Last week I went to Bihar for the first time in 15 years and returned feeling more despondent about India’s future than I have in a long time. Not because there has not been change and development in Bihar, but because everywhere I went, I saw the failure of the state to address real problems. This is true in other states, but nowhere as true as in Bihar because everything here is amplified. Poverty, squalour, corruption, environmental degradation, horrific urbanisation and the angry despair that is the mood of this election.
So has anything at all changed for the better since I was last here in the reign of Rabri Devi? Yes. Law and order has improved dramatically. The route I chose when I went into rural Bihar last week was one I have taken often on earlier visits. This is from Patna to Bodhgaya, where not long ago the state’s hold on public safety was so fragile that no sooner did Nitish Kumar become chief minister than Jehanabad’s Central Jail was attacked by Naxalites who freed 200 of their comrades and escaped unharmed.
Jehanabad today is a hideous, chaotic, filthy town but safety is no longer a problem. In the villages I stopped in, even those who said they would vote for Narendra Modi admitted that Nitish deserved credit for restoring law and order. Speaking of Modi, let me begin by answering the question most frequently asked since the election campaign began: is there a Modi wave? Yes, but only among Bihar’s Hindu population. Muslims told me, in town and village, that “99 per cent of Muslims will never vote for Modi”. And, it is voting for Modi that everyone talks about, not voting for the BJP. Across caste divisions, which personally I have never totally believed in, Modi has captured the imagination of the Bihari Hindu because they believe he can transform India. If you ask why they believe this, they tell you that it is because they have seen what he has done in Gujarat. Not just on television but because many of them have gone to Gujarat often in search of work.
Now let me tell you why I left Bihar with such a deep sense that India is never going to make it. Never going to catch up with the rest of the world no matter how many shiny new malls rise out of the squalid, unsanitary streets of our cities. We talk in abstractions about poverty and the ‘aam aadmi’ and Aamir Khan recently did an excellent Satyamev Jayate on urban waste disposal. But, it is only when you physically see town after town slowly being submerged in rising mountains of garbage does horrible reality hit you. And, only when you visit a settlement of the poorest of the poor in Bihar that you realise how little things have changed.
In 1987, on the edge of Daltonganj, then still in Bihar, I met bonded labourers who had never travelled beyond the confines of their slave master landlord’s estate. They lived in mud huts, were paid their wages in kind and had no idea what money looked like. Last week, in the village of Jamalpur, 35 km from Patna, I saw a settlement of the Musahar community where almost exactly the same conditions exist today. There is no road to the settlement so I reached it by walking on a railway track to find small children who looked as if they had never eaten a wholesome meal and adults who had never been to Patna. The mud huts in which they lived were so frail they could not possibly survive wind or rain. The survival of children in such filth and deprivation was in itself a miracle. I travel in rural India every chance I get and nowhere in recent years have I seen such poverty and degradation.
The upper castes in this village had heard of MNREGA but said there was so much corruption in it that they had been forced to use the Right to Information to prove that dead people were among the beneficiaries. They had travelled so often to the chief minister’s janata durbar to complain that his officials were sick of them. There was corruption they said in every government programme and this had drawn them for a brief moment to Anna Hazare’s campaign, but when they saw Arvind Kejriwal “run away” from governing Delhi, they lost hope in this alternative.
They have now pinned their hopes so totally on Modi that, if I were him, I would be a very worried man. Wherever I went on my travels in Bihar, the most dramatic change that I saw was technological. Almost everyone has a cellphone and almost everyone watches the news on television. And, because of this, there is now cynicism mixed deeply with despair.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh