Nepali Times Asian Paints
The view from the other side


The 'Republic of Bihar'-as the veteran journalist Arvind Das termed the state in a seminal book-may soon be a next door neighbour of republican Nepal.

But in its middle class drawing rooms of Bihar's capital, Nepali politics is of only fleeting interest.

"People used to worship the monarchy there isn't it? Look what this king has done. He will be over after your elections," says a former government engineer in Muzaffarpur, 70km north of Patna.

While the awareness about Nepal's Madhes problem is higher, it has not seeped into the popular Bihari consciousness except near the border. There is no large political constituency pushing it in Patna.

But a dangerous mix of emotive support and inaccurate information has made its way through. A zamindar from the Baneli estate near Purnea asked curiously: "Is it true that Madhesis get nothing in Nepal and are being pushed out?"

Sitting at his Bailey Road residence, a management professor at the L N Mishra Institute wondered aloud: "So who are these Madhesis? The tv channels keep showing images of them being beaten up by the police."

On Patna's Fraser road, the city's Fleet Street, NDTV Bihar bureau chief Abhay Mohan Jha explains how national channels have little interest in cross-border issues. Instead, they rely on stringers in bordering districts. In the plush office studio, he shows visual footage sent by his Sitamarhi reporter, which has Rajan Mukti who recently split from Jwala Singh, accusing Singh of corruption and talking about plans to derail polls.

"I will need a lot more to weave a good Madhes story and pitch it to Delhi. Even here, people know little about the Tarai. How do I relay the nuances?" Jha asks.

For the upper castes in north Bihar, the Nepal Tarai is a dream gone sour. A land where there was little regulation over land ownership, few signs of assertion by the oppressed castes, with easy ways to enter into a neat compact with local politicians, has over the past ten years become too "unstable", and therefore less important.

In the consciousness of Bihar's opinion-formers, the Madhes is on the fringes.
Bihar is critical not only for the Madhes' present, but also its future. Madhesi politicians need to closely look at the state's federal experience, its political evolution and social engineering, and the crisis of governance if they want to avoid inheriting the worst features of Bihari politics. After all, the aim of the Madhesi movement is not to make the new Madhes state a 'second Bihar'.

However, Bihar has undergone democratisation over the past decade and a half. Laloo Prasad Yadav may be a little more than a clown for Southasia's chattering classes, but he symbolises the non-violent political assertion of the quaintly-acronymed OBCs. With his spotless record of providing security to state's Muslim population even when north India was reeling under communal strife, and it is no surprise that Laloo was in power for 15 years.

As journalist Sankarshan Thakur writes in his book The Making of Laloo Yadav, the Unmaking of Bihar there has been institutional breakdown, a crime-politics nexus, ruthless caste wars, crumbling infrastructure and little economic dividend in Bihar. In Laloo-nomics, development did not matter because it did not fetch votes.

Nitish Kumar has become chief minister on a coalition of upper-castes, Kurmis and the extremely underprivileged. There is consensus that things have improved under his rule. There are fast-track criminal courts, better roads, more focus on higher education to stop the drain of Bihari students, corporate investment, higher attendance in schools. But there is a long way to go on state finances, rural electrification, limited agricultural productivity, Naxalism, nascent manufacturing. Like Nepal, Bihar continues to depend on its huge migrant population.

The Madhes will inevitably face similar problems, especially when the country turns federal. This will be compounded by Kathmandu's discriminatory mindset, armed groups, and rising ethnic chauvinism.

The Madhesi parties and civil society are unprepared for the way ahead. Understanding the Bihar-Madhes relationship, and learning from the experience in India could be a good beginning.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)