Though not expelled by the party, Sunil Pandey, sitting MLA of the ruling JD(U), had been sent to jail in an extortion case.

This impression was confirmed by a later visit to the state in June 2010. In Siwan, politics had opened up to issues other than Shahabuddin. The number of candidates had nearly doubled from eight in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls to 15 in 2009, when Shahabuddin’s wife, Heena Shahab, was defeated at the hustings. Between 2006 and 2008, Siwan’s ‘messiah’ had been convicted in six cases out of 10 by fast track courts set up by the new government after it came to power in 2005.

Certainly, bahubalis have not been exorcised from Bihar’s politics. Munna Shukla’s example is illustrative. Elected on an LJP ticket in the February 2005 election, he was among the MLAs who switched sides to the JD(U) subsequently. In October 2005, he was re-elected on a JD(U) ticket. After the EC barred him from contesting following his conviction in a murder case, Nitish’s party fielded his wife, Annu Shukla, from Lalganj in the 2010 polls. Nitish’s government continues to bow to its favoured strongmen. But there is a critical difference. By 2010, the complaint heard most often outside Patna was of afsarshahi, or the overweening writ of the bureaucrat.


In law and order, the government had worked to a pragmatic plan: From the vast backlog of cases, pick out the showpiece cases and those easiest to carry to a conclusion. An estimated 25 per cent cases fell in the latter category, a senior police official told me in Patna in 2006, but their demonstration effect was huge. Select the cases that fall under the Arms Act, in which only the evidence of the police is required. Bring these cases to a speedy trial, send out a message.

Other than law and order, the most irrefutable change was to be found on the road. The figures were impressive: From 384.6 constructed kilometres in 2004-05 to 3,474.77 km in 2009-10. On some other crucial fronts, however, the successes of Nitish raj are more mixed.


There are fundamental questions attached to the manner of revival of schools and hospitals. Though large-scale appointments of teachers and greater monitoring of the midday meal has increased enrolment and attendance in schools, for instance, the quality of teaching by teachers appointed on contract basis is widely lamented. Admittedly, the government lacked the resources to make regular appointments on such a large scale. Yet, as a doctor in Darbhanga pointed out to me in November 2006, the Nitish government will have to eventually address the consequences of inducting ‘Munnabhais’ into the system. The government’s brave pledge to work towards a common school system – a commission was set up under Muchkund Dubey and a report submitted in June 2007 – has been quietly relegated.

The government has also drawn back from its promise of land reform. In June 2006, it set up the Bihar Land Reforms Commission under the chairmanship of D. Bandyopadhyay; the commission submitted its report in 2008. One of its recommendations urges legal recognition to the bataidars or tillers: ‘… through whom 30 to 40 per cent of arable land is getting cultivated. Hence, it is immediately necessary to recognize this category as a legal entity and give them protection regarding fixity of tenure, fairness of sharing of crop, prevention of legal ejectments and other economic oppressions from which they suffer.’ Yet, by the time elections drew near in 2010, cowed down by the spectre of an upper caste backlash, the Nitish government had fallen silent on the ‘bataidari bill’.


In a larger sense, in the balancing act between nyaya and vikas, or ‘social justice’ and ‘development’, the Nitish government displayed both great astuteness and an older cynicism. While the reservation of 50 per cent seats for women and 20 per cent for EBCs in panchayats was a far-reaching step, for instance, rearranging the power equations in the countryside and inaugurating the next stage of Mandal, Nitish’s Mahadalit strategy triggered a new jostling at the bottom of the caste scale. Worse, it has touched off a tug of war among the most deprived.

In 2007, the Bihar government set up the Mahadalit Commission to identify the Mahadalits, or the greater Dalits, ostensibly for better targeting of development schemes. To begin with, the commission identified 18 of Bihar’s Dalit groups as Mahadalit, that is, all except four: Jatavs and Paswans, the two most numerically dominant and politically coopted groups, and Dhobis and Pasis, the two groups considered relatively better-off on development parameters. In 2008, the Pasis and Dhobis were also included in the list. In 2009, the Jatavs followed them, leaving out only the Paswans, perceived to be the vote bank of Ram Vilas Paswan. If initially, Nitish’s Mahadalit strategy could be seen as well-intentioned in seeking out the smaller groups that had been deprived of their due share of the government’s attention, the later sequence of events framed its lapse into political opportunism.

Nitish has negotiated another tightrope with greater skill. He separately addressed the concerns of the backward or Pasmanda Muslims, so far sidelined by the more vocal forward sections of the community courted by Lalu’s brand of secular politics. Vis a vis the BJP, he deftly positioned himself in such a manner that he could run his government with the latter’s support, while taking the credit for its reticence on Hindutva issues in Bihar. Senior BJP leaders in Bihar, including the understated Sushil Kumar Modi, owe their early political grooming to the JP movement. The decision to keep Narendra Modi away from the Bihar campaign was taken by the Bihar BJP, for instance, but the secular dividend was claimed by Nitish.


Nitish’s re-election in 2010 was more about the Bihar that changed than the Bihar that didn’t. That may not hold true in the next election and this will be the biggest challenge in his second term.

In Bihar, government must maintain the gains on the law and order and road fronts, and address the work half done in the revival of schools and health centres, while making a beginning on the abysmal power situation. Nitish must match his stride with the aspirations he has himself triggered, or be swallowed by them. Already, in 2010, when asked about Nitish raj, many in Bihar responded with a question: ‘Road se vikas ho jaata hai kya?’ (Is the road all there is to development?)

The renewed focus on ‘Bihari pride’ by the Nitish government – showcased in the elaborate celebrations of the 99th anniversary of Bihar’s separation from the Bengal presidency as Bihar Divas on March 22 – is intended to give him more space for manoeuvre. In any case, Nitish will have more political room to reorient the government’s priorities in the second term. As a senior minister in the Nitish cabinet remarked when I asked him about the new moves up the government’s sleeve on the ‘social justice’ agenda in November 2010, ‘Ab bacha kaun?’ (Who’s left, anyway?). Quite simply, between Lalu and Nitish, all the probable mobilizations on the basis of identity in Bihar appear to have been accounted for already.


But Nitish will have to think of ways to overcome the disadvantages of running a one-man show. In the first term, he sought to vault over his party by appealing directly to the people, with only his bureaucrats by his side. While it may have arguably contributed to a stronger message and more efficient delivery, in a state like Bihar it is bound to have a significant down-side. The personality cult has served Narendra Modi well in Gujarat where Modi has similarly downplayed his own party, or been complicit in its diminution. But Modi rules over a historically well-administered state. In Bihar, Nitish’s agenda is far more ambitious and much more vulnerable to being undermined by his own administration at the lower levels, as also by a truculent party.

In his second term, the Nitish government is also likely to confront the consequences of his government’s concentration on the low-hanging fruit. The onus is on Nitish to prove, for instance, that the much-touted strategy of direct cash transfers is part of a larger anti-poverty vision and not just a method of bypassing the more fundamental challenges that lie in the public distribution system or in the minefield of land reform.



1. Documented in Rise of the Plebians? The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar, Routledge, 2009.

2. Shaibal Gupta, ‘A Messiah for Bihar’, Seminar 480, August 1999.