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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

Development in the Land of Status Quoist Politics

Saturday 5 July 2014

by Arun Srivastava

Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik and Bihar’s former Chief Minister Nitish Kumar have many similarities: Both are perceived as the icons of development and growth; both are prime ministerial materials; and both have mustered courage to rebuff the BJP and chart out their own independent political lines. But they have one poignant difference. While Patnaik stopped the juggernaut of Narendra Modi in Odisha notwithstanding the latter’s incredulous boast to wipe out Patnaik and his BJD from the soil of Odisha (with Modi miserably failing to register even a decent gain), Kumar could not hold on to the ground and was wiped away by the so-called Modi wave. While the people of Odisha did not become ungrateful and endorsed Patnik’s development script, Kumar—under whose stewardship Bihar achieved 14 per cent growth during 2012-13 and was projected as the fastest developing State in India—was dumped by the Biharis. They forgot that he was the person who had brought out Bihar from the quagmire of neglect, poverty and non-governance.They preferred to believe in the promises Modi made instead of reposing faith in Kumar.

With the ‘Modi wave’ gripping the psyche of the country and providing the BJP an unprece-dented victory in most States, three regional leaders stood tall and stopped the Modi wave from sweeping across their States and in the process also established their supremacy even in national politics. These three charismatic Chief Ministers who proved everyone wrong were Navin Patnaik (Odisha), J.Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu) and Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal). Ironically Nitish Kumar, who was perceived as the real challenger to the hegemonic politics of Modi, could not withstand the onslaught. Kumar’s JD(U) could win only two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the State.

Jayalalithaa proved all exit polls wrong and won 37 out of 39 seats. The BJP, which tried hard by allying with six regional parties, could manage to win just one seat. The ‘Modi factor’ did not work in Tamil Nadu. Mamata Banerjee decimated the entire Opposition by winning 34 out of 42 seats. The BJP did win two seats—Darjeeling and Asansol. The biggest shocker for the BJP came in Odisha where Modi expected to win at least four-to-six seats. Navin Patnaik stopped the Modi juggernaut and won 20 out of 21 seats—six more than the 2009 tally. The BJP won the ‘face-saver’ in Sundargarh.

Obviously this raises questions—why did Kumar, the Sushasan Babu, fail? Why did the Biharis not repose their faith in the leadership of the person who was championing the assertion of the self-identity and sub-nationality of the Biharis? Nitish has made a habit of proving his skeptics wrong. But this time he could not hold on to his charisma. During his nine-year-long rule Nitish did not have to face significant allegations and challenges. In contrast Navin’s clean image was under greater scrutiny in this election than it has ever been in the past. With the M.B. Shah Commission holding his government squarely responsible for the loss of at least Rs 60,000 crores in the mining scam and recommending a CBI probe, the BJD supremo was on a real sticky wicket. Besides his question-able role in recommending the Talabira II coal block in Sundargarh district, which had already been given from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) to the Aditya Birla Group, he was also facing the prospect of a CBI inquiry into the multi-thousand crore chit fund scam. But these could not impress the Oriya people. They stood solidly behind their leader, Navin.

In March 2004 when he first became the Chief Minister, Odisha had a meagre per capita income of Rs 14,862. It rose to Rs 26,900 in 2011-12. In September 2013, the RBI adjudged Odisha as the hottest investment destination for new projects. Patnaik received a clear-cut mandate for an unprecedented fourth term. While in the first two terms winning came easy, it was also about appeasing everyone in what was a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the third, he benefited from severing ties with the BJP, thereby re-establishing his secular cred-entials in the aftermath of the 2008 Kandhamal riots. Little doubt Navin’s perfor-mance during the last 14 years has been commendable but not in the manner it was expected to, considering Odisha is a resource-rich State. In 2000 there were two Maoist affected districts; now the number has swelled upto 18. The State Government has failed to curb the Maoists.

Even then Navin won. The fact of the matter is that Navin symbolised the aspirations and emotions of the common Oriya people. He aroused the sentiment of sub-nationality through his actions, not merely words. The people of Odisha saw in him their messiah. Basically this was the reason why they stood by him notwithstanding the Opposition raising the bogey of corruption and non-performance.

