This is a Bihar year.
The state of Bihar itself came into existence 80 years ago this year, by a provision of the Government of India Act, 1935.
India became a Republic 65 years ago, in 1950, with a great Indian, born to Bihari parents, Rajendra Prasad, becoming our first President.
Forty years ago, in 1975, a brave and noble son of Bihar, Jayaprakash Narayan, was taken into custody under the National Emergency of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
And 25 years ago this year, in 1990, Lal Krishna Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya was stopped in Samastipur, Bihar, by the then chief minister Lalu Prasad.
Eighty, 65, 40, 25 make landmark anniversary years. Such anniversaries are called ‘musical’ or ‘chiming’ anniversaries. Together they make 2015 an important year, an anniversary-filled year, for the state and the people of Bihar.
Do these disparate happenings resolve into a discernible ‘meaning’? Objectively speaking, no.
Each development took place by a momentum of its own, driven by trends that had little to do with each other.
Did the separation of Bihar and Orissa hold any particular meaning for Bihar? It did, for Orissa, in that it was no longer a junior partner yoked to an untenable jointure. But for Bihar? Did becoming a Bihari Bihar mean anything to its people? One could take a cynical stand and say the poor of Bihar were poor before and after 1935. That would not be incorrect but would be not a complete picture. The elections held across India under the 1935 Act provided for separate electorates for Muslims, a divisive step which was opposed by nationalists. But given the compelling circumstances the Congress went into election mode and rendered a good account of itself. It won in eight of the 11 provinces.
Rajagopalachari became premier as chief ministers were then called, in Madras, GB Pant in UP, BG Kher in Bombay, Khan Sahib in NWFP, NB Khare in CP, Gopinath Bordoloi in Assam and in the new provinces, Biswanath Das in Orissa and Srikrishna Sinha in Bihar.
Sribabu would have made an unconvincing premier of undivided Bihar and Orissa but with the tall Bihari heading the first Congress government of Bihar, a certain felicity took place and a certain aspiration came to fruit. Proof of the mood? None. Identity is felt, not weighed.
Rajenbabu’s becoming India’s first President was a matter of national rejoicing, but for Bihar it was a moment of rapture. Gandhi’s lieutenant in the Champaran satyagraha of 1917 and a turbine of relief after the Bihar earthquake of 1934, the gentle but focused and tireless Rajenbabu was a dearly loved and respected figure in Bihar. When he became rashtrapati, Bihar felt India’s sovereignty radiated from Bihar. Proof? There is no proving of emotion.
Likewise, the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement was of all-India significance but his saying ‘I will teach this government a lesson’ after being felled by a lathi blow in Patna made Bihar the movement’s epicentre.
‘Purna kranti ab nara hai, bhavi itihas hamara hai’ (Total Revolution is our slogan now, future history is all ours now) grew into a potent force in Bihar, energising students and youth organisers as never before, triggering a national surge. That such a charge could rise so powerfully and then evaporate is a lament of laments. But the Emergency’s lessons have not been lost. No one can tamper with democratic rights and civil liberties in India without a howl of protest rising to set the wrong right. Bihar’s JP and JP’s Bihar have vouchsafed that.
As for the halting of the rath yatra in 1990, whatever the experience meant to the veteran BJP leader, it has gone into Bihar’s lore. If Rama was prince of Ayodhya, Sita was princess of Mithila. That epics are a cultural treasure but are not to be morphed into political bullion was shown by the state government’s action. Lalu Prasad has so handled his political opportunities that it is difficult to invest ‘future history’ in him. However, I cannot but think that had this son of Bihar been UP chief minister in December 1992, the Babri masjid would not have fallen, crushing, as Ramchandra Gandhi pointed out, Sita ki rasoi in its debris.
This year is a history-making election year for Bihar.
We have seen that the 1935 Act provided for separate electorates. Those belong now, thankfully, to the past. But will Bihar be voting un-separately on political, not communal grounds?
Will it return — Hindus and Muslims all voting together with their political antennae quivering, the widely admired, hard working ‘JP follower’, Nitish Kumar, with Lalu Prasad’s and the Congress’ support? Or will it give the BJP the chance to govern Bihar on its own it has been waiting for? Or will the people return a hung assembly?
Whatever be the result, the impact of the Bihar elections will not be Bihar’s alone. It will be felt nation-wide.
If the vote gets polarised on ethnic lines, with the energetic Ram Vilas Paswan bringing a cache of Dalit votes into the BJP alliance, the ‘lotus’ could win emphatically. But if the vote goes as it has in the past and the logarithm of Nitish+Lalu+Congress+religious minorities works, a new dynamic will enter our political scene today.
If the victory in Bihar is of political choices the Bihar of Rajendra Prasad, Srikrishna Sinha and Jayaprakash Narayan would have won, with another ‘chiming’ anniversary entering future history.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.