In an election that will hinge on the battle between those who say “Nitish has done a lot of work, but…” and those who say “Nitish has worked for Bihar, and…”, it is becoming clear that you need to go to the town if you want to fill in the blanks of the first statement.
This is not to say that the village is rooting for Nitish or that the town is ranged against him — but only that the most complete case against an incumbent who, after two terms in power, is not battling anti-incumbency as is conventionally understood, is made in the town.
In Motihari, for instance.
It is the district headquarters of East Champaran, where Durga Puja celebrations have lit up streets with coloured Chinese string lights and the air throbs Bhojpuri bhakti songs.
Manoj Kumar Jaiswal owns two cinemas, Sangeet Cinema and Payal Talkies, that stand next to each other in the same complex, off the busy Chhatauni Chowk. “I have started carrying my revolver again,” he announces, in a matter of fact way. He has dusted his .32 caliber “in the last one-and-half year or so”, or ever since Nitish Kumar took the support of Lalu Prasad’s RJD to keep his government going after his break-up with the BJP.
“The Nitish-BJP or Nitish-Sushil Modi combination was like Dharam Veer”, says Jaiswal, referring to Manmohan Desai’s Dharmendra-Jeetendra blockbuster of the late ‘70s. But “the day they parted, things started declining”.
Jaiswal paints a before-and-after scenario: of the dismantling of the system of issuing driving licences through smart cards, of state government bus services brought to a virtual halt, of government hospitals again languishing for lack of basic medicines.
If the night show in the cinema is a barometer of how safe people feel to step out, says Jaiswal, then the difference before and after the Nitish-BJP divorce is this: “Till about three years ago, theatre occupancy in the night show was about 65 to 70 per cent. Now, for the last one-and-half to two years, it has dipped to 20-25 per cent.”
“Nitish is a good man, but now he is insecure,” says Jaiswal. “And he is dependent on the support of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, during whose rule only those who had nothing felt secure. We used to send our children out of Bihar, not so much because they could get a better education, as happens now, but just so that they could be safe.”
On the two “national” issues that have broken into the Bihar campaign and that resonate much more in the town than in the village — RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for reviewing the policy of reservation for historically disprivileged groups, and the Dadri lynching followed by the Prime Minister’s long silence on it — Jaiswal feels that Bhagwat is right: “reservation should be on economic criteria, you should not be punished simply because you are a Rajput or Bhumihar”. On Dadri, he condemns the lynching but says “it’s a state government matter”.
Jaiswal’s views — or set of views — are his own. But for this election in the upper-caste dominated Bihar town, they could well offer a template. Nitish is damned by faint praise, there is an overriding fear of Lalu, a disavowal of “casteism” and its portrayal as an essentially backward caste phenomenon, and an unease with the policy of backward class reservation. There is also a description of Dadri as a state matter or a denial that it could be part of a spreading pattern of intolerance.
Niraj Sinha, orthopaedic surgeon, and Sushil Kumar Sinha, general practitioner, also talk of a backslide since the Nitish-BJP break-up. “A few days ago, a doctor received a ransom demand,” says Niraj. “When Nitish was strong, criminals were put away and kidnappings and ransom demands that especially targeted us (doctors) in Lalu’s time had come to a stop. In Lalu raj, I was scared to step out after 5-6 pm even to attend to patients.”
Sushil Kumar, who runs his private practice after retiring as the district programme officer in the state health service, talks of increasing corruption and slowing government.
“I have to pay a bribe to get my own pension. The dialysis machine that came to Motihari Sadar Hospital about three years ago is still not functioning even though doctors and technicians have trained at the Patna Medical College to learn how to operate it. The new ICU unit is well-equipped, with crores spent on the latest machines, but it, too, functions only on paper.” Huge payments have been made but patients have not benefited in Motihari, he says. Because “though Nitish began by wanting to do things in the state, he has become insecure”, and worse, “of the same feather, like the RJD”.
Sushil Kumar says the reservation policy needs to be reviewed — “they are treated as a birthright. they should go only to the deserving”. Niraj Sinha believes the determining factor must be the economic criterion, not caste or “vote bank politics”. “If someone scores 30 per cent and another person gets 70 per cent, who is better,” he asks. On Dadri, Niraj says it was an incident reflective of “local feelings” but “blown up by party politics”. For Sushil Kumar, too, the Dadri lynching was a matter for the “government machinery in Uttar Pradesh”.
Prof Sachidanand Prasad Sinha, who retired in 2004 from a Motihari college, says he wants to see change. “Nitish was an improvement on Lalu, law and order improved, roads were made, public hospitals started functioning. But he cannot do everything on his own. He needs a supporting party and Lalu’s RJD will only put pressure to take the state backward in time.”
Many colleges, like Motihari’s SNS College which has only one teacher and a principal, run on the strength of one or two teachers, he says. Entire departments have been closed because there has been no recruitment in the recent past. Students take admission in colleges, and then spend their time in coaching institutes.
“Those who have benefited from reservation should be taken out from the ambit of the policy,” says the professor, there must be reassessment and revision on “economic basis”. What happened at Dadri was “nindaneeya (condemnable)”, he says, but Modi’s “efforts are in the right direction”.
Anirudh Prasad Singh, one of Motihari’s most senior lawyers who has been president of the district bar association for four terms, believes “Nitish is a good man”. He built roads, improved the electricity situation, distributed cycles to schoolgoing girls and boys. “But a man is known by the company he keeps.”
Now that Nitish has joined hands with Lalu, he will come under pressure, he says, to follow Lalu’s “divisive” agenda. Singh agrees with Bhagwat’s call for a review of the policy of reservation — “it was supposed to be only for 10 years, and why should I be denied just because I am a forward caste”. For him, Modi is a “frank, fearless and dynamic leader… even though his people talk of beef.”