Bihar's Elites Are Caught Between Class Contempt and Genuine Fear of Jungle Raj

The middle class fears the return of the bad old days, forgetting its own contribution to the making of the state's political culture of the 1990s.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar blesses a daughter of RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi after the Mahagathbandhan's (Grand Alliance) victory in the Bihar assembly elections in Patna. Credit: PTI

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar blesses a daughter of RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi after the Mahagathbandhan’s (Grand Alliance) victory in the Bihar assembly elections in Patna. Credit: PTI

Just after the victory of the Mahagathbandhan, a Twitter trend went viral. The original post set a template which ran something like this:

‘I am not a Bihari, and I have never been to Bihar but this victory would ensure that we keep receiving Biharis as labourers.’

People posting it belonged, as they themselves wrote in their posts, to places as wide afar as Punjab, Mumbai and Chennai.

This set of early reactions to the defeat of the BJP-led coalition from ‘outsiders’ was not meant to sympathise with the fear of those Biharis who were critical of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress coalition victory. This was a sarcastic snipe at Biharis for returning the infamous Lalu Prasad to power. The whiff of regional chauvinism, dutkaar and vyang (satire) was quite strong.

I am using the word ‘outsider’ for fellow citizens of India in the same way as they use or mean it in their own messages. After all, they point to Biharis coming into their cities as labourers, as ‘outsiders’, which is obviously ironical. On the one hand, they want to enjoy cheap labour provided by migrant Biharis, on the other, in states like Maharashtra and Assam, they are targeted by politicians as a strategy for moblising ‘sons of the soil.’ Nevertheless, the caustic message is clear: the bhaiyas of India have not only failed the ‘development-oriented BJP’ but have also failed themselves. As an aside, it must be pointed out that in this election the womaniya played a much larger role than bhaiyas.

The return of jungle raj

The number of seats won in any election – more so in the case of Bihar, which was a landslide victory for the mahagathbandhan – definitely and unambiguously points toward the social and political inclination of the voters. Nevertheless, there is also no denying the fact that there is a genuine fear of ‘jungle raj’ returning to Bihar among the middle class, especially in urban areas. The BJP made ample use of this fear in its campaign. It’s loss does not mean that the fear has dissipated or was simply a hollow construction. Any political analysis or commentary that overshadows this fear (howsoever marginal it may be in numerical terms) would at worst be misleading and at best incomplete.

A section of Bihar society is worried about Lalu pulling the strings from behind the scenes. It is worried about the return of the apaharan (abduction and kidnapping) industry, so dramatically immortalised for the rest of India by Prakash Jha in his film of the same name. It is worried about the decline in law and order. At least two generations of Biharis have witnessed this first hand. As a middle class college student, I was always told by my family to return home before it got dark. This fear had a real basis: I know of at least three abduction cases from my family and extended social circle. Age was no barrier: it happened to a retired pensioner and to a school-going teenager. It is this spectre of the past that haunts the middle class there.

The middle clas in ’90s Bihar

It would be quite difficult to capture the social, political and ‘goondaic’ fabric of 1990s Bihar in a short piece like this. Only a rich novelistic ethnography can do justice to that period. An ethnography that will tell us about big ticket politics and also about the mohalla-level aspiration of teenagers to become goondas or to act like goondas. Every neighbourhood had its Loha Singh and Maharaja Singh. Every such neighbourhood had their rivals in Pappu Gope and Lakhan Yadav (all names are fictitious). The anti-reservation era street wars – with bamboo wielding youth coming from tolas and bastis on one side, to be met with rivals armed with hockey sticks and guns from colonies from the other – represented a lot of cleavages: spatial, social and economic.

The street show drew its strength from college campuses and hostels. We need accounts that would lucidly describe college factions and classroom ‘wars’. We need more movies like Haasil and Gulal, which show the seamless ties of politics running between different spaces and institutions of the city and the state. And yet, all confrontations were not political, at least overtly. In colleges, the dividing line was not along caste or religion but between ‘hostelliers’ and ‘dayscholars’.

