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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

Bihar’s Momentous Onus

Sunday 20 September 2015, by Badri Raina

How often in India’s ancient and more recent history have the people of Bihar played a decisive role? And thrown up men and women of great persipicacity and doggedness to stand before events and portents of grave consequence? Inumerable times, the evidence suggests.

Another such time beckons the distinguished electorate of Bihar to a trial on behalf of the Republic. There are many who are busy to grab their allegiance, through means fair and foul, but one has the faith that such allegiance in Bihar is not as easily contracted as in some other places we know. In my social and educational experience, the last Indian who may be hoodwinked is a resident of Bihar.

Which is not to say that their task is likely to be an easy one. Many disingenuous tongues will make many disingenuous presentations and offers to them; all may have a modicum of truth and of cunning, and many low-level enticements may strike home among sections of the population whose access to analysis and reliable information about contending claims remains inadequate. But why do I sense among the people of Bihar already a determination not to be taken in? I think that sense owes to the fact that few people in India have had the same premonition of the meaning of a coming eventuality as tough-minded Biharis, whatever be their social affiliation. In that context, I have heard from more than a handful of Bihari friends that large sections of the electorate there are already fully cognisant that should the chips in the forthcoming elections fall in the wrong place, the Republic of India may never be the same.

Their task has of course been rendered difficult and piquant by the scattering of claimants to their affections. Especially among those political forces who are, on the one hand, all agreed that a Bharatiya Janata Party (read RSS) victory can have the potential to unroll an avalanche against Republican/Constitutional stabilities and sanctities, and who yet, on the other hand, have trusted themselves to fight that battle to shore up the Republic in their own confidently sectarian way. One is reminded of an old quip which has it that the British never really did colonise India because there were no Indians there—only this, that, or the other inhabitants. Well, the logic once again seems to be that united we lose our discrete political space, divided we strengthen our boroughs. Even if there is no Republic left—Republic to which we have sworn allegiance and within whose pluralist dispensations we breathe and operate.

Curious is the irony that some of India’s most evolved minds subscribe to political formations that seem forever at a loss to gain any decisive foothold in the power structures that define India’s democracy. The more logical their affirmations, the less it seems their clout. A real conundrum that, and one not to be lightly mocked. Yet, those who truly and genuinely think for the “toiling masses” seem rather grandly oblivious of what eventualities most bid fair to annihilate their prospects on a relative scale of antagonisms. Nor do larger secular-Centrist parties seem to be able to muster the willingness to see the value of such lesser strugglers and to pull them into a selfless covenant on behalf of a Republic which our freedom fighters bequeathed to us out of the most incredibly impossible concatenations of history. Where they sought to make a Republic, our brightest ones, in the laudable odyssey to make of it an ideal one, are not deterred by the prospect that we may lose what little we have. There is of course the view that things must get worse before they get better. Well, who knows that such a thing may be both in the offing and mother of some rebirth. After all, Germany did return to democracy after the Second World War. And had there be no Stalinist excesses, the Russian Federation may never have emerged. Thus history teaches us to hope eternally.

What seems certain is that no Assembly election in independent India thus far may have had the same salience as the coming elections to the Bihar Assembly is most likely to have. One way or another, India will not be the same. In a recent mail exchange with a fellow Brahimin, a learned one unlike the present writer, I was told how the grand alliance in Bihar is after all a good old casteist-opportunist, disastrously fissiparous prospect of corruption and misgovernance, even if secular in protestation; to my continuing shame, I returned the answer that I had first offered at the time that the Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented—namely, that I prefer a rag-tag secular dispensation, however embedded in discrete social affiliations, to the prospect of a bull-dozingly homogenising majoritarian politics that, in having for its long-standing objective the erasure of plurality and the use of the state to enforce diktat to that effect spells a rather fatal telos for Indian democracy. The unprecedentely unique achievement of India’s freedom struggle was to forge a nationalism that was underpinned by plurality and diversity of a mind-boggling dimension, as opposed to a standard European nationalism that invariably found its legitimation in a unilingual, uniethnic, often a uniracial character,. While I live, I wish very much to see that achievement remain unimpaired first, before any prospect of enhancing its equity content may be undertaken with the confidence that it is class-based democracy that we are fighting rather than a ruling class that has jettisoned all pretence to democracy of any kind and gone over to the Reich. If I recall correctly, Marx had similar thoughts at the time of the Paris Commune, as did Lenin during the early years of India’s freedom struggle. What he had then said of the weakness of the Indian Left seems still to hold good despite the impressive strides it has made in some areas of the nation-state.

It must by now be abundantly clear even to the congenial political observer that India’s current Right-wing government is from the same wardrobe as the old Vajpayee regime only in the matter of sartorial hue, but of a wholly different fibre in all other aspects. What seemed then not feasible to the Right-wing is today a full-blown and no-nonsense agenda, of which significant elements are seen to come up for legal or governmental execution every passing day. Without, charmingly, any formal declaration of Emergency. Already, one State Government has issued a Regulation whereby the expression of “dissatisfaction” (“asantosh”) against the government through “word, sign, or picture” can attract the provisions of Section 124 A. Such being the case, one would have thought that the need of the hour is to consolidate secular democratic unities all across the political spectrum, to unleash a reasoned and peaceful challenge to this agenda, and to ensure that such challenge does not suffer electoral reverses only on the silly account of a divided vote, leading once again to the travesty that the one with most percentage of votes, even if less than a third, takes power while the majority divided into several parties is declared as the defeated side. The point seems to be that before the many structural chinks in the order of Indain democracy can be addressed, it must first continue to exist.

If this piece reads more like an exhortation and less like analysis, such indeed is the case. Although rather like a cry in the wilderness, since determinations to test out discrete political grounds seem already a fait accompli. There has generally been an appreciation of the way in which the Congress Party has defined and played its role in helping forge the grand alliance around the candidature of Nitish Kumar as the Chief Ministerial candidate. Would it be too much to expect the Congress to go a step further and relinquish some of its apportioned seats (rather in excess of its claims on the ground, one imagines) if that helps pull in the NCP and the two largest Communist Parties into the alliance? Or to persuade the JD(U) and the RJD to chip in as well, transcending old contentions in the service of a larger cause? Or, failing all that, to expect an imaginative tactical covenant that might reduce substantially the looming prospect of a potentially fatal division of the secular vote? This writer is of the view that such a thing is possible but only if all parties who desire to see the Republic preserved in the long term realise frontally that a defeat in Bihar will not just impair that larger cause but indeed all those discrete interests as well who now seem to think that going separately will yield them a better future.

We must not favour mirrors that flatter us, methinks.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.