The Pulse

Politics in Bihar: Between Old and New

Bihar’s struggle: while people yearn for change the ruling class and political parties want to thrive on the status quo.

Politics in Bihar: Between Old and New
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s around ten in the morning and Surajbhan Singh is out on the streets with a cavalcade of cars and motorbikes campaigning. The yellow garlands around his neck make his dark face look bright. His motley group of supporters follows his caravan shouting “hail Surajbhan Singh.” With folded hands, Singh greets people who have come out on the street out of curiosity after hearing the buzz.

Otherwise this sleepy town of Mokama, located ninety kilometers east of Bihar’s capital Patna, leads a very uneventful life. The town, like most places in Bihar, is an agrarian area and a majority of the fertile lands yield three crops annually despite being submerged in the monsoon rain for four months.

Mokama, like other places in Bihar, has relatively new infrastructure in terms of roads and electricity, which were almost non-existent just seven years ago. Now each and every village is connected with roads. Primary health centers at the local level now function as well.

Amidst all these changes, Singh is an import from the old world. All his activities, mannerisms and the ideas he represents are leaves from the old world that Bihar wants to move away from.

One of the banes of this east Indian state has been its muscular politics, often combined with reigns of terror unleashed by local goons in the form of frequent murders and general mayhem. From the late 1980s until the early part of this century, the state had been widely regarded as a badland of India – a haven of backwardness and a heart of darkness.

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Under the leadership of  Chief Minister Nitish Kumar since 2005, the state has tried to stem the tide and retrieve the situation from a state of hopelessness. Kumar has been instrumental in turning the fate of the “sick state” and ushering in much needed change in the area where Gautam Buddha and Mahavir Jain, founders of Buddhism and Jainism, once walked. Not only was the law and order machinery overhauled, but also much needed infrastructural and economic change have been introduced. Today the state boasts of more than 20 hours of electricity in each of its major areas, motorable road connects almost all the villages, and it has been registering more than 10 percent GDP growth every year for the last eight years – a remarkable feat.

These changes have unlocked new aspirations in  this traditionally backward and laggard state.

Surajbhan Singh is an anachronism amidst all these changes. He is an eyesore. His background tells it all.

Not long ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, Singh was a terrorist in eastern Bihar, particularly in the area around Mokama. Known for kidnapping, murder and other crimes, it is because of goons like him that Mokama became a notorious place in the state. This small town of around 100,000 people became a byword of terror. Many traders left the agrarian city and its local economy suffered tremendously due to the criminal presence in the area. The situation once became so serious that people stopped sending their children to local schools out of fear of kidnapping. The local community mostly belonging to castes other than Singh’s bore the brunt of  the reign of terror.

Singh and many others like him were responsible for the decline of not only the local economy but also the economic backwardness of the whole state. The political patronage received by the goons sustained them for long.

In 2004, Singh, using his muscle power, support from his caste, and political connections won parliamentary elections from a nearby constituency. However, his luck ran out in 2008 when a local court convicted him of murder and thus brought his political innings to an end.

But he has remained active in politics. The campaigning in Mokama demonstrates his activism. The court ruling makes him ineligible to contest an election but is no deterrent for him.

He has found another way for wielding power by fielding his wife as a candidate in the parliamentary elections. Very few people in the Munger constituency where his wife is contesting know the real name of the candidate for whom the former goon is campaigning. Mokama comes under the Munger parliamentary constituency and Singh’s campaign focus is his own area – the same place where he became notorious. He is also mobilizing his caste, Bhumihar, a local landed class community wielding lots of political influence.

His wife is running on the ticket of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), a Bihar-based regional party. It has recently formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist party which is a strong contender for power in Delhi in the upcoming 2014 elections. The LJP fancies its chances in Bihar, hoping to sail through in the prevailing pro-BJP mood in the state.

It’s been more than a fortnight since the election date was announced and the campaigning has begun. Veena Devi, Surajbhan Singh’s wife, is still largely invisible from public meetings. Her husband, however, is visible everywhere – either through posters or in person.

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“Everybody knows that Surajbhan Singh is using his wife as a proxy to get political power. Imagine what kind of future you have with this kind of politician in Bihar. We want change but not the change for worse,” says Ganesh Das, a local trader in Mokama.

Bihar lives in this paradox today. While people yearn for change, the ruling class and political parties want to thrive on status-quo.