With the upcoming election, Bihar's news cycle is circling back to serious affairs

The state is known for its political awareness, and will not succumb to the tabloidisation of the political agenda.

ByAnand Vardhan
With the upcoming election, Bihar's news cycle is circling back to serious affairs
Shambhavi Thakur

A campaign poster for an obscure political party at Patna’s JP roundabout announces the schedule of a virtual rally, along with the promise of one crore jobs. A few metres away, in front of the Patna Women’s College campus, a district administration hoarding informs voters of new methods and precautions while casting their votes during a pandemic.

Small and patently inconsequential parties, like the Rashtra Seva Dal, have entered the poster wars with the more important parties of the rival alliances: the incumbent National Democratic Alliance and the opposition Grand Alliance.

With this, Bihar’s poll season seems to be finally settling in, with its usual air of combative electioneering.

But slowly disappearing are the posters demanding justice for Bihar-born actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who died in June. Mostly found before the Supreme Court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into his death, they aren’t a common sight anymore. One is still visible at the entrance of SK Puri park in north Patna; its many demands include a posthumous Padma Shri for the actor.

So, even as major political parties in the state — the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress and the Lok Janshakti Party — are keen to be seen as supporting Rajput’s family’s pitch for a fair probe, the parties are well aware of its irrelevance to the actual electoral battle. The BJP might be using slogans like “Naa bhule hain, naa bhulne denge” (we’ve neither forgotten nor will let anyone forget), but it realises that keeping pace with the media’s tabloidisation of the probe is now an exercise of diminishing returns.

Moreover, parties are walking the tightrope between the risk of their campaigns straying into frivolity, and being seen as unmoved by someone from the state hitting national headlines.

Now, all this must be seen in the backdrop of the initial scramble among political parties and state leaders to rally behind the emotive ferment of Rajput’s death. The response of political parties was seen through different prisms, including one motivated by the need to enlist the support of a social group. The latter line of reasoning, though tenuous, given the very limited electoral sway of the group, was turned on its head with a controversial statement from an RJD legislator.

However, the scene has changed in the three months since June 16, which is the day a huge, mostly young crowd had gathered around Kargil Chowk near Patna’s Gandhi Maidan to pay tribute to the late actor. If the state government rode on the popular sentiment of backing Rajput’s family’s demand for a CBI inquiry, the initial details emerging from a related probe conducted by the Narcotics Control Bureau has been a mixed bag.

While investigations are still underway and a large part of inferences at this stage could be speculative, the drug angle in the case has provided initial leads for a parallel probe. These leads have shown the shady side of Bollywood glamour — something that many people always suspected about celluloid stars, despite their fascination with them.

More significantly, the NCB probe so far does not show Rajput in an edifying light. In fact, they show a side of him which millions of homes tracking the probe on TV would want their younger ones to stay as far from as possible.

Do such revelations befuddle the political class about their response to the case? Can they continue to use the late actor as a rallying point in the fight for nativist pride? How does the news TV-watching middle class in the state, including the new middle class, reconcile its much talked about morality with the emerging evidence of a problematic, if not dissolute, lifestyle of a star they are supposed to regard as their own?

The answers to such questions aren’t easy. However, in terms of political gestures, the responses are more likely to be guided by the old currency of the popularity of the cause. In the process, it would also adjust to the phase of public fatigue, if not disillusionment, with the issue.

In public imagination, the unravelling of the Sushant Singh Rajput story would perhaps be a reminder that while the family and origins of a famous native may retain class or regional associations, the celebrated figure often outgrows the native social setting. The flawed ownership of conduct is fraught with risk, and carries the burden of a distant moral liability. In other words, the “pride” no longer inhabits the socio-cultural milieu and the value systems of the millions who claim to be proud of him or her, something I argued in an earlier piece. But the delinking of virtuosity of conduct with stardom is probably going to be a slow realisation for the late actor’s fan base.

The last few days, however, have made it clear that political parties will face the dilemma of finding common ground between batting for Rajput and invoking the values of Bihari pride. In the last three decades, such an invocation has often taken two forms in the state’s political responses and rhetoric.

First, political leadership in the state has often drawn on a historical sense to recall the state’s ancient glory. In modern Bihar, the invoking of Bihari pride or, for that matter, even the Bihari identity by the political leadership has largely been an act of recalling the state's great past.

