On the road from Patna to Darbhanga, near Samastipur there is an intersection of two national highways, NH 103 and NH 28, called Musrigharari. It is known as a centre of power (or power brokers) from where the politics of at least four neighbouring districts — Samastipur, Begusarai, Vaishali and Darbhanga — is either controlled or influenced. From Karpoori Thakur to Nitish Kumar to even local level leaders of zila (district) and prakhand (block), every politician worth his salt has been associated with this place in one way or another. As the name suggests, Musrigharari, or the house of mice, also holds “shops”, as many locals told me, of dozens of leaders of all hues. Among these leaders are the chosen ones, the proven ones and the aspiring ones as well. The normal political discourse emanating from their shops surprisingly did not harp on the common narratives of caste, development, dignity and swabhimaan, around which much of the post-poll explanatory narrative has been woven.
In a place like Bihar, where the state is the main source of all resources being distributed to the population in a top-down redistributive mechanism, the control of the state apparatus becomes the primary goal of electoral politics.
Much of the post-election analysis only deals with vote-share, seat-share, caste-wise electoral patterns and other parameters of voting behaviour. It, however, glides over the primacy of voters’ desire to be close to positions of power in every constituency. When some BJP leaders told me candidly in a post-election introspective mood that, “Our karyakarta ended up being our voter and their (Mahagathbandhan’s) voters also became their karyakarta,” it indicated the fact that there was a stronger desire within the Mahagathbandhan voters to actively campaign to be close to the positions of power.
In order to understand the importance of the levers of power at the local level, it becomes imperative to understand the nature of the state in Bihar, and also how it was transformed by both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in their respective terms as chief ministers.
Lalu’s regime was created on the plank of social justice. He brought many hitherto backward castes into the forefront of local power and empowered the intermediary castes to gain control over almost all aspects of the state. The state, in the process, became highly dysfunctional and extremely preferential. Mediators and power brokers belonging to the intermediary castes gained control of the limited resources of the moribund state. These mediators under Lalu’s regime distributed few resources, but relied more on the delivery of services like protection and mediation.
However, with limited resources available with the state, this new class of elites too started looking out desperately for the means to enhance their economic clout. They found a saviour in Nitish. With his sushasan/ good governance agenda clubbed with control over law and order, Nitish tried to change the composition of these power brokers and mediators. While at one end the expansive capacity of the state to generate more resources through reforms in tax collection helped in expanding the economic capacity of these mediators, on the other end, even the social profiles of these mediators was changing swiftly.
Under his regime, Nitish co-opted many hitherto neglected social groups within the ambit of the state through various reservations for the panchayati raj system. Positions of vikas mitra and tola sevak were created for Mahadalit youth. Mukhiyas now came to be elected from among the economically backward classes, women and Mahadalits as well. This sudden democratisation of the state machinery at the lowest levels of power shifted the dynamics of local power at many places, but it also created a hunger and desire for power among the lowest of the castes. This kind of patronage network was legitimised by the co-optation that the state offered and hence was easy to handle.
With its abundance of popular Dalit faces among its leadership, like Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi, the NDA had hoped to make inroads among these voters. But what they failed to gauge is the strong bond voters had already created with these levers of power that they now happened to control. The “shop-keepers” of these innumerable shops also reposed their faith in both of their patrons.