An Informative Book on the Politics and Politicians of Contemporary Bihar

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BOOK REVIEW

JP to BJP: Bihar after Lalu and Nitish, is a field-reporter’s account in which Santosh Singh articulates his points quite lucidly

Mohammad Sajjad Clarion India

SANTOSH Singh, a longstanding field-reporter in Bihar, for a leading national English daily, is undoubtedly a well-informed chronicler of contemporary Bihar. His latest, JP to BJP: Bihar after Lalu and Nitish, is an unusual book, sequel to his earlier book, Ruled or Misruled: Story and Destiny of Bihar.

Though, any observation about the book under review may be tentative unless one combines a reading of its prequel. Yet, I may share a few things about the book.

This book, JP to BJP, is more about profiles of a range of dramatis personae in Bihar politics, particularly after independence. This is barely about processes of socio-economic changes, and its concomitant manifestation in the political leadership of everyday power-play. Nor is it a scholarly account of biographical sketches of the politicians. This is rather more of a field-reporter’s way of knowing about the politicians through reporter’s interviews with the politicians, their scions, associates, and at times, their critics. Quite candidly and honestly this is admitted by the author in his brief introductory chapter.

This specific methodology has largely avoided getting into pre-existing sources of evidence and documents, such as, memoirs, private papers, diaries, newspaper-reports of the yesteryears. This work therefore has a very thin base of any such engagement. Yet, a high quantum of hard-work of research involved in this account comes out very clearly. He articulates his points quite lucidly, to the extent that even a person having a mere smattering of English language can absorb the contents of the book quite easily. This is what the author deserves accolades for.

A concise Foreword by the author’s senior colleague and an intrepid writer of strong convictions, Raj Kamal Jha, is quite pertinent. So is the insightful prognosis made by the author about Bihar politics in the near future. Disregarding the fact that most commentators avoid prognosticating the political obituary of a political-ruler, Santosh is almost certain about irreversible marginalization, and even nemesis of the incumbent chief minister, Nitish Kumar. He says, “The 2020 Assembly elections is the last election with Socialists at its forefront. Nitish alone has put the rise of the BJP in Bihar on hold” (p. 271). He, then goes on to talk about 18 Hindutva outfits (leaving aside the ‘Shiv Charcha’ phenomenon, explored in detail by M. Rajshekhar’s recent book, Despite the State) which are becoming assertive in cultivating communal polarization across Bihar; all mushrooming more since the late 1990s! Now, in 2021, a politically enfeebled Nitish is just unable to tame these outfits despite his arguably unhidden intent to do so. Santosh, however, avoids identifying specific pockets of influence, social composition and class location of the workers and leadership of each of these saffron outfits. 

Santosh looks into the fact that the failed experiments of the Socialist politics of the 1960s in Bihar has ‘left Bihar directionless’ (p. 270). He blames the Congress which ignored the winds of social change and kept focussing on upper caste politics. (p. 116). Though, he gives a very good assessment of some of the policy decisions taken by the first Dalit chief minister, Bhola Paswan Shastri (1914-1984), in his third and last stint.  He had three brief stints: 1968, 1969, and 1971. He had set up the Mungerilal Commission, the recommendations of which were eventually implemented in 1977-1978 by Karpoori Thakur, with two-tier reservation for OBCs, and for women, in education and employment.

Nonetheless, a Bihar-watcher feels that a book of profiles of Bihar politicians, such as this one under review, should have written a long profile of Jagannath Mishra (1937-2019), a three-time chief minister, his conflict with the descendants of the Darbhanga Raj; Mishra’s autocratic strains manifesting through the Bihar Press Bill of 1982 and his blow to the Patna-based media house of the Indian Nation; his alleged roles in deepening corruption and financial mismanagement combined with utter populism for the educated middle class, and in (un)making of education system, his conduct towards Dalits in his first stint as chief minister in the 1970s, and towards Muslims and Urdu in the 1980s. The Bihar Congress lost this particular constituency after the Bhagalpur communal violence (October 1989-March 1990), which Santosh says was because the three titans of the Congress had factional clashes, Bhagwat Jha Azad, Shivchandra Jha and Sadanand Singh also throwing his hat into this. Whether the subsequent regime of Lalu really dispensed any justice is another horror story articulated by a 2018 book, Splintered Justice, by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha.

Some of these aspects of Bihar of the 1980s are brought out in a chapter, “Breakdown in Backward State of Bihar”, of Atul Kohli’s 1991 book, Democracy and DiscontentIndia’s Growing Crisis of Governability.

Overall, Francine Frankel’s book-size 1989 essay, “Caste, Land and Dominance in Bihar: Breakdown of the Brahmanical Social Order”, in an anthology, large number of scattered essays of Harry W Blair, and the Hindi books by Prasanna Kumar Chaudhry & Shrikant, besides the works by Arvind N. Das (1949-2000) are the best academic readings to understand post-1947 Bihar.   

Maybe, being a hardworking journalist-author, he will take it up in the subsequent revised edition, benefitting from the above profound academic studies.

