Congratulations to the victors of the Bihar assembly elections — its chief minister Nitish Kumar, and alliance leader and former chief minister Lalu Prasad. The results script a history on many accounts: The most obvious ones being that Nitish and Lalu, politically opposed to each other for over one and a half decades, came together before these polls, and put up a credible alliance that the voters decided to repose their trust in. More importantly, and the theme on which I will dwell at some length, is that each side — the Grand Alliance of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress, opposed by the BJP-led NDA, fought the elections in the name of development — doing more for the state and its people. So, how did people make a choice between the two?
And why did the Bihari electorate vote so differently for Narendra Modi and the BJP just a year ago in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and now for Nitish along with the RJD and the Congress? Also, did they vote their caste as traditional political actors, or set it aside and affirmed their faith in development, as more rational actors?
To each one of these, it must be said that it is the extraordinary political rationality of the country’s poorest (Bihar is home to the largest number of poor in the country) that made a choice between what type of development it
desired, appropriately at each level of government — the state and the nation — and that each must be effectively led, and above all, deliver. As I interviewed agrarian labourers in villages of Jehanabad in 2014, when they voted for Modi, high prices of food and lack of jobs were the issues on top of their list of worries. Their young ones had to take the train to Pune or Surat due to the lack of jobs locally. Also, they feared they would be unable to offer “a ghoud of kela for chath” due to high prices. Chath is the state’s most-revered festival celebrated after Diwali when agricultural products are offered to the Sun, by the Ganga. Hardly the play of charisma by the leader, but their belief that Modi would be able to fix these issues.
Going back to the same field this time for the assembly elections, I found my respondents silent on what may have been achieved on these issues by Modi, but affirming what they had gained under Nitish as chief minister of the state in the last decade. A decade of peace, law and order, roads, and now electricity in rural areas were cited as his key achievements. A decade ago, no one (least of all a woman researcher) could imagine even travelling to Patna after sunset.
Also, in evidence were the ‘chuppa’ voters — the silent community of agricultural labourers, who understand themselves only to be ‘raiyaans’ i.e. a labourer whose only job it is to till the farms of the raiyats or owners. “We have nothing, only the hope that the state will take care of us,” they said in Tulsi Bigha. They reposed their trust in the ‘teer-dhanush’ sign of the JD(U), but did not speak more or out of turn, for fear of violence, or losing their regular jobs. On further probing I discovered, they were the ati-pichada or Extremely Backward Caste supporters of Nitish. They said, landlessness was their real problem — small pattas of land or even building of community assets such as the panchayat bhavan could go a long way in improving their lives.
The weakest links between caste and voting were evident when I interviewed members of the Paswan community. Excluded from the group of the Mahadalits by Nitish, and their leader Ram Vilas Paswan now with the NDA, the men affirmed they
would vote for the local NDA candidate. The story, however, was very different for women, who in the seclusion of their homes affirmed how much they owed to the now functional local schools — where their daughters as much as sons could go. A widowed woman in the family had found a job as a cook for the school’s mid-day meals. The girls now aspired to attend the local college in Jehanabad. Indications were that the women were ready to exercise their individual choice — in the privacy of the electronic voting machines, with the protection of the state — in favour of the man who gave them these opportunities, and where they could possibly ask for more.
Further down, and in another village, the dominant land-owning Bhumihars were vocal in pledging their support for Modi, seethed at the mention of Lalu, but had little to hold against Nitish. The rural electrification and availability of power had helped them tide over agrarian distress caused due to the poor monsoon. Under no circumstances would the paddy crop have been this good if they had only relied on expensive diesel-generated power supply. As I left my interview site, a few of the Bhumihar youngsters trailed me with an application for Nitish’s officer, Pratyay Amrit, asking for transformers to be installed in their tolas. This was a different Bihar, asking for more — of power as electricity — not the raw power of the caste senas and political massacres, but for good colleges and jobs. Politically speaking, even those who wanted to support the NDA and Modi held no grudge against Nitish; they wanted his government to perform more.
PM Modi, they are hoping something be done on the reasons they voted for you. The Jan-Dhan, or the promise of laptops and scooters that the BJP has put forward as an electoral offering were not an item of charcha anywhere. And from Nitish, they are asking for more colleges and jobs. Investing in development has paid off electoral dividends, in contravention to the logic of political economy that politicians would seldom invest in development as it does not yield immediate electoral dividends. Only populist quick fixes work, they assume, where the voters can make an immediate connection and give votes in a rational exchange made in the markets. Bihar demonstrates the opposite.
In the end, I would say that although a state election in India matters little to the world, pundits — political and academic — would read the sub-script of the Bihar results with great interest for two reasons: First, India’s poorest, its women outnumbering the men, voted with their feet to resurrect a democracy which is tolerant of diversity and pluralism. Second, it demonstrated the capability of the poor, and that the irresponsible cacophony of atavistic ideas on religion and caste cannot come in their way of realising their basic developmental rights. Little did they realise that in doing so, they were breaking the well-known and established theoretical paradigms of development and politics — that the poor lack a voice, are unable to organise collectively, and demand development, reinforcing a vicious cycle. This time Bihar’s poor adopted a ‘cycle’ — literally, the ones that their girls take to schools — and have broken the myth.
Manisha Priyam, an academic, is the India lead for the London School of Economics-European Social Research Council study on Indian elections
The views expressed are personal