The reason to indulge in this recollection of my Patna college days is to emphasise that the middle class was not a silent observer of all this. Neither was it simply a victim of a lower class/caste political dispensation. Bikes, cigarettes and occasionally guns held their appeal for middle class youths as well. The Singhs and Gopes fascinated teenagers across class and caste. The neighbourhood Robin Hood-cum-aspiring goondas who rode on their bikes, sporting moustaches, and wearing heavy golden or silver kadas on their wrists, were an object of mystery and fascination for many. A meeting with them would be a matter of pride and bragging amongst friends.

I am aware that I might be accused of betraying my own class roots by constantly referring to these figures as goondas. For some, I am sure, they were messianic caste leaders, for others, political levellers of an unequal distribution of social and economic power. However, at the analytical level, more so with the benefit of hindsight, one can and should question the actual nature of those days as well as the legacy that was spawned – an exercise which very recently Yogendra Yadav has also done in respect to Bihar politics.

Nevertheless, the political culture of the ’90s cannot only be understood through the strict division of class – with one side the perpetrators, and the other the victim. If the state’s political culture deteriorated into the tolerance or even promotion of crime, kidnappings, snatchings and ‘eve teasing’ in the name of social justice, then at least a section of Bihari middle class youth also aspired to draw perverse pleasure from these misplaced acts of heroism.

The irony is that this section aspired simultaneously to the strength of the neighbourhood heor/goonda and the power of the bureaucrat. With issues of Pratiyogita Darpan and Competition Success rolled in their hands, this class made itself physically visible in the politically charged spaces of nukkads and chauks as much as its ‘other’ did. In sum, a section of this middle class participated in and contributed to the making of Bihar’s political culture of the 1990s.

Beyond fear and shame

Apart from being genuinely fearful, this middle class – which had seen the Lalu regime earlier and is now located in various parts of the country and abroad – is also ashamed of the election result.

In their eyes, Lalu’s inimitable political functioning, style and mannerism over the years had helped consolidate the image of  the ‘ignorant’ and ‘devious’ Bihari all across India. So much so that the word ‘Bihari’ became an abuse and not simply a neutral marker of regional identity. This stigmatisation cut across class lines. The middle class felt ashamed of this stigmatisation but the real rebuke in terms of verbal and physical violence was suffered by the poorer classes, especially migrant labourers. The left/liberal/secularist forces owe an explanation to Biharis for why did this stigmatisation happened under their watch.

With the coming of Nitish Kumar to the power in 2005, Biharis had just begun to leave behind this image. The anti-Lalu stance which he had taken comforted the middle class. Some rapid strides and changes that took place in the economy became physically visible in the state capital of Patna. The middle class was happy to have branches of Fab India, Planet M and Pizza Hut in their city. Patna got its first mall courtesy filmmaker Prakash Jha.

Call it opportunism or ideology, the fact remains that political alliances often shift and take shape in surprising ways. Nitish Kumar joining hands with Lalu Yadav is obviously one such example. Ram Vilas Paswan’s return to the NDA under the leadership of Modi (the same Modi because of whom he had parted company with the BJP) is no less surprising. The icing on the cake was Jitan Ram Manjhi joining hands with the BJP. The question here is: would the middle class have reacted the same way, as it does now in expressing its fear and shame, if the Modi-Paswan-Manjhi combination had won the election? Reports suggest that in this election every political party had fielded numerous candidates with criminal charges against them. If criminality is the issue, then every political party in Bihar, including the BJP, could be held guilty of promoting dubious candidates.

The late years of Lalu’s rule are undeniably emblematic of how the politics of social justice can go shockingly wrong. His rule emptied the phrase social justice of all its rightful meaning and content. But in the changed political scenario of the 2010s (if at all it is a changed one) the middle class should also differentiate between the genuine fear of poor governance and politically manipulated arguments that betray class and caste hatred. A lot will depend on how successfully Nitish Kumar – with his image of an alternative ‘vikas purush’ – is able to reassure the middle class as well as other sections of society that there is no chance of Bihar sliding into the jungle raj of the ’90s. On its part, the fearful middle class should remain critically watchful but also remember that blind admonition will prove counter-productive.

Nitin Sinha is Senior Research Fellow, ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin