Arvind N. Das is an expert on Bihar, previously worked as an editor(research) in The Times of India and currently working as an editor of Biblio.

A Political Heart By-Pass
By Arvind N. Das

As yet another round of elections -- including an electoral contest once again in that perennially politically volatile state, Bihar -- looms large on the political horizon, it is important to remember that Bihar is to India what India is to the world.

India has set many world records: the largest number of poor people eking out existence in inhuman poverty, the highest number of illiterate people, the greatest number of meetings that Jaswant Singh has had with Strobe Talbot. Similarly, Bihar has set many standards within India: it has a larger number of people under the poverty line than any other state; it has the worst abuses of human rights and it has had George Fernandes politicking there more than anywhere else. Thus, Indians outside Bihar have little cause to sneer at the nation's second most-populous state: the world looks at India in precisely the same way that India looks at Bihar.

Hence, despite the election fatigue that afflicts the citizens during the fiftieth anniversary of the republic, the coming elections in Bihar -- and in Orissa, Manipur and Haryana too, it must be added -- are significant and their importance cannot be minimised. The shenanigans of George Fernandes and Jaya Jaitley, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi, Nitish Kumar and Ram Bilas Paswan, Yashwant Sinha and Rita Varma, Sharad Yadav and Sonia Gandhi, Sushil Kumar Modi and Shatrughan Sinha, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and H. D. Deve Gowda, ridiculous as they appear, cannot hide the fact that the coming elections in the state are serious business and will affect not only Bihar but coalition politics in the rest of the country too, leaving their impact on stability or otherwise not only in Patna but also in New Delhi.

After all, Bihar not a "peripheral entity" which can be ignored. In politics as with computer-generated cinematic reptiles, size matters. The sheer size of Bihar ensures that it will have a significant place in the globalised world: it is geographically the size of France and has more people than Germany! Its mineral resources rival those of the European Union and its agricultural as well as human resource potential is immense. It is true that the value of its mineral resources is fast eroding on account of technological changes: for instance, it is now becoming more economical to recycle metals like copper and aluminium than to mine and smelt new ore. Hence many copper, bauxite and mica mines have been closed. Nevertheless, the state still has other mineral resources, including uranium, which will remain important for many years to come despite the fact that they have been subject to the most callous misuse.

In fact, the fires that rage under the ground in the coal seams of Sindri are evidence of the wasteful and ecologically disastrous, indeed predatory, capitalism that has devastated the state. In this respect, the history of "modern" Bihar does not signify the failure of the socialist state, the current whipping boy of the largely uninformed neo-Thatcherites; it signifies the propensity of Third World capitalism mainly to destroy without having the vitality to create anew. Despite the early integration of the commercial resources of the state into the processes of "globalisation" (export of opium to China, Patna rice to Scotland, coal and iron ore outside the state, etc.), the nature of capitalism that developed in Bihar -- and in India, for that matter -- was distorted, dependent on archaic land relations and outmoded cultures. Capitalism did not bring about "modernity" in Bihar: it merely combined the worst of agrarian pre-modernity with post-industrial post-modernity! Simultaneously, it also pauperised and brutalised its people. The unfair and exploitative utilisation of Bihar as an "internal colony" (through schemes like freight equalisation, low cesses and royalties on its minerals, adverse ratios of capital deposits and advances, etc.) are aspects of a distorted political economy. And so badly has the system become flawed that it responds neither to human suffering nor to ecological disasters. It appears that it is only the spread of ever-cheaper weapons and class-neutral landmines in Bihar that makes those who rule India wake up to the state's realities.

Of course, the most profound tragedy is that almost all the leaders of the state who are engaged in the electoral combat are not in the least bothered about these issues. Their concern is merely with capturing power. It is for this reason that even during the current election campaigns, there is no mention of such matters; what appears daily in the newspapers are merely reports of leaders trying to outsmart each other. Even the astounding levels of corruption, inefficiency and waste institutionalised by the ruling couple does not cause outrage; it is merely subsumed under Harkishan Singh Surjeet's sophistry.

Nor does the horrible series of massacres of the rural poor -- cynically referred to as "Harijan hunting" -- trouble the calloused conscience of the national political parties any more. Instead, the particular bestowing of ministerial positions at the Centre and patronisation of members of a particular caste by the BJP, even at the cost of annoying old loyalists, shows that the party is more interested in wooing the likes of the lawless Ranbir Sena than in really combating "jungle raj". At the same time, the mutually warring rabble that tries to pass off as the National Democratic Alliance has no consistency even with regard to the very shape of the state. The BJP has turned Jharkhand into Vananchal by sheer semantic sleight and wants to carve that out of the state. Its valued ally, the Samata Party wants no less than Rs 25,000 crore as compensation and hey presto, the Prime Minister announces schemes totalling Rs 26,000 crore without batting an eyelid. It is another matter that mere announcement of schemes or even the laying of foundation stones do not make for either development or the creation of even a moth-eaten Jharkhand. Meanwhile, Laloo Prasad Yadav who once championed Jharkhand today vows that Vananchal will only be made over his dead body.

It is in the context of such cynical politicking that the people of Bihar are called upon to exercise their franchise. There are choices enough before them. In this multi-cornered contest, one corner is occupied by the NDA which has the BJP, Samata Party, JD (U) and the Bihar People's Party, each more interested in defeating the other while keeping post-poll possibilities of aligning with Laloo Prasad Yadav's RJD in the case of the state getting a hung assembly. In the other corner of the electoral ring is the curious grouping of the RJD, CPM, and miscellaneous former Prime ministers. In the third corner stand the Congress, looking lost even before the fight has begun, various Jharkhand factions, a plethora of parties like those "owned" by luminaries like Jagannath Mishra and Ajit Singh.