One of the finest portraits is of Karpoori Thakur, whom he calls, ‘the original subaltern hero’. Though, in his assessments, Santosh has not spared any of the power-players without being critical. One can say, his is a largely objective assessment of the politicians. His chapter, Unsung Socialists, gives a fascinating account of Ramanand Tiwary (1909-1980) and Kapildeo Singh. About Tiwary, Rakesh Ankit’s 2018 book, India in the Interregnum: Interim Government, September 1946-August 1947, provides significant details. Ankit tells us that Tiwary, an ex-constable and leader of the police strike in Jamshedpur during the Quit India movement, had led another strike of lower police in 11 districts of Bihar from April 6, 1946 demanding a Police Constables Union. The third generation Tiwary is there in electoral-legislative politics of Bihar.  

Santosh’s assessment about the contemporary young politicians of Bihar is quite pertinent.

For instance:

About Tejashwi Yadav, he says, ‘The young politician changed the narrative of the election [amidst the Covid pandemic 2020] by taking up basic demands of the voters. … Tejashwi knows Congress is the weak link of his alliance. He has a tough task ahead but he has surely shown signs of a mature leader’ and has emerged as ‘crowd connector’.

The Congress, in recent times has lost most of its provincial chiefs to regional outfits and ‘its fortunes mainly depend on individual stature of its candidates and convertibility of the RJD’s base votes’.

“Kanhaiya cannot single out one reason for Bihat [his native village] shaping his political sensitivity; he has already been labelled pro-Muslim, and this is his liability to attract Hindu votes in a communally polarised scenario. However, Santosh touches only marginally upon the overall rise and fall of various shades of Left politics in Bihar.

‘The IT war-room data Moghul’, Prashant Kishor’s ‘asset is his efficiency and worth as a poll strategist, and his political connections. His limitation is his inability to touch base in politics’.

Chiragh Paswan’s ‘urbane look and accent and his opulence, may pose a bit of problem’; ‘there has been too little of Shaharbanni [Paswan’s ancestral village in Khagaria] in Chiragh. His connect with the Dalit constituency is limited’. Santosh doesn’t see any prospect in Jitan Manjhi, nor does the author trace the evolution of political journey and career. 

Mukesh Sahni would succeed only ‘if he invests his time in the field and does some good work’, as Bihar hasn’t seen a pan-Bihar EBC leader after Karpoori Thakur (1924-1988). Santosh, however, misses on why Karpoori, in his last weeks of life, had taken recourse to mobilizing the fishing communities. Nor does he look into the assertion and mobilization of a number of socio-political outfits of the fishing-riverine communities in recent decades, particularly in 2015. (See my column, ‘The Mallah Factor in Bihar Politics’, morningchronicle.in, 24 April, 2019).   

Intriguingly, Santosh has avoided writing detailed profiles of what he says, ‘BJP’s Young Turks’, viz., Griraj Singh, Sushil Modi, Nand Kishor Yadav, Prem Kumar, Nityanand Rai, Sanjay Jaiswal and Sanjay Paswan and his son Guru Prakash. Instead of paying attention to their profiles, Santosh has pointed out more pertinent development underway in Bihar:

“There is a tight, year-long calendar for party functions. Roles are assigned at every level. BJP looks to be working round the year, being in the field at every level in its desire to win Bihar on its own someday. The BJP organization has 45 districts (as against 38 geographical districts) split into 1,100 mandals (kind of Blocks). A Shakti Kendra having 5-7 booths is the base unit. Each booth has 4-5 people…. Kamal [lotus] Clubs at booth levels to mobilise support of youth between 18-25 years”. (pp. 219-220).

He has also avoided writing exclusive profiles of the Muslim leaders. Not even of the likes of Abdul Ghafoor (1918-2004), about whom JP, even while agitating against him, remarked, ‘honourable man with no excessive fondness for office’, Ghulam Sarwar (1926-2004), Jabir Husain (b. 1945), Abdul Bari Siddiqui. Is it suggestive of a perpetually marginal status of Muslim leaders in grand power-play of Bihar politics?

Santosh makes his respondent Sharad Yadav confess in December 2019 that the JP’s Total Revolution accepting BJP as ally ‘ended its untouchability and the long-lasting stigma of the RSS being the killer of Mahatma Gandhi’ (p. 110). This is something, Arvind Rajagopal wrote about, way back in EPW, July 5, 2003. Santosh then goes on to devote a few pages on Kailashpati Mishra (1923-2012), a tallest BJP leader from Bihar, an RSS Pracharak from Buxar in Bihar. But he misses on Mishra’s contribution towards saffronising the tribes of what is now Jharkhand, particularly by playing an instrumental role in ensuring that RL Nanda became Vice Chancellor of Ranchi University. Nanda helped the RSS penetrate among the Adivasis. When, in April 1979, communal violence broke out in Jamshedpur, Mishra was state finance minister. By the 1990s, he was the recognised saffron icon in Bihar. (See my column, “Jharkhand’s New Government Inherits Burden of De-Saffronising”, Newsclick.in, December 25, 2019)

Kailashpati Mishra’s BJP, concludes the book, is now having a definitive mission to ensure that RJD does not ever get closer to the JDU, and that Tejashwi is also suggestive of this BJP plan by ‘not being overtly critical of the BJP’ (p. 289). The title is also clearly suggestive of how the JP politics gave way to the BJP.

This otherwise informative chronicle has got some factual and typo errors, here and there, as also a little better copy-editing by the Sage Select (Delhi) may have improved it even better. There is every reason to expect from Santosh that he will come out with even better studies on Bihar.  

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The author is Professor, Centre of Advanced Study (CAS) in History, AMU, Aligarh

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