A debate between sentiment and logic in Bihar


People know what they want



The Bihar Assembly election has become a powerful debate between sectarian sentiment and economic logic. The bookends of sentiment, caste and community, are familiar. What is the logic?

Everyone agrees that this election is about development. Development is impossible without good governance. Good governance needs stability. Evidence proves that Nitish Kumar cannot possibly lead a stable government. He has cobbled an opportunistic mismatch with Laloo Prasad Yadav and Congress, with a history of mutual character assassination and barely concealed resentments at both the personal and base-support levels. The BJP-led NDA is evidently on firmer ground, and gives more reason to believe that it is ready to govern. QED: Quod erat demonstradum, or proof through demonstration.

Voters are responding hugely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s consistent message of “development for all”, backed by specific schemes aimed at the development of Bihar. The “Bihar Package” was a game-changer because it burst the old and stale bubble of caste and creed as the critical variants in electoral preference. Roads do not have a caste. Electricity does not have a creed. Poverty does not have a religion. National initiatives like the Jana Dhan Yojana and insurance initiatives aimed at social security for the impoverished add to the demonstration effect.

Bihar’s youth are voting heavily for logic. This is not surprising. They will, after all, be the biggest losers if things remain what they are. Their lives are at stake. Their future is linked to the state’s economy. For those born between 1990 and 1995, five years adds up to a quarter or fifth of their lives. The next five years are also the most crucial part of their future, for this is when job-anxiety will peak. If Narendra Modi is their lodestar it is because he speaks the language that they want to hear. Even rebels – in-house heartburn cases who thought they could bully their way to preferment – have begun to concede that the youth vote in Bihar has shifted overwhelmingly towards Narendra Modi. The young have created a new demographic, which is beginning to register on some, but not all, opinion polls. In comparison, Laloo Prasad Yadav is stuck in a mental and oratorical groove that has not changed in a quarter century. The jaded phrases, jokes and mannerisms echo through a canyon of lost time. His humour is as flat and heavy as bread without yeast.

The only comic role in this election drama is being played by pseudo-liberals desperate to revive, through occasional op-eds and drawing room conversation, the fading relevance of caste and creed simply because their standard-bearers have nothing else in the armoury of ideas. They are insisting that Bihar remains where it was two decades ago, only because Narendra Modi is fighting these elections on the basis of economic logic.

It is not as if the old parameters are totally dead; but they are no longer decisive. Their market has shrunk. The mainstream is shifting. A shrinking stream tends to consolidate around the bank on the far side. This is another phenomenon we will witness in this election.

Moreover, the absence of credibility at the core always encourages fragmentation at the edges. Voters that Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav took for granted on the assumption that they would never go to the BJP, are now travelling away from them in the other direction. In other words, their core voters do not believe in the leadership of Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar anymore, and hence seek other leaders. No one purchases an illusion. The process will intensify as we get closer to polling day. Even the AAP mascot Arvind Kejriwal, who grandly volunteered to campaign for Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav has now discovered that he has better things to do.

Obviously, my view on the Bihar elections will be treated as partisan, and as a member of a political party I am ipso facto partisan. All you have to do is take a trip to Bihar and see the churn for yourself; or, more accurately, hear the churn. Indian democracy is famous for the silent voter. Bihar this time is quite vocal. No one shouts, for there is no need to; voices are generally raised in either excitement or anger, and the public mood is cool. People know what they want, and are waiting to express their preference when the ballot opens. The mood is not argumentative but calm.

What is exciting is a status reversal that may reflect something deeper than the possibility of a mere change of government. The debate is no longer being controlled by the hierarchic elder. It is being shaped by the young. The young are tired of gimmicks. They want a life.