[Mirrored from the original in the Calcutta Telegraph, 9 March 2000]
Bihar News

It was the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 1948, the day Americans traditionally go to the polls to elect their president. The Democratic candidate was the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, who had succeeded to the office in April 1945, at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But Truman was no Roosevelt, and in 1948 it was widely thought that new leadership was needed to guide the country into the post-war years. Thomas E. Dewey, the popular Republican governor of New York, was the overwhelming favourite. In fact, the Republican establishment and their conservative media supporters were so confident that The Chicago Tribune published a victory edition that very evening in grand anticipation, announcing in banner headlines, "Dewey Wins". But then as now it was the people who voted and not the press and the pollsters, and the people�s choice in that election was of course Harry Truman.

In the more accurate press reports the following morning, Truman was shown gleefully waving The Chicago Tribune, "Dewey Wins," edition over his head. The applicable metaphor here, as Dewey and the Republicans learned to their great regret, was that revealing fable from the classical Greek, "Don�t count your chickens before they are hatched."

It is a metaphor the leadership of the National Democratic Alliance and its Bharatiya Janata Party, Samata Party, and Janata Dal (United) constituents might well have contemplated to their advantage in the run up to the recent assembly elections in Bihar. Had they done so and been less concerned with bickering over the loaves and fishes of office which their misplaced confidence inspired, Bihar might have been spared much of the poignant drama of the days since the results were announced.

Not only were NDA expectations badly confounded, but equally those of the Congress, and the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) left alliance, which were inevitably anticipating more substantial numbers and the enhanced anti-NDA bargaining position that would have provided.

If the final results had even begun to approach the opinion poll figures of 175 to 180 for the NDA (leave alone their own "computer generated" estimates of 218 seats), there would long since have been a new government functioning in Patna. But the likelihood of Nitish Kumar being the chief minister-designate in those circumstances would have been minimal indeed. Failing these results, the reality we have before us was almost inevitable.

In other words, the NDA combine with its 122 seats did much worse than expected, and Laloo Prasad Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal did much better than the opinion poll estimates which ranged from 65 to 100 at the most optimistic.

But given the persistent and continuing anti-Laloo sentiment that is abroad among the electorate (reflected among other things in a marginally lower voting percentage from 1999, now estimated at 28 per cent), the 124 seats for the RJD, or 126 for the RJD-Communist Party of India (Marxist) combine, are presumably the limits of Laloo�s support base in the year 2000, 10 years after he initially assumed office. (The Laloo Janata Dal had 120 seats in 1990, when Laloo became chief minister with the strong support of his then ally, Nitish Kumar.)

In retrospect it is of course easy to explain what happened. The NDA leadership naively assumed that the dramatic successes of the 1999 party election would automatically translate to comparable successes in the assembly elections. In this state of heightened expectation, seat sharing became a matter of competition rather than accommodation. The problem was never fully resolved, with rebel candidates and independents standing against official nominees in enough constituencies to have affected the end result.

Rather than projecting a unified coalition and a unified coalition leader as they did in 1999, the NDA constituents were in fact badly divided. That they issued their common platform barely 48 hours before the first day of polling, when Election Commission rules require that campaigning end, reinforced the image of confusion. And perhaps most critically and quite inexplicably, they badly underestimated the political skills of their only real opponent.

Laloo Prasad Yadav remains the most artful populist politician of the 20th century, and he literally pulled out all the stops in pleading with an electorate for forgiveness and support. He played the role of the humble Laloo brilliantly, for example, allowing that if it was development (for him an oxymoron) they wanted, he would give it to them. Although his votes and seats were down dramatically from 1995 (from 165 to 124, or a 25 per cent decline; the NDA constituents were up from 63 seats to 122, that is an increase of 93 per cent), it was a tactic that kept his declining base intact, much to everyone�s surprise, especially that of the NDA.

One can conclude from these results that the voters of Bihar know their minds well. If they have delivered a fractured verdict, they did so with clinical intent. They have had 10 years of Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose RJD government was defined in the CPI(M-L) election manifesto as "an apology for institutionalized anarchy". It is an anarchy the citizen voters of Bihar propose to change. They seek some semblance of governance which attends at least minimally to basic needs like roads, water, electricity, education, medicine, and fundamentally, the law and order of a civil society.

That is the message they have sent in these elections to all politicians who have for so long taken them for granted, whether of the RJD, or, as in the recent elections, the NDA. And for the moment they are perfectly content to let them all twist slowly in the wind, wondering when and whether they will assume office. The response of the politicians in these circumstances is one of convincing, cajoling, and enforcing alliances, splits, and defections in anticipation of the forthcoming vote of confidence.

The parties that engage in these efforts to generate support are said to be negotiating over "common minimum programmes", while their opponents� efforts are described as "horse trading". Whatever the case, the acrimony, and, sadly, the violence since the governor, V.C. Pande, tapped Nitish Kumar to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly has been extreme even for Bihar.

The RJD bandh of last weekend and after has resulted in at least eight deaths, six when a locomotive collided with a breakdown repair van on the East Central Railway in north Bihar. The van was returning from replacing fish plates which had been removed by RJD supporters of the bandh. Hundreds have been injured. Railway services and telecommunications have been severely disrupted in much of Gangetic north India.

It is difficult to see these actions as "Gandhian" civil disobedience as claimed, or for that matter as anyway appropriate in a secular, civil polity. In most democratic societies they would be considered as endangering life and property and open to criminal prosecution.

It is of course entirely reasonable to question the constitutional propriety of the governor�s action, though it must be noted that the framers of the Constitution were silent on this matter, and one must presume, for reasons they considered important. Contrariwise, at a time of one party dominance, it is entirely possible that the framers might not have foreseen the kinds of narrow divisions this time of transition to coalition politics has produced.

However that may be, the governor, who was reported to be "consulting constitutional authorities" throughout, was well within the discretionary powers available to him to invite anyone he felt could provide a stable government. It is a point made on Sunday last by Digvijay Singh, the Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, differing rather dramatically with the party leadership in New Delhi on this issue.

Indeed, it may well have been the delay in the Congress conveying its support of the RJD on Thursday and Friday of last week that moved the governor to act. And that delay may itself have been motivated by indecisiveness both in New Delhi and in Patna on the wisdom of that support, in the face of strong opposition from the Bihar wing of the party and the 180 degree policy turn this position represented.

It must also be noted here that Pande comes from an Indian Administrative Service background with a reputation for impeccable integrity. He was the revenue secretary under Rajiv Gandhi and the cabinet secretary under V.P. Singh. How the ambiguities thrown up by the assembly election are resolved will be demonstrated sooner than later on the floor of the house.

At the moment of writing this, the situation is fluid in the extreme and the results in either direction are problematic. No one is more adept at engineering defections and breaking parties than Laloo Yadav, as he has demonstrated again and again over the 10 years of his incumbency. I make the point only as an observation and not a prediction, for all parties and players are obviously equally determined. And if there is no resolution on the floor of the house, the citizen voters of Bihar will express themselves yet again, and more pointedly one presumes, at the ballot box.

These events recall the aphorism of Abraham Lincoln, that great American president of the people, when he said in 1864: "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." It is a message Nitish Kumar or Laloo Yadav should take very seriously.

As the results of the assembly election show, the citizen voters of Bihar are tired of waiting.

Walter Hauser is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia

Return to Bihar News

Webbed by Philip McEldowney
Last update: .