At the height of Laloo Prasad’s Yadav rein in Bihar, Shilpa Shetty rocked the nation with a hip-gyrating number that went like this: “Ek chumma tu mujhko udhar dei-do/chahe badle mein UP, Bihar lai-e-lo (Give me a kiss and take UP and Bihar in return).
At around the same time, a cruel joke was raging in the country. The Japanese PM runs into Laloo and needles him: Give me Bihar and I will turn it into a Japan in five years. The inimitable Laloo replies: Big deal. Give me Japan and I will turn it into another Bihar in no time!
The song made it to the top of the charts and the joke still brings comic relief to every drawing room political debate. We will come back to Shilpa a bit later, but if you are planning to use the Bihar-Japan joke, do so quickly. It’s nearing the end of its long life. Because, tomorrow when the last vote is counted, Bihar will have taken a second sure step away from the wasted years of Laloo Prasad (the first was three years ago when it voted him out). Tomorrow on, the story that will emerge with more pomp and show from the political badland will be about Nitish Kumar and the new Bihar he is attempting to build.
Or at least that’s the way it should be. Firstly, in an election where everybody, most notably the Big 2, will be busy spinning a half-win or less into a national wave in their favour (150/543 is way less than one-third actually), Nitish will most likely be the only unqualified victor. Secondly, the result at the national level is going to be just about continuing a two-decade old experiment in crippling coalition politics and what remains to be seen is which rag-tag formation takes over. Whereas Nitish’s victory will denote a break from the past, a vote for good governance and new hope for a state that was given up for good.
But the most fundamental, the most far-reaching consequence of a Nitish win will be this: Sooner or later, Laloo himself might fight his way back out of the political wilderness this election is sure to send him into (especially if he is not part of a government at the Centre), but we can take it for granted that Laloo’s Bihar is as good as dead.
And thank God for that.
For too long has Bihar been seen as a drag on the country, for way too long has lampooning Bihar been a national pastime. The great communicator that he is, Laloo knew how to play to the cameras. While he himself became a national star by projecting a careful caricature of himself, in so doing, he reinforced the national stereotype of Bihar as a joke. While Bihar needed him to play the lead role, he was far too busy playing the best actor in a comic role for 15 agonisingly long years.
Laloo may have been forgiven his idiosyncrasies had he cared to show even a mild weakness for governance. His rule was noted for the complete Yadavisation of Bihar and a full abdication of the responsibilities of State to criminal gangs, who carved up the state among themselves.
The heartening thing about Nitish’s three years in power is that he is deconstructing Laloo’s Bihar not merely by matching political chicanery, but by good governance and by appealing to the unifying ‘Bihari pride’ rather than the divisive Bihari castes, by restoring a sense of security to the lay person on the street and by investing his time and energies in the development of the state.
In three short years he has succeeded not only in whipping a dormant bureaucracy into action, but in establishing the authority of the State and taking the State to the people for them to touch and feel it. This was perhaps the purpose of his Vikas Yatra of January-February. He would pick a district, camp there with all his top officers, take up people’s complaints, address some on the spot and talk about things that few politicians in Bihar may have even wasted their time thinking about. For example, he spoke about basic health and hygiene at a late-night gathering to huge applause, especially from the women. “The government has increased the allowance for constructing toilets. Please use the money. Without toilets our mothers and sisters have to attend to their ablutions either before daybreak or after nightfall. Can you imagine what a torture it is, what an indignity it is?”
The effect of the Vikas Yatra was stunning. Huge crowds greeted Nitish wherever he went. The very sight of the distant government of Patna pitching hundreds of tents in their midst overawed them; the sight of the Chief Minister taking a 2-km morning walk from the camp into the nearest village floored them. I asked a little boy, waiting for the CM’s cavalcade if he knew who was coming. His reply was prompt and precise: “Sarkar aa rahi hain!”
The Vikas Yatra was a political and administrative masterstroke. Nitish had wound up his election campaign even before the dates for the polls were announced.
Of course, there is a down side to such “demonstrative democracy”. Wherever he went, he received bagfuls of written complaints and raised the hopes of a people laid low by decades of State neglect. He has a hell of a task following up those complaints and living up to the raised expectations. Hopefully, he has made plans for that. But even if he fails, he would still have taught Bihar to aim high. That’s why, if and when he is able to regain power, Laloo will return to rule a Bihar that is vastly different from the one he handed over to Nitish.
A big win tomorrow will give Nitish the booster shot he needs to speed up Bihar’s reconstruction and prove to the nation that inclusive politics and good governance can win elections. If Nitish can stay the course for the next two years, he will possibly earn the ticket to rule Bihar for another five.
Perhaps then no Japanese PM would need to offer help and Shilpa Shetty might find that Bihar’s exchange rate has far exceeded a few gyrations and a kiss!
So, I have chosen my star to follow on Saturday. Who’s yours?
Tailpiece: But we don’t want Laloo gone for too long!
What’s good for Bihar is not necessarily good for news television. Laloo has been the playmaker, the poster boy and the only TRP-generating politician of the country. So, tomorrow if Nitish were to win as big as he is expected to, we might see the King of the Idiot Box go into a sulk, and maybe even a brief exile from TV. Believe me Laloo-ji, no channel wants that. There are still some things that Nitish can’t do as well as you!