Our reporter Himani Chandna’s meticulously researched story on how the slowdown reflects in falling branded underwear sales has sparked much debate and some sniggers. But as my travels in poll-bound Bihar in 2010 showed, never take the ‘Underwear Index of Economics & Politics’ lightly.
I have learnt over the years that if you really want to know what is going on in our country, what is changing and how, who is in or out, how we are feeling about ourselves at any moment and what ideas are being embraced or junked, then hit the road. And keep your eye on the walls as you drive past the countryside.
What you see written on the walls usually gives you a better idea of what is going on than any survey, opinion poll or talking head could.
Because, in our countryside, the walls are the most popular and democratic mass medium, and the best mirror of the current state of economics and politics. Here is how it works. Depending on how prosperous or backward a region is, you can find writings on the wall selling just about anything — ranging from the latest cars and immigration to “Kanada” in Punjab, to fertilisers and tractors in coastal Andhra, to little more than snuff or anti-itch creams in the poorest districts of east-central tribal India.
In Bihar, you would often have seen nothing, because people either had no surplus to buy anything but basic food, or because there were no pucca walls — though I had reported from my travels in the two elections held in 2005 the sighting of the first such writings, selling what else but private education, mostly English-medium schools and coaching centres for engineering and medical college admissions.
We had noted then that Nitish Kumar’s message, “it is time to fill your pen with ink” (as against Lalu’s “it’s time again to season your lathis in oil”), seemed to reflect better the changing mood in Bihar, from caste empowerment to aspiration for education and a better life.
With his emphatic victory in 2005, Nitish proved again that writings on the wall do not lie. As results pour in this Wednesday morning, he will prove that fact to us again, by winning a second, probably bigger mandate. Particularly as none of his challengers has been able to either match his promise of development, or challenge his track record. This election, quite frankly, looks like a done deal more than any other in recent memory — except, probably, the Rajiv Gandhi landslide of 1984. It is written on the walls of Bihar, a fascinating story, in an intriguing new script. Don’t jump if I say its alphabet is branded underwear.
You drive two-and-a-half thousand kilometres through Bihar’s political heartland, generally south-east from Patna, criss-crossing the Ganga, through Begusarai, Bhagalpur, Banka and right up to the border of Jharkhand — and you find colour on the once mostly blank walls of Bihar as you had never imagined. I call the script intriguing because all that the walls of Bihar now seem to be selling to you is branded underwear. Rupa, Lux Cozi, Amul Macho, all the top desi underwear brands are there, selling the comfort, good looks and feel — and of course sex appeal — from walls, hoardings and signboards, hanging from electricity poles and trees.
All the naughty tag-lines that you might remember from TV ads that were banned for being in bad taste are in evidence here, including one, under a brief with a tell-tale bulge, saying “andar fit, bahar hit”. Obviously on the ball, Rupa, probably our number one underwear company, has even produced a new brand: “Jon O-Bama”. Barack Obama, as we know has recently been here, and so popular.
This was a state with widespread starvation, utter misery, and where a large majority had nothing left to buy anything beyond basic clothing to cover their bodies. Somebody is now trying to sell comfort, good looks, even sex appeal of branded underwear here? Does that mean something has changed?
Now, naughtiness apart, do we read a message of socio-economic change on Bihar’s walls? And if so, can politics be immune from it? This was a state with widespread starvation, utter misery, and where a large majority had nothing left to buy anything beyond basic clothing to cover their bodies. Somebody is now trying to sell comfort, good looks, even sex appeal of branded underwear here? Does that mean something has changed? Never underestimate the ability of the Indian FMCG marketer to sniff out a new emerging market or consumer need. Which is exactly what the underwear boys have done in Bihar.
If a state of 8 crore people is being lifted from utter poverty to at least a level at which many can aspire to a better quality of life than mere survival, you would expect tens of millions to invest in basic comfort — like decent, knit underclothing.
Socio-economic change inevitably finds political expression, and if it reflects in the results this Wednesday you could say that it was the first time in the history of democracy when branded underwear predicted an election better and earlier than any psephologists.
