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Wednesday, Apr 07, 2004

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A `different' election in Bihar

Rasheeda Bhagat

With the performance of the Bihar Government, rather than that of the Centre, expected to be dominant issue of the general elections, which will also be the first after the division of State, it is going to be politically a little different this time, says Rasheeda Bhagat looking at the various issues and pull and pressure factors.

The RJD chief, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, with the Lokshakti chief, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan ... Will the partnership yield better results for the RJD?

A FRIEND who runs a manufacturing facility in Patna finds it difficult to fathom why the Rashtriya Janata Dal president, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, is the favourite of the media. "Why do you guys always make a beeline for him? As though Bihar has no other politician of any mettle," he fretted this time too, when told that one had managed to get an interview with Mr Laloo Yadav. The latter, as usual, had been at his entertaining best coming out with colourful attacks on the Opposition and deadly one-liners.

My friend wanted to listen to the tape of the interview with Mr Laoo Yadav, and after hearing only 10 minutes of it said in amazement, "This must be one of the politest interviews Laloo has given to any journalist. I have watched umpteen of his interviews on various channels and he can be really scathing with journalists."

Before one could pat oneself, Dr Shaibal Gupta, Member Secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, dashed one's hopes by saying that one of the most striking features of this election in the context of Bihar was the much lower level of acrimony between political rivals. He says this will be a very crucial election for several reasons.

"One, this is the first time a national election is being held where the performance of the Bihar Government will be the dominant issue rather than that of the Central Government. Also, this is the first election after the division of Bihar and is going to be politically a little different compared to earlier editions."

In earlier elections, he had found the "level of acrimony in condemning political opponents much more intense. I find that missing this time. Earlier, the NDA and the RJD used to be at their abusive worst when talking about each other. But this is not there this time."

Dr Gupta gives an example from two recent television debates where he was a participant. In both Mr Laloo Yadav as well as the Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, were present. "Not only was the language very restrained on both the sides, but also the two leaders talked about Bihar's ashmita (identity) and that whatever happens, Bihar should not be decried." This was such a departure from the usual mudslinging, that following the two discussions, people in Bihar even wondered whether "the whole debate was fixed!"

Dr Gupta raises another interesting point and mentions the unthinkable when he says that perhaps the level of acrimony and name-calling has come down in this election because "after the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav has joined the NDA bandwagon, the NDA is perhaps keeping its options open. The strategic thinking of the NDA seems to be that anybody can be incorporated into the national alliance, and possibly, they are not ruling out even Laloo."

Though the very idea of Mr Laloo Yadav sitting on the NDA benches sounds bizarre at the moment, hardly a year ago, who would have thought that Maulana Mulayam might give such a song-and-dance to the Congress(I) on the issue of having an alliance in UP, while he all but cosied up to the BJP?

While the sight of Mr Laloo Yadav in the BJP camp is something that the political theatre of India might yet have in store for us, for the time being he and his party are busy propagating his favourite line: "BJP bhagao, desh bachao".

Whether at the ground level in places like Patna; Hajipur, from where Mr Ram Vilas Paswan (Lokshakti chief) is contesting; or Muzaffarpur, from where Mr Laoo Yadav's bitter critic and Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes hopes to return to the next Lok Sabha, the consensus is that the alliance firmed up by the RJD with Mr Paswan will deliver it much better results than last time, when it got a mere seven seats from Bihar, with the RJD chief himself having to eat the humble pie from Madhepura, which preferred Mr Sharad Yadav.

Everybody you talk to in Bihar — social scientists, civil servants, academicians and businessmen, on the one hand, and the ordinary, uneducated rural or urban Bihari, on the other — agree to one thing: Development is something that has eluded Bihar, and even the post-script of the "India Shining" story does not find a mention of Bihar. Mr Laloo Yadav himself might ask dramatically: "What feel good factor are you talking about? There is feel good only for the RSS"; but other Biharis concede that a certain section of the rest of India is indeed experiencing the much touted "feel good", and that it has certainly given Bihar a miss.

"How can we feel good when we open the newspaper everyday wondering who would have been kidnapped the previous day, which industrialist would have got an extortion call and what new crimes would have been committed in Patna in the last 24 hours," asks a businessman in the State capital.

Dr Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute gives `feel good' a different twist when he says that in Bihar "it is a relative term. Here the feel good factor was introduced by Mr Laloo Yadav when he initiated Mandal. For the majority of the backward people of Bihar, that was their feel good; he gave them identity and honour. Of course, he was not the only one and there was a historical genesis for it. By a co-incidence he was at the helm in 1990 when these changes took place and he provided the trigger."

But feel good or its absence will have a limited role in a State where the caste continues to be a strong factor. The forward castes — Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasaths — together form about 15 per cent of Bihar's population, with Scheduled Castes and Muslims constituting 15 per cent each. The remaining 55 per cent is a heterogeneous mix of backward classes, and this list contains — believe it or not — some 100 different castes. Of this group, the Yadavs — 11 per cent in undivided Bihar and estimated to be a couple of percentage points higher now — form what is popularly known as the "upper backward" class.

But, then, there appears to have been an erosion in the RJD's Yadav base as was proved by the Madhepura Yadavs preferring Mr Sharad Yadav over Mr Laloo Yadav in 1999. But a huge chunk of the Muslim vote will continue to be with Mr Laloo Yadav, if for nothing else, at least in gratitude that "he has not allowed anything like Gujarat to happen in Bihar", points out a grateful Mohamed Hussain, a petty shopkeeper in the Muzaffarpur constituency.

Asked if it can be safely surmised that the Muslims of Bihar will not vote for the BJP, Dr Khurshid Anwar, a Ph.D in Urdu and an advocate who practices in the Patna High Court, comes out with an interesting response: "No, they will not. And let me make it clear, the BJP is not even aspiring for Muslim votes."

Asked if this was so, why was it wooing Muslim leaders like Arif Mohammed Khan or Najma Heptullah, he says, "This is only to create confusion in the minds of not Muslims, but secular Hindus. The BJP is sending out a message to the secular Hindus who are pained at events like the Gujarat carnage which says: Aap log cheekh cheekh kar Musalmano par huey zulmo key barey mei hamey poochtey hei (You scream for an explanation from us about the atrocities on Muslims), but look, the Muslim leaders themselves are joining us. This is a clever ploy to confuse secular Hindus. So let us not fool ourselves that the BJP is aspiring for Muslim votes."

Dr Anwar is an RJD member, and when asked about an even greater economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in an already backward State like Bihar, says: "The Bihar Muslim has seen his share of riots be it in Jamshedpur or Bhagalpur. All these years, when he could not be sure of his physical safety, how could he concentrate on sending his children to school? But in the last 10 years, the condition of Muslims in Bihar has changed."

If it has, it is hardly visible, and those who feel that development will be an issue in this election point out that along with other Biharis, even the educated and relatively better off Muslims of Bihar are wondering what their future prospects are in a State which is industrially backward, financially bankrupt and topping the charts on the count of lawlessness and criminal activities.

While both caste and the lack of development in Bihar will be poll issues, what about the Vajpayee factor, on which the NDA is banking so heavily?

Dr Shaibal Gupta feels that this will have limited impact on the Bihar electoral scene. "The caste factor, Mr Laloo's performance or lack of it will be the main issues and the Vajpayee factor will come into play only among the groups who support the BJP or the Congress, that is the forward groups. But in this social group Mr Vajpayee stands on a higher pedestal than Ms Sonia Gandhi."

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