Nitish Kumar addressing a press conference | File photo: PTI
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar | File photo: PTI
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Nobody goes to Bihar too often. Actually, nobody goes there unless he or she has to. No surprise then that for all but one member of our group of Limousine Liberals ‘ an assortment of journalists, TV anchors, pollsters and investment bankers ‘ it was their first look at Bihar. The exception, journo-turned-anchor-turned-politician-turned-cricket diplomat (guess who?), was the one person whose sasural happens to be in Patna.

A tradition with the group is that on the last meal of every election tour there is a poll on who will get how many seats, and a tiny wager. This time there was an added question, on who thought Bihar had turned out to be better than they had imagined. Most of the hands went up. Then, a follow-up, obviously in deference to the presence of so many investment bankers: would you ‘buy’ Bihar today if it was a bond or a share? Once again, a surprisingly large number of hands went up.

Now that’s a surprise, isn’t it? Bihar, the basket case, where nothing works, where the only growing business is kidnapping, where roads exist on paper and potholes in reality, where industry is mere brick kilns, where the per capital income is a fourth of the national average and to which all that is lousy or rotting anywhere in the country is benchmarked: UP’s roads are getting as bad as Bihar’s, Haryana’s political goondaism is reaching Bihar’s levels, eastern Madhya Pradesh looks like a mini-Bihar and so on. So what is it that still works in Bihar?

There isn’t much, actually. It is just that Bihar has got such bad press and for so long that you expect to be kidnapped within hours of landing here, and when that doesn’t happen you begin to feel smug. Yes, Patna sucks. But so do most of our cities. Open drains, garbage heaps, pigs, dogs, three-wheelers assaulting your lungs with kerosene fumes from their reconditioned “diesel” engines, backlit-plastic signboards that are the scourge of gentrifying India, are all there. But you can see these in any other city, even much richer ones. I can take you to parts of Ahmedabad ‘ one of our most prosperous cities ‘ that can beat Patna any time, particularly if you were to devise an index of urban rottenness based on the stink of human excreta. Also, on reputation alone, you do not expect to see any roads at all. But as you step out of the airport, the look-feel is that of any other cantonment town. What a sizeable zoo is doing cheek-by-jowl with the airport, however, is difficult to understand. You wonder if any animals still live there. And if they do, they must need therapy, given the aircraft noise they have to endure. For the capital of India’s most backward state, Patna’s is a very busy airport, made busier by politicians who arrive by small charters and then fly round the state in helicopters, to avoid the potholes more than kidnappers, I suspect.

Surely, you can also find cleaner, swankier streets in other cities, particularly Ahmedabad. But where else can you have a string of Muharram processions, with the devout cutting and slashing themselves, assaulting each other with hockey sticks, chains and hooks in mourning for Husain, splashing blood all over the chock-a-block street that they share with Hindu wedding processions in perfect peace and harmony? A big wedding muhurat has coincided with Muharram this year, and the two hug different flanks of the street. Their respective bands sometimes play the same numbers (I picked some ETC-Punjabi channel favourites) but the crowds never mix, or mess with each other, even though one set dances in celebration and the other flails, flagellates and beats their chests in lament.

Traffic is almost at a standstill. But there is no frustrated honking, no curses, no road rage. Because nobody is in a rush, nobody has anything to do you might say. But the fact is, there is a certain decency, patience, cultured-ness, a tolerance of the other in Bihar, that you won’t see anywhere ‘ at least in the north. Women feel quite safe. They don’t get pinched, pushed, or pawed in crowded election meetings and one of our women staffers who have just returned from reporting assignments in Bihar proudly acknowledges the total absence of what she describes as “the male gaze”.

Sure, Patna or Bihar’s other cities have none of the other symbols of modern growth, hotels, restaurants, multiplexes. But there are consumer goods and half the hoardings belong to cellphone companies, the other half to soft drinks. The arrival of the equity cult is underlined by a banner on a Bank of India branch, offering easy loans for the Jet Airways’ IPO. It is a different matter though that Jet only recently started a flight to Patna, after it was arm-twisted by Praful Patel. Patna is also one of the very few Jet centres where check-in is not computerised and its staffers write your boarding cards with felt pens. Overlooking Gandhi Maidan, where Vajpayee and Sonia address rallies on successive evenings, is a commercial tower of sorts, with a glazed, open-skies lift.

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Across the long flyover-cum-bridge that straddles the Ganga and its floodplains is the district of Hajipur, Ram Vilas Paswan’s pocket-borough from which he routinely hits the Guinness Book for his humongous victory margins. And you can see why. The roads are as good as any in most states, certainly better than in most of Uttar Pradesh. Houses are pucca, there are schools, colleges, some small factories, you see the odd tractor, lush fields of wheat, vegetables, ripening mustard and blooming lentil. Farmers are busy, and so are their families. Then, as you drive into the district of Vaishali, dotted with Buddhist and other Gupta-Mauryan period sites, you wonder for a while if you are in a green-revolution territory. Those most telling indicators of farming progress, advertisements of fertilisers, tractors, cement and pesticides on the village walls, appear every now and then. My favourite is the one for Lafarge ‘Concreto’, on a wall ten km from Vaishali. Imagine, the French multinational selling cement to the poorest of the poor, in revolutionary badlands where Maoist gangs strike at will.

