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The Bhaiyya Effect

The roots of Raj Thackeray's attack on Bhaiyyas lie in the country's transformation economically. Vir Sanghvi elaborates further...
By Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2008 04:08 PM IST

It's not just Raj Thackeray. Uncle Bal is at it too — daring Lalu Yadav to perform chhath puja on Madras's Marina Beach apparently on the grounds that Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi would disapprove of this Bihari encroachment on local culture. His statements suggest that the issues raised by his delinquent nephew may not go away even if the violence has died down. Certainly, Raj is now calling for a boycott of Uttar Pradesh Day, a dramatic demand given that most of us didn't even know that there was such a thing as Uttar Pradesh Day.

I won't waste much more of your Sunday morning on the Thackerays. But there's one aspect of the Bombay agitation that's gone largely unnoticed amidst the widespread condemnation of their thuggery.

When the Shiv Sena was founded, the targets were south Indians and Gujaratis. Later, Muslims became the villains. Why does the current agitation focus on a new set of 'outsiders'? Why is Raj Thackeray so obsessed with people from UP and Bihar? If it's taxi drivers that he's concerned with, then why doesn't he object to the Sikhs who run the taxi trade near the airport? (Could it be — as Manas Chakravarty suggested on this page a couple of weeks ago — because Sikhs are tall and burly?)

The usual explanation is that Raj is perturbed by the recent migration of UP-ites to Bombay. Perhaps. But the influx is hardly new. A substantial proportion of the textile workers who were the backbone of Bombay's labour class in the 1960s and 1970s were from UP. According to Surplus Labour and the City, an influential book by Vijay Joshi — who, as my tutor, taught me the only economics I remember — UP-ites were the second-largest community among the textile workers long before the Shiv Sena was even founded. So, the influx of UP-ites is hardly a disturbing new development.

My suspicion is that the disdain with which the Thackerays treat people from UP and Bihar — the so-called Bhaiyyas — is part of a wider trend. As India develops and transforms itself, UP and Bihar are increasingly being perceived as the laggards. Once, Bihar was India's best-administered state (do not laugh: an international study came to this conclusion in the 1950s); now, it is seen as a wasteland. UP was the heart of India, the state that gave us our national language and the largest number of prime ministers. Now, it is a mess, treated on par with Bihar.

One look at the figures will demonstrate that UP and Bihar are the two states in India that are certainly not shining. The net state domestic product of Bihar was Rs 51,194 crore in 2004-05. In contrast, the state domestic product of Maharashtra was Rs 3,28,451 crore, over six times the figure for Bihar. Even poor, backward Orissa did better than Bihar at Rs 52,240 crore.

The contrast is more striking when you look at per capita figures. In 1993-94, the per capita domestic product of Bihar was Rs 3,037. Eleven years later, in 2004-05, that figure had gone up to Rs 5,772 which, when you adjust for inflation, probably means that income hardly went up at all, and may even have gone down.

Now, look at the figures for other states. In 1993-94, Maharashtra's per capita domestic product was Rs 12,183 — already four times the figure for Bihar. By 2004-05, it had gone up to Rs 32,170, nearly six times the figure for Bihar.

Gujarat was at Rs 28,355 in 2004-05, and other states were booming: Kerala at Rs 27,048; Punjab at Rs 30,701; and Haryana at Rs 32,712.

Uttar Pradesh has fared a little better. In 1993-94, its per capita income was Rs 5,066. In 2004-05, it went up to Rs 11,477 (largely on the basis of Noida, but that's another story). This makes it better off than Bihar but still worse off than every other Indian state.

Together, UP and Bihar are bottom of the list when it comes to per capita income. It takes four Biharis to earn as much as one resident of Maharashtra. And, UP's current per capita income of Rs 11,477 is less than Maharashtra's income of Rs 12,183 a decade ago in 1993-94. In those 11 years, UP has not even reached where Maharashtra was way back then while Maharashtra and other Indian states have surged ahead.

The economic disparity is matched by a political decline. In few states has politics got as dirty as in today's UP. If it isn't Mulayam Singh Yadav's crony capitalism, then it is Mayawati's shameless casteism and her naked pursuit of her own enrichment (her annual income is Rs 60 crore — the saving grace is that she declares it and pays tax on it).

As far as the rest of India is concerned, Bihar has become a wasteland run by mafia dons who are pursued by Naxalites. The rule of law does not exist, and politics is largely a question of caste.

In both states, national parties hardly get a look in, unless they are alliance partners. Regional groupings based on caste share power with one another. Because these states have such a large share of Lok Sabha seats (UP has 80 while Bihar and Jharkhand together have 54), national politics is held hostage to these caste considerations and to the ambitions of regional leaders.

All this contributes to the lack of regard for UP and Bihar in many parts of India. In Bangalore, a few years ago, a successful software executive told me that he had compiled a growth rate for south India and that it exceeded China's. "It is UP and Bihar that let us down," he said. Such sentiments are common. The face of India that we show to the world — hi-tech, Bollywood-glitzy and super-educated — has nothing to do with UP and Bihar. For many Indians, the two states have become an embarrassment.

Unlike many citizens of the new shining India, I have a soft corner for UP and Bihar. I do not dispute that they have lagged behind economically and that many of their politicians are venal. But they still seem to me to be the real heart of India, full of the qualities — both good and bad — that make this country what it is. There is a certain old-fashioned simplicity to the Indian heartland that I find strangely reassuring in this era of rapid enforced change.

And some of the criticism is unfounded. Yes, caste conflicts do dominate politics, but many states have been through the same process before arriving at a happy equilibrium: what would Karnataka politics be without Vokkaliggas and Lingayats? What about the anti-Brahmin foundations of Tamil Nadu's DMK?

Nor are all of the politicians as bad as we sometimes make them out to be. For over a decade, educated Indians have laughed at Lalu Prasad Yadav. But over the last four years, he's had the last laugh — turning out to be the best railway minister in 18 years. And who can dispute the claim that without UP there would have been no Congress party and no freedom struggle?

I have respect too for the ordinary Biharis, who are truly the salt of India, going off to other states to create wealth for all of us. I doubt if West Bengal could survive without Biharis and Punjab's crops are usually planted and harvested by Bihari workers. And oddly enough, whenever Biharis have travelled overseas, they have prospered: in Mauritius, Guyana and Surinam, for instance.

The roots of Raj Thackeray's attack on the Bhaiyyas lie in India's economic transformation. Through a combination of poor planning and worse politics, Bihar and UP have been left out of the economic revolution. When people from those states travel outside to find work, those who have benefited from the recent prosperity treat them with the kind of snobbery and disdain with which the British treated Indians when we went to England to find employment in the 1950s. Then, we were seen as losers from a place that would never manage to prosper.

But, of course, Indians ignored the racism and rose to the top of the economic pyramid. And eventually, India shed its old image and went from being perceived as an underdeveloped wasteland to becoming an emerging superpower.

It may be too optimistic to hope that something similar will happen to UP and Bihar. But we need to recognise that the disdain with which we treat the two states is both unfair and unnecessary. And the rulers of UP and Bihar need also to realise that there is a revolution taking place outside of their states — and that their people are not part of it.

How long will they deny their citizens the benefits of the new India? And how long will the voters of UP and Bihar allow themselves to be ruled by a bunch of casteist crooks?

The future of Indian politics probably depends on the answers to those two questions.

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