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Bihar poll diary: Government as goonda
Amberish K Diwanji in Bihar |
February 13, 2005
In popular consciousness, Bihar typifies all that is wrong with India. So deep is the link between politics and caste that even former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at a rally in Darbhanga, gave in to that reality when he urged voters to vote for their caste but for an honest person.
The second phase of elections are due on February 15, and on the potholed roads that claim the status of highways, trucks and buses filled with police from all over India and paramilitary forces are moving to their designated zones.
To be fair to Bihar, in every state, people vote along caste lines. But everywhere else, when calamities or occasions arise, people overcome caste considerations while casting their vote. In recent times, Bihar has had no such phenomenon, and voting is as per caste and class lines. In 1995 and 2000, a combination of Muslim and Yadav support returned Lalu Prasad to power (in 1990, he had the support of almost all the backward castes).
Opposition politicians believe that there are sufficient numbers against Lalu now and that the lack of development and the rising crime rate can be the two issues that get people together. But it won't be easy. Caste consciousness remains very strong and deeply ingrained. And it remains because in a sense, so little has changed in Bihar, especially in the rural areas.
An ill-planned barrage
Through the heart of the northeastern region flows the Kosi, which comes down from the Himalayas (as most rivers of the Gangetic plains). It passes through Nepal before entering Bihar, where it merges with the Ganga. The Kosi is the lifeline, and the sorrow, of this region.
Northeast Bihar is the flood plains. Every monsoon sees the entire region flooded. Driving from Patna to Madhepura, one actually comes across boats lying on the side of the road; they will become the chief mode of transport after June, when the rains lash the plains. The Kosi overflows and floods the entire region.
What makes the flooding worse is the Farakka barrage, which the Government of India in its wisdom constructed on the Ganga. This barrage stops the flow of water, forcing the region to stay flooded for much longer. On the road out of Sonvarsha Raj (in Saharsa district, west and south of Madhepura) towards Patna, one can come across aquatic birds such as kingfishers, Siberian cranes, and ducks along the many lakes that still remain from the last flood.
"I have always wondered why the Farakka barrage was made. It has only added to our problems because it has slowed down the natural drainage," complains Anand Mandal, whose uncle B P Mandal was a former chief minister of Bihar. The large Mandal family is a prominent family in Madhepura, owning many acres of land. Anand is also into politics; he is a member of the Samajwadi Janata Party and stays mostly in Delhi.
Mandal says that due to the natural drainage system having gone for a toss, the region remains flooded even after the monsoons have receded. "The water goes down by December and the farmers can only have one harvest."
The fields of Bihar stretch as far as the eye can see and it is a resplendent view. Green all the way, the fields are full of wheat or mustard and dotted along with bamboo plants, all waiting to be harvested. After harvesting the present crop, the farmers will sow once more and hope that the monsoons are kinder so that soon after the monsoons, they can have a harvest. If they do manage that, then only do they have the chance for a second harvest in one season.
"That is the problem with India," complains Mandal, "The babus sitting in Delhi plan projects without ever thinking about its consequences on the poor who are affected by it. And they do little to help them the affected."
Need only 2 out of 3
The Madhepura constituency has sent some of the biggest names in Bihar (and Indian) politics to the Lok Sabha but a visit to the area will make you realise that the region is none the better for it. Stretches of road simply don't exist and sandbanks have been created to fill the gaps, making driving or riding extremely slow and difficult.
If during elections in India the demand is for BSP (bijlee, sadak, pani, that is electricity, roads, and water), Bihar is actually lucky: it only needs the first two. The region has abundant water as the endless green fields testify. But the first two are hardly available, and the further one is from Patna, the worse is the situation.
In Madhepura and Saharsa, both district headquarters, hotels run electricity on generators. To make the charges affordable, there is no electricity from late morning till evening to save on diesel cost. That is possible in winter when days are still cool but what about summers when life without a fan is, to put it mildly, difficult?
Shops are stocked with lanterns (incidentally, the symbol of Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal). Maybe it is time the RJD makes the electric bulb its symbol.
Who'll vote for a nautanki'
This is one election where many believe that Lalu Prasad might lose. Even though he does appear to have the support of his Yadav caste and of many Muslims, it is equally true that many from this combination, that has kept him in power so far, are quite fed up. Worse, they say, is that Lalu Prasad has become arrogant and that will ensure his defeat. Many cite Madhepura as an example.
Since Madhepura is a Yadav-dominated region, all the key candidates are Yadavs. But everyone is sure that the RJD candidate will lose. The RJD candidate is one Shekhar Yadav and he runs a theatre company. In this part, the word used is nautanki and it has a pejorative association. Late at nights, singers and dancers get together to hold a show; as the night progresses, the shows get raunchy. In fact, some news reports even claim that these nautankis have cabaret programmes with dancers with little (or even less) clothes. Thus, a nautanki company owner is rich, but he inspires little respect.
"Arre, he simply paid the RJD a lot of money to get a seat and that is why Lalu nominated him," says R K Srivastava, who owns a telephone booth in Madhepura. "No one will vote for him and at least here, the RJD will lose for sure."
But why did the RJD nominate such a person? Srivastava has a theory: "After the May 2004 elections when the RJD did very well, Lalu became overconfident, believing that even a donkey from the RJD will get elected. He also wants all new persons who will be loyal to him rather than the RJD. And this guy could pay Rs 60 lakh to buy his nomination."
Prasad Yadav, as his name suggests, belongs to the same caste as Lalu, and resides in Murho village, near Madhepura town. He considers himself loyal to the party but he agrees that this time Lalu has gone too far. "Who'll vote for a nautanki?"
Will he? "No… but I want Lalu to win."
Government as goonda
On February 15, it will be virtually impossible to find a private car on the roads. Why? Because the government commandeers these cars in the name of elections and takes them away from the owners or directs the cars for specific purposes. So what happens is that all the owners and private taxi operators simply lock the car and disappear so that their car can't be taken away.
Commandeering a car is allowed by law; but the idea was to make available private resources for emergencies such as war.
Complete Coverage: Assembly Elections 2005
Elections are not an emergency but a process of democracy. Surely such outdated excesses by the government should have no place in a civilised democracy. Or is the adjective wrong? The Election Commission here too is guilty of allowing such excesses in the name of conducting elections.