These are areas still within 150 km from Patna, so please do not get misled, you are told. Go further north and the landscapes becomes real, nightmare Bihar. We don’t go too far, but a little bit, to the buzzing little town of Sarayya, another 35 km from Vaishali, where things do not look so much worse. There are hundreds of bicycles, a large BSNL office ‘ and full signal in your BSNL mobile ‘ tractor workshops, even a polyclinic of sorts which boasts a cosmetic dentist promising you “film star smiles”. But even in this relatively better-off region, one thing that is non-existent is the state. No state transport buses (one spotted in two days on the road), no primary health centres, no agricultural extension offices, veterinary centres, BDO offices, things that you would expect to see in typical Indian countryside. No family planing slogans (no wonder Bihar has such a high birth rate), no pulse polio messages.

The scene isn’t that different as you travel in another direction, towards another ancient Buddhist landmark, Nalanda. This is Nitish Kumar’s kurmi heartland and it shows in his rally in the town of Hilsa (no relation of the fish that is the favourite of all Bengalis). Nitish is no Laloo. But what he lacks in style and charm is made up for by the enthusiasm of his crowds. He brings a message you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in Bihar. Your boys (unfortunately boys, not boys and girls) do not need mere slogans, he says, they need knowledge and education. Then he mocks Laloo’s favourite exhortation to his own to season their sticks with oil (laathi ko tel pilao) by telling his crowds that what Biharis need instead is ink in their their pens. Will such an appeal work? “Frankly, I don’t know, ” Nitish tells us. He says after the Lok Sabha debacle he would never make a claim because who knows what works in an election.

Good point. But one change is evident. If there is one thing the Biharis yearn for, it is education. Wherever you go, the only industry that is mushrooming is private education. Private coaching centres merely complement government-run schools which are the only ones authorised to hold annual exams. So you enroll in a government school where teachers never come, classes are never held, but go and study in a private school where often the same government teachers moonlight. You see these “schools” wherever you look, including in the outhouses of temples. Hans Gyan Niketan is one such. The temple premises are mostly used for coaching classes while it provides “video satsangs” (congregations) on Saturdays. In fact you see so many young children in diverse school uniforms in Bihar that you wonder where those terrifying school absenteeism figures are coming from. Or could it be that that particular set of horror figures is misleading, that all these boys and girls are simply fleeing the non-functional government schools to study in coaching centres?

On the outskirts of Hilsa we stop at what is called Sarvodaya School, run by Satyendra Narain Singh who left college at the age of 18 to set this up. He has a waiting list now. His school has a power generator, a hand-pump, and classes are never disrupted. At just 65 rupees a month for a child, a fully functional school is a block-buster product in rural Bihar. Forget minimum wages, at a thousand rupees a month he does not pay his teachers even what they would get if they enrolled in the Jean Dreze’s new employment guarantee scheme. But they always come to work on time and work a long, honest day. Teachers in government schools, on the other hand, are paid upwards of 10, 000 but are rarely seen. He is now planning to expand ‘ open an English-medium branch which is “much in demand now”. His students have already cracked the IIT/JEE and CAT, and so on, so he is riding a reputation. All this when his competition is a state that does not exist. Bihar’s schools have vacancies for 40, 000 primary teachers and 15, 000 at the secondary level. And if you think money is a problem remember that last year, of the Rs 780 crore allocated to Bihar under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, only 150 crore was utilised.

A little factoid I deliberately held back so far is the name of Ram Vilas Paswan’s candidate here. It’s Ranjit Singh. You know him as Ranjit Don. Rings a bell? Yes, the man is in jail for allegedly leaking CAT tests and giving fake medical degrees, apparently also to his driver and cook. He is now contesting from jail. His wife, in full suhagan livery, campaigns from a Qualis decked with posters of the don in handcuffs, behind bars, flanked by portraits, among others, of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. His supporters chant “Jail ka taala tootega, Ranjit bhaiyya chootega”. How disgusting. How Bihar-like, you might say. Now pause, and think again. What was Ranjit Don selling? He was selling an ambition, the only hope a young Bihari has today. Education, a degree that will get him of Bihar, to some place where jobs are. If you wanted to be facetious, you could see an echo of Netaji Subhas Bose’s old promise of freedom if you gave him blood. Ranjit Don could then be saying, tum mujhe vote do, main tumhein degree doonga. But, seriously, even in its criminal manifestation, what the don represents is the yearning of a new Bihar, where a good degree is synonymous with azadi. Even in its deep hopelessness, what Biharis yearn for is education. So to the old Bijli-Sadak-Pani metaphor, Bihar is adding one more now, Padhai. Could it be, then, that the investment banker who is willing to “buy” Bihar at today’s rock-bottom prices is not exactly out of his mind?

(This article was first published on 26 February 2005)

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