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Friday, December 2, 2005

The scope and nature of Bihar verdict are stunning. Once again, the illiterate, long-suffering people rose above caste and religion in search of a better future, and proved the psephologists and pundits wrong. This capacity to transcend narrow loyalties and express the collective will with calm grandeur has been the saving grace of our otherwise flawed democracy. Clearly, our democracy is vibrant, and there is hope, if only we harness these opportunities for a greater cause, and not squander them in personal aggrandizement. Beyond the majesty of people’s will which can make and unmake governments, there are lessons of Bihar which should be internalized in order to strengthen democracy and make politics a true instrument of people’s mobilization for public good.

Caste and religious cards work only upto a point in elections. Laloo’s slogan of social justice, his steadfast advocacy of secularism, and his consistency and reliability in political alliances are commendable. His failure to deliver, and his penchant for plunder must not cloud our judgment. But by equating social justice with caste assertion, and secularism with pandering to minority fundamentalism, he has done great disservice to both.  The consequent fusion of caste and religion with political mobilization has torn society apart, and bred mistrust and anger. Animosity of other social groups – the most backward castes and Dalits which suffered neglect, discrimination and prejudice, made them even more determined to oust Laloo’s blatantly partisan, reckless misrule. In a complex and diverse society with enormous baggage of the past, caste cannot be ignored as a political issue. But it must be handled with integrity and sensitivity, not as a crude tool for political assertion, or else it will lead to society’s decline and political failure. That is the lesson of Laloo’s unapologetic use of the M-Y card.

An even more important lesson is the danger posed by politics of identity to democracy. When primordial loyalties are aroused and people are actively encouraged to assert their caste and religious identities as a way of political mobilization, their real interests suffer. Their own children’s future is held captive to the search for chimeras. As a result, vote is mobilized not on the basis of real and direct gains in terms of improved opportunities and quality of life, but as a stable block of people with unswerving loyalty, motivated by anger, fear, or misplaced chauvinism. The floating vote is the key to democracy’s survival. If all people vote predictably, based on their caste and religion, we will revert to feudalism. Stagnant vote with stable majority based on ethnicity destroys all possibility of improvement, and perpetuates plunder and injustice. That is what happened in Bihar. Politics of caste identity must give way to politics of individuation, which allows people to perceive their own enlightened self-interest, and act rationally in pursuit of rule of law, education, healthcare and employment. Caste certainly is a reality which cannot be ignored, and collective neglect and discrimination on caste grounds must be effectively addressed. But politics must move from caste rigidities to individual interests if vote is to acquire a positive meaning, and democracy is to lead to prosperity and greater public good, not collective stagnation.

Take Ratanpura village of Matai Taluk in Khaira district of Gujarat.  75% of the 4000 people are Muslims in a polarized state.  And yet, both politics and society are able to find harmony.  This is not because people somehow became more moral and virtuous in that one village.  Their own enlightened self-interest taught them that they would be better off by respecting each other.  The milk cooperative in the village supplies about 900 litres to Amul union. Farmers get instant payment of Rs 17 per litre.  Fat content is checked, and a printout is given the moment milk is delivered.  The cooperative also provides primary healthcare services and runs a Balwaldi with the help of Tribhuvandas Trust.  All these are community-owned and controlled.  People know that their families are better off if peace and harmony prevail. The communal carnage of 2002, or the subsequent strife and mistrust did not touch them.  The Sarpanch is traditionally elected unanimously, each community getting its turn to lead.  Mustufa Pathan, an advocate, has been the president of the cooperative for six years.  The village school is well run, and over 100 youngsters obtained college degrees in recent years.

The message is clear.  You cannot fight casteism and communalism by mere rhetoric.   The people need to develop personal stakes in public services.  If a villager has to choose between a lousy teacher of her caste and a great teacher of another caste for her daughter, she will always opt  for the good teacher.  If someone’s spouse has to undergo appendectomy, the skill of the surgeon, and not his caste, becomes all-important.  The best way to overcome prejudice is not emotion, but rational calculation of enlightened self-interest which goes beyond primordial loyalties.  Such individuation demands a transformation of politics, and building local institutions in which people have long-term, real economic stakes.

An ugly political culture evolved over time: abuse of power became the norm; and might has become right. We need to restore rule of law and a new political culture based on constitutional values and humanism not merely in Bihar, but all over India. It is time we transformed the nature of parties, and established a truly democratic political culture which restores nobility to politics and purpose to governance. The verdict of Bihar is not about a party winning, and another losing; it is the anguished cry of millions for a new beginning for all of India.