Debating India

They lend him their year

Monday 4 December 2006, by MISHRA*Vandita

Which is the one image to carry back from a visit to Bihar, a year after Lalu? It could be a snapshot capturing the general blunting of the Bihari’s daily distrust. Press the most weary cynic in town or village and hear him concede, “mahaul badla hai”, the atmosphere has changed. It’s only a flickering sense of a more engaged government, but it is there, seemingly across castes.

Or you could argue that change in Bihar is best framed by the revived discussion on its public education system. The ongoing process of large-scale appointment of teachers has stirred up the air that had long staled over the state’s primary school. Here, worn down teachers perform ?combined’ teaching six days a week - a euphemism for one ageing man or woman ?teaching’ all subjects to as many as five classes, simultaneously, in decrepit classrooms bare of teaching aids, erratically helped by the shiksha mitra or para teacher. There are widespread rumours of mukhiyas demanding bribes for jobs. But at last the scandal of the school is on the table. So is the breakdown in state colleges and universities. There’s been a flurry of high-level meetings on the subject.

But is New Bihar found mostly in the several deliberations of these conspicuous committees in Patna’s recently re-furnished VIP enclaves? Sheafs of press releases delivered to newspaper offices more promptly than ever before list out the committees’ achievements. And announce the arrival of a brave new state daily - Vikas ki Ganga runs through it.

Indeed, Bihar’s new regime obsesses about catchwords and phrases. Nitish Kumar was unhappy, they say, with the title ?Janata Darbar’ for his weekly audience with ordinary citizens. The ritual was renamed ?Janata ke Darbar mein Mukhya Mantri’ to give it a more humble ring. Apparently there was high-level agonising over the government’s one year report card too: should the slogan say ?Nyay ke saath Vikas’, justice with development, or ?Vikas ke saath Nyay’?

Or perhaps the New Bihar was struggling to come up anyway, irrespective of who rules Patna. For a glimpse of that heartening possibility, travel to Kanti block in Muzzaffarpur district, where the Centre launched an innovative scheme on November 19. Bank accounts were opened for labourers employed under the NREGA and they have been given ATM cards. Meet the Musahars among the 105 labourers chosen for the pilot project. An old belief forbids Musahars from consuming money gone “baasi” or stale - the day’s earnings must be spent before the day is done. Yet Musahar labourers of Kanti block needed little convincing from the local NGO that instructed them about the value of their new bank accounts. Now they can’t be cheated out of their wages, they tell you, by the mukhiya or thekedar or both.

Actually, the search for a defining image may turn out to be futile in a state where the old slogans have all failed and new promises are still being honed. But while change is a tenuous thing at year’s end in Bihar, it is much easier to plot the challenges that lie in its path.

To begin with, it is obvious that Nitish Kumar started with an enormous cache of goodwill and that one year later he is still being given the benefit of most doubts. But it is equally clear that this is still largely his predecessor’s gift to him.

Lalu Prasad Yadav may have played out his historical role in Bihar. In a state of raging inequalities, his politics and his charisma almost single-handedly shifted the balance of power in favour of historically disprivileged castes. But as this magnificent achievement became more routinised, less reversible, it began to blow his cover. It became more difficult to hide his spectacular failures: to make a broader coalition for social justice, or give it a more spacious platform by linking it with an agenda of governance.

Lalu’s successor has a tough task on the political front. Nitish Kumar must guard against the return of the old insecurities about upper caste dominance. That will undercut the democratisation process in the state. More pertinently for Nitish, it may set the stage for Lalu’s return. But Nitish has limited room for manoeuvre. Unlike his predecessor, he still lacks a reliable political base. He must, therefore, woo influential Bhumihars even as he doles out sops to Extremely Backward Castes - the other social group which consolidated behind him in the election Lalu lost.

So is Nitish’s state also made up of sectional agendas that never meet? Will caste wars continue as usual in Bihar? At the end of a year, some caste tensions seem a little more subdued - there have been no major incidents of OBC versus SC violence, for instance - but a new fault line is opening up. The upper backwards - Nitish belongs to this group - may be chafing at the government’s attempts to woo the lower backwards or EBCs. The paltry 27 per cent turnout in the Lok Sabha by-poll recently in Nalanda, Nitish’s own constituency, was widely read as evidence of discontent in the chief minister’s backyard.

But there are signs of greater sure-footedness on another tightrope. It is not merely that the BJP’s Sushil Modi, deputy chief minister, is such an unobtrusive presence in the JD(U)-BJP government. The Nitish government has taken several steps to assuage apprehensions of the Muslim minority. The Centre’s controversial vande mataram directive was quietly buried in Bihar; special weavers’ packages have been announced for backward Muslims; the Bhagalpur Commission given an extension and cases closed down for “lack of evidence’’ reopened.

On the governance front, Nitish must primarily learn to share the spotlight with his administration, particularly at the lower levels. There is rampant mistrust in Bihar of officials at the block and district headquarters. This is where a government’s sincere intentions are most likely to flounder. This is where government is most corrupt.

Finally, a long term problem lurks in the Nitish government’s singular focus on the low-hanging fruit. This strategy may work for law and order - and it has. Here, picking out the cases that are easiest to take to a conclusion has amplified the message: the new government means business. But a pursuit of the quickest results in primary education may saddle the system with long term disabilities. The regularisation of an army of para teachers and the short circuiting of procedures to fill up the sanctioned grand total of 3.40 lakh posts in state schools may become part of the problem.

See online : The Indian Express

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