On his part Nitish organised the Adhikar Rally demanding special category status to Bihar, with the motto to arouse Bihari sub-nationalism. During the last five years the State Government organised various programmes. The focus remained the backwardness of the State and people’s sentiments. By saying that the special status will change the destiny of the people, Nitish tried to make it a strong political agenda linking it with Bihari pride. During the last few years, Nitish has left no opportunity to arouse the feeling of sub-nationalism and promoting the image of Bihar worldwide, particularly among the Biharis. He said Biharis were now feeling proud of being identified with Bihar.

Bihari sub-nationalism was aroused on a large scale in March 2011 when the State Government observed Bihar Diwas on March 22 on completion of 99 years of Bihar’s separate identity. On the same day in 2012, functions were held on a wide scale not only in Bihar but in other States as well, and also in different countries. The day was seen as a day of Bihari pride.

For intellectuals and academics, Nitish’s efforts were to recapture the past glory of Bihar in the modern context and arousing Bihari sub-nationalism. They even projected Nitish as the harbinger of modern renaissance. According to them, the agenda of special category status will help build a ‘coalition of extreme’ which will lead to substantive sub-national cohesion in the State since building Bihar is in the common interest of the people of the State and the widest possible provincial consensus can emerge on this agenda. Some of them even viewed that in the post-independence era, the special status is a caste, class and ideology-neutral agenda.

Ironically the monster of caste emerged in the most ferocious manner during the Lok Sabha elections. All these exercises proved to be futile. Intellectuals cited the case of Maharashtra. But they were wrong. Maharashtra has one unifying language Marathi, as Oriya for Odisha or Bengali for Bengal. But it is not the case with Bihar. The State has five distinct languages and it is a reality that the Biharis are divided on the basis of loyalty to their language. These languages also identify the territorial entities with definite dialects like Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili. These are also distinct from Hindi and more related to Bengali, Assamese and Oriya, as all these dialects derived from a common root known as Ardha Magadhi Apabhransa. Like Bengali or Oriya, no common ‘Bihari language’ has ever emerged.

It is worth recalling that in 2011 during a Bihar Divas function at Gandhi Maidan, the slogan was “Garva Sey Kaho Hum Bihari Hai (Say with pride you are a Bihari)”. Nitish and his then deputy, Sushil Kumar Modi (the BJP leader), had said Bihari sub-nationalism should tide over caste. Modi had observed: “There is no contradiction. I can belong to a particular caste and still be a proud Bihari. Just as being a proud Bihari does not contradict being a proud Indian.” But just the reverse happened. Truly speaking, the BJP played the worst caste card and split the Bihari people on caste lines. Right now there are no Biharis. There are Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Yadavs, Kushwahas, EBCs, Mahadalits, Paswans and, of course, the Muslims, even backward caste Muslims.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, played the caste card in Muzaffarpur on March 11 when he declared his opponents could not tolerate a former tea-seller from a backward caste trying to become the Prime Minister. Nitish tried to keep the “Bihari pride” factor afloat but it did not click and the party had to go back to caste.

Paradoxical as it may appear, the identity of the Bihari got currency when it was used to identify the migrants from the Hindi heartland to other States. It would not be an exaggeration to say that intellectuals misled Nitish in projecting the sub-nationality question. In fact in Bihar there is no concept of Bihari nationalism. A Bihari was always an Indian and of so-and-so caste; whereas in Maharashtra, a person was an Indian, a Maharashtrian, his caste came thereafter. The caste remained the main social reference of individual identity. Significantly, an intermediate identity of region or sub-nationa-lism could never surface. An average Bihari has two identities—the first one related to caste and the second one to the nation

Though Nitish raised the issue of self-assertion of Bihari sub-nationality it did not help the development of sub-nationalism. It was used by Nitish to consolidate his base. But this could not withstand the attack of Modi’s social engineering. In fact the urban middle class or Westernised Bihari elites projected the issue of sub- nationalism. It is also a fact that the demand for special status for Bihar was raised by the professional, educated elites and by the Bihari entrepreneurs. They viewed the future scope through this slogan.

Unfortunately for Nitish, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate targeting the urban middle class and urban elite, this base of Nitish developed cracks. Wrong handling of the social, political, caste and class contradictions by Nitish simply aggravated and complicated the situation. What hurt Nitish most, according to his close aides and friends, was his strong element of distrust towards his party colleagues.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com