Never mind the constant that is caste. But there’s a huge gap between what the people want and what the netas talk in Bihar.
Hit the Hajipur bridge here over the Ganges and you’d run into unending queues of commercial and private vehicles stranded for hours on a 6km stretch. The sole link between Patna and the northern Bihar districts of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur Muzaffarpur, Chappra and Vaishali is under repair for over two years.
“The government that puts it back in shape will earn huge political capital on either side of the Ganges,” said a daily commuter. His sentiments resonated in Sitamarhi, a good 100km removed from Hajipur.
“Earlier we rode tractors and took boats in the rainy season to Muzaffarpur. Now buses run on the tarred road,” said Damodar Thakur, a retired government servant. “So wouldn’t I be lying if I said Nitish Kumar didn’t do any work?” he asked when probed about Narendra Modi’s jibes against his JD-U rival’s development record.
The popular quest for a quality life finds tangible expression in political chats at tea-vends and kiosks lining rural markets. Talk to the youth and they want jobs, women want empowerment and education, the depressed classes social justice and the minorities safety and equity in opportunities.
With the primary agriculture sector at saturation point and the secondary and tertiary sectors underdeveloped, a gap exists between aspiration and delivery. That’s why Modi taunts Nitish about Biharis leaving homes for livelihood in other states: “Bihari ko bahari kissney banaya?” He flaunts the trend as abject failure of the nearly 40 years of the Congress rule followed by Lalu and Nitish’s 25 years.
Affirmative action is all about identity. Yet it has to it a strong aspirational tinge in the absence of adequate livelihood openings in non-government sectors. It’s this hiatus that compels political parties to strike a balance between their promise of development and retaining quotas in jobs and educational institutions.
The fact of aspiration overwhelming caste among the educated sections, notably the youth, explains the BJP’s emphasis on the Lalu-era lawlessness called the ‘Jungle’ Raj. Prof Jitendra Narayan of Darbhanga’s Lalit Narayan Mithila University maintained that educated women, including those from the Muslim community, weren’t comfortable about Nitish teaming up with Lalu.
In Muzaffarpur’s Aurai that goes to polls today, a Yadav boy at a BJP rally had made a similar distinction: “the educated among us associate with Modiji. Only the ganwar (uneducated) are holding Lalu’s lantern...”
But as Prof Narayan spoke, other teachers who interacted with me on the sidelines of a seminar on Sardar Patel, disagreed. “There’s no such possibility. The NDA’s is only a promise. Nitish has done development work,” argued KK Chaudhary, a Maithili Brahmin who teaches mathematics at a local women’s college.
His view was supported by Vinay Mishra who believed that a section of urban women may opt for Modi but in the countryside, caste identities will navigate choices across genders.
From such voices on the ground, it seemed that Nitish is able to negate the downsides of aligning with Lalu on the strength of his work in the power sector and the network of roads he has built. His campaign is a counter to Modi’s; the RJD chief ’s rustic match to Amit Shah.
Much maligned though he is by the BJP, Lalu’s force-multiplication of Nitish is there to be seen in the alliance’s social aggregation. In Darbhanga, the Muslim Yadav electoral chemistry is preventing the religious polarisation the saffron side wants. “They tried it during Durga Pooja but failed. We’d again foil their designs,” said Pervaiz Alam.
A Yadav couple at a tea -shop on a busy road in the town nodded in approval as Alam and other Muslim clients forecast RJD’s victory in the November 5 vote: It was Modi in 2014, it’s the alliance’s turn now!