Because Chanakya lived in Bihar!

Updated: 28 October, 2020 07:32 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

India's youngest state goes to polls that seem far more confusing than entertaining.

BJP MP Manoj Tiwari leaves in a chopper after an  election rally ahead of Bihar Assembly polls in Kaimur district, Bihar. Pic/PTI
BJP MP Manoj Tiwari leaves in a chopper after an election rally ahead of Bihar Assembly polls in Kaimur district, Bihar. Pic/PTI

Mayank ShekharCovering an RJD press conference once, with Lalu Prasad Yadav fielding questions on new party recruits, manifesto, etc, I noticed a familiar drill play out, which, to me, seemed pretty unique to Patna then.

Local journalists, bored out of their wits for an hour or so, made eye-contact and pulled out a khurafaati (mischievous) reporter — usually bold with throwing keywords at Laluji — to randomly yelp, 'ghungroo', 'bedia' (shackle), 'naao' (boat), from the back.

As if on cue, Laluji began with his repartees to what his opponents had said lately: "I'll play tabla, if Nitish (Kumar) wears ghungroo; naao mat dubana, Nitishji..." Everyone was in splits. I realised this is what politics/elections in Bihar foremost is — entertainment, loaded with gossip, about less than glamorous looking men.

This was during the 2010 Assembly elections. Laluji got a drubbing of his lifetime. Nitishji's JDU plus BJP, namely NDA, won. But Nitishji dumped BJP in 2013. In the next election (2015), Laluji and Nitishji got together instead. Against BJP. But then Nitishji junked Laluji, only a couple of years after getting the votes. To go back to NDA, yet continue as CM.

Does any of this backroom bad behaviour shock the Bihari? Can't. Bihar's third best-known politician Ram Vilas Paswan recently passed away, holding a national record for having been a major minister, under every Indian prime minster, between 1989 to 2020 — VP Singh, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi — barring Narsimha Rao (1991-96).

He was hailed as the 'mausam vaigyanik (weather scientist)', of politics. Which is deemed as simply the art of getting into power, and staying there forever. Paswan's son Chirag is now heir to their party, LJP. He remains in the NDA in Delhi. His 2020 campaign is aimed at Nitishji/NDA's poor governance in Bihar, although he was part of the same government, with a cabinet minister in it!

Nitishji is the NDA's CM candidate in the elections. But his face doesn't show up anywhere in his main ally BJP's hoardings! Where does that put Nitishji? In a chakravyuh, apparently. But isn't he the original Chanakya, who's managed to remarkably stay CM for three terms (he's fighting for the fourth) — without a vote-base to ever be in power on his own; that is, without significant help from other political parties?

Also, he's managed to lunch with communists (CPI-ML), and its anti-thesis (RSS-BJP), over the course of a single political life. Don't know, is that a record? Taxila-born Chanakya, considered in Indian history as the master political and economic strategist, operated from Patna, then known as Pataliputra.

Laluji was the Chanakya before Nitishji, having pretty much ruled Bihar between 1990 and 2005 — placing his home-maker wife Rabri Devi as CM, 1997 onwards. His performance (or the lack thereof) never once diminished his popularity/persona.

Conventional wisdom suggests this phase of Bihari politics (in a slightly confused state, at present) began in 1989-90. With politics around a temple, that led to communal riots in Bhagalpur. And deepening of caste-based reservations in government, or the Mandal Commission report (named after an ex-Bihar CM). Between these two events, Congress, the national party, got decimated.

Several current, veteran regional leaders, of roughly the same age, broadly started their political careers under Jayaprakash Narayan's 'Total Revolution' movement, against Indira Gandhi's Emergency (1975). Laluji was Patna University Students' Union president at the time. His deputies at the student's union, are his chief adversaries: Sushil Kumar Modi (Nitishji's deputy CM from BJP), and Ravi Shankar Prasad (union minister in the NDA government).

Laluji is currently in jail on corruption charges. His son Tejashwi, 30, carries his political flag, having settled the competition, within his family first. As part of a Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), he's taking on Nitishji, his father's perennial frenemy, and the BJP.

It's unclear if Paswan's son Chirag, 38, will cut RJD's votes, or his (NDA) ally Nitish's more. He's openly supporting BJP still. The BJP has Prime Minister Modi as the face — that, while covering 2019 General Elections in the region, I realised, many attribute the cellphone/Jio revolution to! Then there's a Pappu Yadav led third alliance, seductively named PDA, aimed at baffling the voter against incumbent/opposition, further!

Besides its politics, what's peculiar about Bihar's electorate? They belong to India's youngest state (with a median age of 20); with 1.5 per cent industrialisation — meaning no private/steady jobs. Providing government jobs appears to have emerged as the pivotal issue. Also, it's one of the rare states where women voters vastly outnumber men (by over seven per cent).

Admittedly keeping this voting bloc in mind, Nitishji introduced Prohibition in 2015. Lakhs of men got jailed (over drinking). Once things relaxed a bit (as they do with such harebrained impositions), people had to pay double the price for booze, which would get delivered home. Nobody gives up drinking (this way).

They just got poorer. As did the state's already famished exchequer. The net effect is that the women must be unhappier with this, I'm guessing. And the men have to take all of this Assembly election confusion, for the first time, stone-cold sober. Feel for them. Always have.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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First Published: 28 October, 2020 06:46 IST

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