Bihar always shows the way. This is not a cliché but a reality in the 2019 Lok Sabha election where the state stands in splendid isolation from the cacophonous and vilest ever electioneering around it in neighbouring West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The days of Djinns coming out of the ballot box in the nineties are over. That class of spirits is effectively sealed for good in Bihar.
As voters queue up at the polling station in Patna and adjoining areas, Bihar offers a breath of fresh air in the country’s politics. The question arises: why are elections in Bihar different from UP or West Bengal? The reason is not far to seek.
Perhaps for the first time in the history of India, elections are fought on the agenda of social reforms. Never in the elections, the issues like prohibition, child-marriage or dowry ever figure so prominently as in this election. There is no doubt that it goes to the credit of chief minister Nitish Kumar who steadfastly persisted with these issues which appeared to be politically unattractive in other parts of the country.
Take, for instance, the manner in which he took up prohibition of the liquor in the state despite resistance from a strong section of elites who described it as an assault on their freedom. Kumar refused to buckle under pressure and continued with the prohibition, though it entailed heavy losses to the state exchequer. “The government is not interested to earn money from liquor sale” he remarked quite often while justifying his decision. Of course, the ban on liquor had a salubrious effect on the society particularly on those living on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. The money saved from liquor consumption helped housewives rebuild their lives.
There is no doubt that the enforcement of the prohibition is a major issue. Yet the decision to ban the consumption of liquor in Bihar has effectively reset the social equilibrium in the state where drunkard social behaviour was taken as a norm. At least the public display of such social ugliness is grossly checked across the state.
But that is only one side of the story. The state government expanded its agenda to include social issues like dowry and child-marriage. Kumar has launched many initiatives to check dowry and prevent child-marriage, both the issues that catalysed social degeneration of the worst order. Apparently, dowry in marriages is seen as a sign of prestige among people who still retain vestiges of decadent feudalism.
For the first time, the issue was taken at the state government level to launch a campaign against the evil. No doubt it requires a social awakening of a higher order, and yet a beginning was made. Similarly the government took up the prevention of child marriage to contain population growth and educate girls.
Of course, these issues are rhetorically bland and do not arouse the emotions and feeling that issues related to religion or castes do. But they have the ability to impact society profoundly. And let there be no doubt that Bihar’s society has undergone a profound change in its political approach in the past one decade. These issues of social reforms are seamlessly aligned with the developmental initiatives that the state government has undertaken.
For instance, the schemes to build toilets, electricity connectivity to every house, houses for the underprivileged, and potable water through supply in villages have caused serious impact on the social psychology of those who earlier viewed their genuine entitlements as munificence from Maai-Baap Sarkar. That view is completely changed as people in the lowest social and economic strata are gradually awakening to their citizenship’s rights.
There is no doubt that elections in the absence of Lalu Prasad Yadav, jailed after his conviction in the fodder scam, are not as fiercely fought as they should be. But it would be naïve to look at Bihar through the prism of the nineties when Lalu’s idioms used to run riot with people’s imagination. Remember the 1991 Lok Sabha election when he coined a slogan “bhura baal saaf karo”, and it was taken to mean cleanse the state of Brahmin, Bhumihar, Brahmin and Lala (kayastha) — all upper castes. In today’s political context, such provocative slogans and idioms have lost their meaning and significance. Bihar has been conducting a graceful and positive political discourse, which will hopefully be a ray of hope for future politics.
- Ajay Singh, Senior Journalist & Editorial Director, Governance Now