Friday, November 18, 2005

Glimmer in heart of darkness

URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=82285
Can’t say who will win this time but you surely can’t miss the first stirrings for a new deal in Bihar
Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar Gupta On the last day of polling in Bihar, the question you are asked, particularly if you are just back from there, is still the same that you would have been asked in the past many elections: is Bihar ready for a change?

Now, you can look at it in two different ways. Does change mean a defeat for Laloo and his RJD and the arrival in power of a new coalition under Nitish Kumar? Or does it mean a change of mindset and aspiration, from mere social justice, a voice for the lower castes to economic upliftment and dignity — or, to put it simply, bijli, sadak, paani and padhai (electricity, roads, water and education). If your spin is the first one, talk to exit pollsters. Howsoever large your sample, you have to be a real braveheart, or thoroughly reckless, to make a prediction in Bihar. The electorate is so split, so much vote is already committed one way or the other, so little can float and there is no knowing how much of this would swing how many seats. But stirrings of aspiration for a better life, better roads, a light bulb in my home, teachers in my village school, a doctor in my primary health centre may be, just may be, you have begun to sense that — this time around. Another thing you have begun to feel even more palpably is the belief that truly fair, fearless elections can actually be held even in Bihar.

We, the usual group of Limousine Liberals, a motley assortment of journalists, psephologists, bankers, executives and sometimes part-time politicians that trawls voting zones in each election, catches up with the real hero of this round in Bihar, the election commission’s observer K.J. Rao, in the circuit house of Bettiah, the district headquarter of West Champaran district. He is kind to us, but would say nothing on record. In fact, we can hardly hold him to a two-sentence conversation before his phone rings again, and while I would never violate my reporter’s ethic in never mentioning a word spoken off the record, I feel less queasy picking up snatches of his phone conversations, at least from one end. “OK, OK. I understand. No, please. I have decided. You will have a new SDPO before this afternoon. This one will be sent out.” I presume this is about some sub-divisional police officer who was not being compliant enough. Next. “Don’t worry. One company of ITBP will reach you this evening,” he says, gesturing to one of his aides to make sure it is done. Next. “No, no. No short cuts. Tell the collector to speak with me.” And so on.

What endure in my head are those three words, “no short cuts.” Once you get committed to that very short mantra you realise the power of one man. Just one man, a retired civil servant now re-employed on contract, not even an IAS officer, who has brought about a paradigm shift you never thought was possible in Indian democracy. A free and fair election in Bihar. You can ask whom you want. A villager from any caste, a local policeman or one among very alien looking patrols of Punjab Police, nine battalions of which have been deployed among a medley of central and other state police forces currently helping the election commission in Bihar. They tell this is the fairest election in Bihar’s history.

None of Laloo’s opponents have any complaints any more. In fact, they try hard not to compliment Rao so much that he begins to look partisan. We were witness to a particularly delicious moment. At his late afternoon rally in Motihari, L.K. Advani hailed the power of one man in ensuring a fair Bihar election and then bent sideways in mock pretence to ask what his name was. But he was far too rushed to wait for somebody to fill in and said something like, “what is his name... yes, K.J. Rao”, in such a hurry that you thought he needed to take some acting lessons from Laloo first. But he could perhaps be excused. It was well past four, all helicopters have to report back in Patna before 5 pm as no night-flying is permitted and, not to take any chances, his pilot had already turned on the rotors while he was half-way through his seven-minute speech.

But whoever wins will have the satisfaction of winning what is possibly the first fair election, or rather the fairest election in Bihar’s history. It is to this that many would ascribe the low turnouts this time. Nitish tells us not to complain about falling turnouts because Bihar no longer has booths that show more than 90 per cent voting, implying that these were captured in the past and ballot boxes stuffed. Laloo says the low turnout is because of the panic spread by Rao. But you ask the common man even in Champaran, bordering Nepal’s Maoist heartland and one of the most lawless zones in Bihar, and he will tell you the region has never been safer. The central forces are wonderful, they say. And you speak to district officials and local journalists and they tell you of the electrifying effect K.J. Rao’s firmness has had on the situation.

In the very colonial circuit house’s drawing room, Rao spends no more than a half hour with us, much of which is consumed by his cellphone, then says a breezy goodbye and bounds down the staircase, like a Montgomery out to take on Rommel in Al Alamein. How does a man of 63 have so much energy, so much dash, asks one of the bankers. He could have also added, and what drives him to do it at a salary of no more than 30,000 rupees or so a month? Of course, like all men who make a difference, Rao has his critics, notably in the IAS. He was around the last time also, so how come you people did not hail him such a hero then, they ask. The implication is, it isn’t just Rao who has made the difference. It is also the absence or Laloo from power in the state for more than six months.

Can a fair election change people’s lives in a place like Bihar? If you drive, particularly at night, you could get very despondent. You might occasionally spot a signboard telling you this is National Highway 28 but it really is a moonscape where you manoeuvre your way from crater to crater. After a while your body even learns to adjust to it. As you get out of a crater your body is instinctively twisting itself to endure the next. This is really far in the east, so the sun sets very early. And then it is total darkness, barring your headlights. You drive past one village after another in complete darkness, not even one bulb anywhere for miles. People are mostly indoors, and by seven or so it is all so quiet you wonder if you are going past ghost habitations with endless elephant grass and sugarcane between them. And yet you see creativity and talent in ornate words of welcome, figures of animals and gods painted outside baked-mud-and-dung walls of people’s homes.

Surprise of surprises, we suddenly find lights. In fact an entirely lit village called Dumaria. We make a stop at the local zamindar’s home, straight out of a 1960s socialist movie, including ten tiger trophies on the walls of its main hall (“all shot before 1960”). Except that the current scion sounds as frustrated as the commoners of his village might. Rananjay Shahi is a graduate of St Stephens and says he came back to Dumaria fired by idealism. But that was in the past. Now, there is very little confidence anybody can change anything. This village is better organised. It got power lines because of political clout and now some of the better off families collectively maintain not just their power supply, but even the branch line from the Gandak canal, which turns Dumaria into an island of relative prosperity.

But you cannot fix everything. This region is infested with cobras and kraits and you hear about the sub-divisional magistrate of nearby Narkatiaganj who was bitten by a snake. The closest place you could find some anti-venom serum was Patna, at least eight hours away on roads which were mostly even worse than NH 28. But the IAS knows how to look after its own. The chief secretary intervened. A doctor started from Patna by road with the serum just as the stricken SDO started from Narkatiaganj. They made a rendezvous midway in exactly six hours and the serum was administered successfully. A life was saved though it must have been a rather gentle krait to have given the man a full four hours.

Drive through Bihar and you will hear tales like these at every mile. But they all add up to one basic fact. The state may have cradled JP’s total revolution in the ’70s and Laloo’s social justice revolution in the ’90s. What it needs now is a spell of half-decent governance. So the most vital question of this election is one that no pollster can answer: will this change this time? Will the idea of social justice evolve into a yearning for better governance? We, the Limousine Liberals, will surely check it out on our next trip to Bihar. Let’s only hope it does not have to come as soon as this one did after the last one.

4 comments:

AngelzFear said...

A great piece of writing which shows the irnoy of bihar...the incident abt snake bite and the SDO shows the level of decay in the infrastructure of Bihar. Just hope the new regime does something for the betterment of Bihar.

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