A “kachcha-banian” theory of political change? Can we get more facetious than that? So, if you’d prefer something more staid or old-fashioned, let’s look at plastic chappals and bicycles. One of the things that caught your attention, and made you feel so humble when you travelled in a Bihar election in the past, was the large numbers of people who came to campaign rallies in bare feet.
At five election rallies this time, addressed by Sonia, Rahul, Nitish, Advani and Lalu, at Begusarai, Bacharia, Cheria-Bariarpur, Munger and Tarapur, respectively, some of us stooped really low to make a quick count of bare feet. I found only four pairs in Sonia’s rally, which is bigger than any you have seen the Congress hold in Bihar in decades. One old woman said she broke one chappal on the way, two young girls said their mothers told them to leave chappals at home or they might lose them in the crowd, and only one said she didn’t have any. In Nitish’s rally, there were a few more, maybe about 5 per cent, and it was evidently a much poorer crowd from the more deprived and backward sections and castes, and much more animated.
But so few bare feet in the most backward regions of Bihar should convince you of the change, if the underwear on the wall doesn’t. Bihar is in the midst of a virtuous transition, enjoying a sweet turn it had even stopped dreaming of. And it shows on its proudest and even politically the most significant new asset, its beautifully tarred new roads. Not just the highways, but even the rural roads built under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. Like many other chief ministers, Nitish saw road-building as the easiest picking in a state that, to any serious leader, would look like an orchard of low-hanging fruit.
And Lalu has to blame himself if Nitish’s success with road-building devastates him in this election. Lalu it was who made the state of roads into a telling political metaphor in Bihar. He first dismissed them as a luxury for the rich with cars. Then, he promised to build roads as “chikna” (smooth) as “Hema Malini’s cheeks”. But he just wasted his time and his state’s money till his people decided to check out an alternative in Nitish. And now a vast majority of them think they made the right choice the second time in 2005.
If you want convincing beyond the writings on the wall, the underwear ads, then look at people’s feet, look at the roads, look at the bicycles and the proudly smiling faces of some of India’s still poorest young women riding them. You will see change, change for the better.
There are moments in my life when I so love my job. Usually, these are selfish moments of petty journalistic conquest, like a scoop in the paper, an interview with somebody I may have adored or just the hack’s privilege of being in a newsy place: Assam in the year of Nellie and other tragedies, 1983; Amritsar, Operation Bluestar, 1984 and in New Delhi’s great killings of the Sikhs in the same year; the Tiananmen Square massacre, 1989; the former Soviet bloc, as it unravelled in 1990; the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during the bombings of the first Gulf War, 1991; Kabul as the Mujahideen won the first — and “good” — jihad against Najibullah in 1993; and so on. But these were all moments of sadness and tragedy, and only a heartless reporter would look back on them with any feeling of accomplishment, if not joy.
So, come on a drive with me to Bihar and I will show you how a sight to cherish makes me love my job as well. It will light up your eyes, cheer your saddest, darkest hour, put a bounce in your step and, most of all, convince you once again that there is hope even for the worst governed, the most neglected parts of our country.
It is the young girls, dozens and dozens and scores and scores of them, mostly in school uniforms, riding bicycles on the state’s new roads. Don’t miss the link between the roads, bicycles, uniforms, and the result this coming Wednesday. Nitish decided to attack the problem of low enrolment and large dropout rates for his state’s girls by offering a free bicycle to any girl moving to class nine. Four lakh bicycles have been distributed so far, and you already see a revolution of sorts on the wheels. Meanwhile, his high school enrolment for women has trebled.
If you want convincing beyond the writings on the wall, the underwear ads, then look at people’s feet, look at the roads, look at the bicycles and the proudly smiling faces of some of India’s still poorest young women riding them. You will see change, change for the better, and change brought about entirely through old-fashioned democratic politics that we, the urban well-heeled, so love to denounce as India’s curse.
(An earlier version of this article was published in November 2010.)
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