Fifth Column: Is Bihar India’s future?
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 continued…