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Post-depression Bihar

In November 2010, when the results of the Bihar assembly elections were announced and Nitish Kumar returned to power, I, like thousands of Biharis across the world, raised a toast to the man and heaved a collective sigh of relief.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2011 22:58 IST
Siddharth Chowdhury

In November 2010, when the results of the Bihar assembly elections were announced and Nitish Kumar returned to power, I, like thousands of Biharis across the world, raised a toast to the man and heaved a collective sigh of relief. The past five years had been good for Bihar, real estate prices had soared, strict implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has reduced migration of landless labour to construction sites in Punjab and the National Capital Region and the roads have achieved that long-promised-for Hema Malini smoothness. Many of the criminals who had roamed free on the roads were behind bars. Young men were thinking twice before getting long, white muslin kurtas with sleeves so long that they exceeded their grasping fingers, stitched and carrying Mungeri kattas in their pajama pockets.

Those long, cadaverous white kurtas were the sartorial statement of Patna of the late 1990s and early 2000 when it had, in many ways, become a war zone. A city under siege. Come 7 o’clock in the evening, hundreds of young men in those talismanic kurtas would come out of their burrows and descend on the somnolent towns of Bihar and the macabre masque of murder, extortion and kidnapping would be played out. All in the name of one man, the ‘saheb’. There was no law, there was no order and jails were posher than government guest houses where every night, epic debauchery took place.

Every few months when I would visit Patna, I would hear new horror stories. A young girl, daughter of a prominent trader, kidnapped, raped and murdered along with her boyfriend. A leading neurologist of Patna, once kidnapped, was now paying his ransom in monthly installments from Delhi. A close childhood friend of my father, a leading intellectual of Patna, shot dead at point blank range in his own home. But there was gallows humour too, like how in medical conferences, the medical representatives would crib that there were more security guards than greedy doctors at the buffet tables.

The business that flourished in those times was of security agencies, supplying guards to apartment buildings, businessmen and doctors. Many from the business community left for Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay. Upright IAS and IPS officers, fearing for their lives and daily humiliation at the durbar, left for long study leaves and central deputation. From 2001 to 2004, the time when I was writing Patna Roughcut, each time I visited the city, I would be gripped by acute depression. A day in my hometown and I couldn’t wait to get out. There was no fear but I dreaded to walk on the streets of a city that was so mired in unhappiness. The city had lost its natural exuberance. It had become Salman Rushdie’s Land of Chup. The Patna I grew up in was one I never wanted to leave. There was never a sense that I was born in a backward place and I must get out early if I wanted to seek fame and fortune. I wasn’t deprived of anything in that city. I do realise now that perhaps I was more privileged than many others in my hometown. With the coming of Lalu Prasad in 1990, my Anita Desai of a town soon turned into a Borges labyrinth. From one extreme to the other.

Lalu, with his politics of social justice, made Bihar a far more democratic place than it ever was. And far more criminal. Now it was a crime to be upper caste in Bihar. Earlier, for centuries, it had been a crime to be born a backward in Bihar. Caste senas abounded and as this social churning continued, Lalu quickly lost the plot. He transformed overnight into the very man he had hated intensely all his life: the upper caste landlord. He became the ‘saheb’. Imperious and above the law. With the Congress as his junior partner.

Education and development came to a halt. The poor became poorer and the backward more backward. The privileged upper caste with their centuries of manufactured merit chose to sit out the storm in Delhi and other metropolitan cities of India.

And then in 2005, after 15 years of Patna Puraan, seething public anger and electronic voting machines proved the undoing of Lalu. He was defeated by his ‘chhota bhai’ Nitish. The half a decade since 2005 have been years of calm. Kidnapping and extortion and petty crimes have abated. Law and order is actually first rate and there is also some development. A spanking new Domino’s Pizza outlet has just opened in Patna. The upper castes have lost their inbred arrogance and the OBC and Dalits their servility. This is a time for reconciliation in Bihar.

Even though Bihar has not yet transcended caste, Nitish miraculously has. He is now on the street corners of Bihar seen as an Universal Statesman, rising above narrow considerations of ethnicity, caste and community. It is a promise he must at all costs redeem. Though I do hope he would stop talking of Bihari asmita as that makes him sound dangerously like Narendra Modi and his Gujarati asmita. Not a good visual corollary to have if you have aspirations of becoming the first Bihari prime minister one day.

Also it remains to be seen whether his predominantly upper caste and land owner support base allows him to implement land-reforms (bataidari kanoon), something dear to his heart and which he knows is central to curing the monumental sociological and political ills that Bihar has been beset with since the time of the Permanent Settlement.

In the end, the best thing about Nitish is that even after five years in power, on the streets of Bihar, he is still the common man’s ‘Nitish’. He is yet to become a ‘saheb’.

Siddharth Chowdhury is the author of Day Scholar The views expressed by the author are personal