The outcome of the Bihar elections is stunning in its scope as well as in its nature. 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. This happened in 1971, when people were fired by hope; in 1977, when they were outraged by the fetters imposed on liberties; and several times thereafter all over the country. 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 or unmake governments, there are six 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.
First, this verdict once again proves that ultimately short-term ploys and political shenanigans are counterproductive. To take only one instance, Laloo Yadav was desperate to retain power by proxy even after people rejected his brand of politics in the earlier round of elections. Governor Buta Singh acted in the sad tradition of many governors in a blatantly partisan, self-serving and crude manner by recommending the dissolution of the newly elected legislature. The Union Cabinet acted with indecent haste and advanced disingenuous arguments to advise dissolution to the President. And the President, in a moment of poor judgment, acquiesced, instead of forcing a reconsideration of the Cabinet. The paradox is that an unstable Nitish Kumar led government with defectors and time servers would have been preferable to the now stable majority with a clear mandate to set governance right. Just desserts, indeed! The co-conspirators who wanted to perpetuate misgovernance inadvertently ended up strengthening democracy and giving a chance to Bihar to rejuvenate itself!
Second, caste and religious cards work only up to a certain 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.
The third, even more important, lesson lies within the dangers politics of identity pose 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, instead of collective stagnation.
Fourth, social justice and secularism will be real only when state promote dignity, justice and opportunities for vertical mobility. There cannot be a quest for justice without rule of law, education, healthcare, empowerment of citizens, infrastructure, and employment opportunities. A government which ignores the real issues of real people in the guise of political slogans is merely perpetuating inequity, injustice and backwardness. We see many so-called leaders with a vice like grip over their constituencies, consciously allowing stagnation and perpetuating backwardness and underdevelopment. Their political hegemony could be challenged, if people become more enlightened! This gulf between political rhetoric and quality of governance has been endemic to our polity. Laloo Yadav merely practised it on a grand scale, covering a whole major state. Indian polity must rediscover the mission of governance in a modern society.
Fifth, past experience shows that a change of guard at the polling booth does not necessarily guarantee better outcomes. In fact, the contrary has been the pattern. Mere change of players does not mean much; we need a change in the rules of the game. Nitish Kumar must stay the course. The spirit of idealism, and the awe and respect that electoral verdicts momentarily inspire must not give way to cynical real politic. NDA has compromised as much as UPA in the Bihar elections by fielding criminals and corrupt elements. The fear of losing election, and hope of pipping past the post with the help of money and muscle power are forcing parties to cohabit with mafias, murderous gangs and extortionists. Clearly, people have more confidence in our political process than politicians and parties have in people’s good sense. Laloo in 1989 started off with the same advantages as Nitish now. But in time, idealism gave way to cynicism and plunder. In many ways, most of our politicians are not villains; they are victims of a vicious cycle. Bihar’s plight is not of recent origin. The JP movement was largely fashioned in Bihar against corruption and misgovernance, and it finally led to emergency and the emergence of Janata. 1980’s saw Congress misrule under Jagannadha Misra. 1990’s saw Laloo’s misrule. To change course in Bihar, one election or one change of guard is not enough. The people of Bihar need sustained efforts, and the support and good will of all Indians. If UP and Bihar die, India will die, too. The fight is not for Bihar’s future alone. In a fundamental sense, India’s future is at stake.
Finally, it all boils down to one question. What kind of political culture will prevail in India? Will democracy be reduced to family fiefdoms, personalized despotism, endless plunder, extortion, politics as business, power as an end in itself, private gain, and public loss? Or will power be seen as a means to public good, and politics as service? 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. Large parts of India are now reduced to feudal fiefdoms, with the law of the jungle operating. There is a bit of Bihar in every state of India. In the 1830’s, the British had to raise a large army of over 100,000 to suppress the pindaris pillaging central India, and they fought a six-year war. 58 years of flawed political culture led to atavism in many pockets. 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. Bihar’s verdict is not about a party winning, and another losing; it is the anguished cry of millions for a new beginning for all of India.