In the colonial period, leaders from Bihar like Dr Sachidanand Sinha and Dr Rajendra Prasad talked about it while offering administrative logic for their demand of separating Bihar from the Bengal presidency — a goal which was achieved in 1912. Prasad, a scholar and the first president of India, continued to talk about the state’s historical legacy. A plaque at the Bihar Museum, the second one to be set up in the state capital after the iconic Patna Museum, has a quote from him: “It is no exaggeration to say that for centuries the history of India was but the history of Bihar writ large.”

In more recent memory, in 1990, the national media’s early encounter with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s one-liners had an element of this historical sense. Attending his first press conference as the chief minister of the state, Yadav was asked about the place of kingmakers in his party (then the undivided Janata Dal). “I don’t care who wants to play Kautilya (Chanakya) as long as I become Chandragupta,” Yadav quipped in an obvious reference to the state’s history.

In the initial years of the current century, there were intermittent efforts at appealing to and publicising this form of Bihari pride, not the least by an Uttar Pradesh-born IPS officer.

However, the second form of the invocation of this identity is more contemporary. It can be seen as a response, even a backlash, against the abusive language and disdainful attitude towards the Bihari migrant workforce in different parts of the country. Moreover, the stereotyping of an average Bihari, and general conditions of poverty and lack of economic development confronting the populace of the state, also contributed to the feeling of cohabiting a region marked by a benighted state of affairs.

It’s in this context that in 1992, scholar Arvind N Das spotted a form of identity emerging. “In Bihar too, in a slow and almost intangible way, a collective identity appears to be emerging,” he wrote in his work The Republic of Bihar.

It’s this form of Bihari identity and the need to restore its dignity that Nitish Kumar talked about in his first statement after leading the NDA to a landslide win in the November 2005 Assembly poll. He expressed the resolve to show the strength and capability — “qubbat” and “samarthya” — of the people of the state. In the early years of the previous decade, Kumar blended his developmental plank with the invocation of larger Bihari interests as he sought to widen the support for a special category status for Bihar — a recognition by the Centre that could entitle the state to far more assistance from the central government.

In the backdrop of both these forms of Bihari identity and pride, Rajput’s case is more of a search for a youthful iconography in a state that, for a long time, couldn’t claim its own slice of big-time celluloid fame. While the state did have a few outstanding artists in the film industry, they were seen as acting powerhouses, and not the glamorous poster boys who define the idea of stardom in popular perception. Beyond that, any association of Bihari pride with the late star will now be a befuddling, if not risky, proposition.

Another important aspect is that despite low literacy, Bihar has been known for its political awareness, which ranges from issues of social identity to issues of day-to-day administration and state-led development (or the lack of it). Both parochial and non-parochial issues of political interest engage the state’s voters, besides the state’s famed caste calculus. This year, the usual range of issues have further widened with an election being conducted in the midst of the Covid pandemic which entailed the lockdown and reverse migration of a large part of the state's workforce. In this backdrop, political parties wouldn’t like to stretch political space for the narratives unfolding around the unfortunate death of a movie star from the state.

So, there isn’t merit in the claims that Rajput’s death has snowballed into one of the poll issues. It defies social and political logic, and even for a section seeing it through political prism, the uniformity in response of the state’s political parties hasn’t left much ground for competitive gestures. As if a statistical estimate was needed for how people aren’t inclined to see as one of the poll issues, a Mumbai-based AI startup conducted a survey on people’s response to the likelihood of the issue figuring in the campaign season. The majority didn’t want it to be on the list of issues and, as the days draw closer to the poll, more broad-based surveys are likely to show more overwhelming numbers not seeing political merit in the issue of a tragic death.

Early this week, the news coverage of the death of former union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh managed to displace titbits about the Rajput death probe and drug trail inquiry by the NCB from the front pages of the Bihar editions of newspapers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi grasped the political import of the moment, a blend of the immediate and the essential in a political society. He released a video tribute to the departed stalwart of state politics and an important leader in the country's narrative on rural development. In a sombre moment of losing a towering leader, the news cycle got back to talking about political legacies: the issues and people who were essential politically.

That’s what the news cycle in Bihar will rediscover in the coming weeks: talking about the current crop of state leadership and the current issues they are expected to address. In a way, it would get back to the idea of being really political in the poll season.

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