"Riding a cycle is good exercise and makes our girls proud. The art of balancing they learn helps them all through their lives," says Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister, on his government's scheme of gifting a cycle to every student who reaches the ninth standard.
"Nitish is ruining Bihar. Girls and boys are selling off the free cycles they get and eloping; even good families are finding it difficult to control their girls," says Prabhunath Singh, RJD leader.
The ride is slow and bumpy, but the sign of change in Bihar is hard to miss — vast numbers of girls cycling to schools. This election campaign, Kumar is showcasing the scheme — which has gifted 12 lakh bicycles to Class IX students since 2007 — as proof of good governance, while Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad is trying to puncture Kumar's claims.
Initially meant only for girls, the scheme has been extended to boys too. "The girls were happy and the boys were not," Kumar tells each campaign rally. "My government cares for boys and girls, upper caste and backwards, for everyone in Bihar."
In 2007, there were 1.7 lakh girls in Class IX in Bihar; now there are 4.9 lakh — a threefold increase.
Trying to upstage Kumar on the cycle debate, Lalu lost his balance. He declared in a poll rally — perhaps part in jest — that he would give motorcycles in place of cycles, if voted to power.
Prompt came Kumar's riposte: "Will he give petrol also? Anyway, 14-15-year-old boys and girls are not legally allowed to ride motorcycles. Laluji's schemes are always meant to land you jail."
Lalu has since gone abruptly silent on his motorcycle promise.
Kumar is also reminding people of Lalu organising a lathi rally in 2003 — an assembly of thousands of RJD workers with clubs to protest against the BJP-led government at the Centre, in which Kumar was a minister. "He tells you to wield lathis, I tell you to wield pens. The pen is mightier than the lathi," he says.
Prabhunath Singh's take on the cycle as a morally corrupting influence is finding modest support as local RJD leaders encourage such whisper campaigns. "This cycle scheme is encouraging inter-caste marriages," says Devinder Rai of Seethalpur village in Saran.
But the 'ayes' are louder. "What did he (Lalu) do in 15 years of his rule," asks Urmila Devi in the next village. Her daughter Pushpa Kumari goes to school on a cycle and the family is excited. "Girls on cycles represent the modernisation of Bihar, which has been late in coming," says social scientist Shaibal Gupta.
The cycle is the metaphor of change in Bihar. By trying to resist the change, Lalu and his followers are losing their balance.