A migrant reflects on a state and a leader diminished: The new Republic of Bihar 

Lalu Yadav was possibly the last leader from a state diminished by division and creation of a separate state, writes Tabish Khair from Denmark

A migrant reflects on a state and a leader diminished: The new Republic of Bihar 
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Tabish Khair

I grew up in a Bihar that included what is Jharkhand today. When I left Bihar in the 1990s, Laaloo Prasad Yadav was already the Chief Minister of the state. I had grown up in a Muslim family that had voted Congress before, during and after Independence, and, despite our landowning village background and four generations of comfortable medical education, we always identified with the progressive branch of the Congress.

The only photo featuring a politician on the walls of my grandfather’s house depicted Jawaharlal Nehru, shaking hands with one of my aunts. As such, my family was positive about Lalu Prasad Yadav, hoping that a politician closer to the people would make a difference. I had moved further left than my family members, influenced by my experiences covering the sheer poverty and desperation of Gaya and Jahanabad districts as a stringer: I was enthusiastic. Change was finally coming. Or so I believed.

I spent my next five years or so working as a journalist for The Times of India in Delhi, and had many occasions to come back to Bihar, though I never covered it professionally in this new position. On every visit, I could see the mood in my family taking a more sombre turn. As a family of professionals, law and order was a significant matter for them, and by the mid-1990s, they – like many other middleclass families – no longer felt safe going out after dark.

At first, I, like many others, dismissed this as an over-reaction to a politics of social justice. There was an element of truth in it. But it was not the main truth. The law and order situation had clearly deteriorated in Bihar. By the end of the decade, when I left India for Denmark, even I had to concede it.

All my classmates were leaving the state. The educational institutions, which had started decaying under Jagannath Mishra’s Congress regime and been harmed by Karpoori Thakur’s nativism, were going faster downhill. Something was very wrong with Bihar, despite the genuine bid for social justice. What had happened?

I n order to understand what has happened in Bihar, I always go back to a little book by the sociologist and Delhi-based editor-journalist, A. N. Das, a son of the soil. One point that Das makes in his Republic of Bihar is unusual coming from an (unorthodox) leftist scholar like him.

He suggests that Bihar’s post-independence travails have to do with a longer history in which Bihar never managed to get beyond petty feudalism. Throughout the late medieval period, Bihar saw flashes of prosperity and some powerful rulers, sometimes even as late as the 19th century. But its ruling culture was mostly that of petty feudalism.

It never evolved the kind of aristocratic cultures that grew in Delhi or Awadh (Lucknow) or, after colonization, Calcutta. Das does not, if I remember correctly, excavate the details, but it’s a perception that I consider central to understanding Bihar’s travails, more so as recent developments have consolidated it. For centuries now, Bihar has been a province with resources – agricultural, but also things like the gunpowder chemicals that established Purnea, the colonial trade based on Bihari opium-farming so brilliantly depicted by Amitav Ghosh, etc. But control of these resources has seldom been local: the local ‘aristocracy’ has been more of the nature of tax collectors and short-term exploiters.

Bihar has suffered from a recent history with the worst disadvantages of feudalism and none of its elitist advantages. Even the post-independence mineral-rich region that is now Jharkhand answered more to Delhi, and to metropolitan capitalists elsewhere, than to Patna, one of the reasons why Laaloo Yadav could so easily let it go.

Once you realise this, you start understanding why the discourse of social justice goes wrong in places like Bihar. For social justice to retain its progressive nature, it needs at least one, and mostly both, of two factors: 1. Enough creation of new wealth, 2. An authority that prevents the replacement of capitalist (money-based) exploitation with forms of petty feudal (physical) power.

Bihar, with its inability to create enough new wealth in the 1990s, could only recirculate the existing wealth in the name of social justice. Grab and take. Moreover, in a place like Bihar, the methods of that recirculation would inevitably take petty feudal forms – physical control – because of ideological anti-capitalism and because the older forms of caste and class-based exploitation had remained feudal in any case.

Lalu Yadav’s government succumbed to this pressure: little new money to circulate and change the status quo, and the fact that the lathis of the upper castes had to be countered by other lathis. Inevitably, a breed of politicised criminals took over Bihar in the 1990s. They were always there, but now their numbers multiplied.

The continuity of feudal control is the reason why one has to support the creation of Jharkhand, whose indigenous peoples were often treated worse than feudal chattels by contractors and operatives from the Hindi-heartland.

But Lalu Yadav also had a political incentive to divide Bihar, as he had less chance of winning in what is now Jharkhand. Moreover, the fact that the mineral riches from Jamshedpur and Ranchi mostly evaded the coffers of Patna gave him less of an incentive to resist the partition. But with that partition, the fate of Bihar was sealed. It would never again be a state that would give us major politicians who could have a say at the national level. Lalu Yadav was the last such Bihari politician. All other Bihari politicians will now have to rule – and ascend – at the mercy of the Centre or of national parties

The history of Nitish Kumar has already illustrated this. There is no doubt that in his first tenure Nitish Kumar did a lot to improve the law and order situation in Bihar, and some of it was based on his work in improving communication and women’s liberties in the state.

There is also no doubt that the impetus has lagged in recent years, though Bihar is still better off as a state in terms of law and order, education and travel than it was in the late 1990s. Women are slightly more empowered. But all this does not hide the fact that the eclipse of Nitish Kumar is the consequence of the eclipse of Bihar.

Unlike what some dreamed, he could never be a potential competition to Narendra Modi as a prospective Prime Ministerial candidate. After all, he was just the Chief Minister of a state that has marginalised itself over the decades.

(Tabish Khair is a writer and academic based in Denmark)

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