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The frenemies of Bihar

The relation (friendship and enmity) to which the BJP refers to in the hoarding is well-known - that between Mr Kumar and former chief minister Lalu Prasad

Uttaran Das Gupta 

Sankarshan Thakur
HarperCollins Publishers India

418 pages; Rs 550

During the recent campaigning for the Assembly elections in Bihar, a large hoarding came up on a busy roundabout in Patna, proclaiming: "Bihar mein bahar ho; Nitish Kumar ho (Let there be prosperity in Bihar; let there be Nitish Kumar)." It was a part of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's reelection bid. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was an ally of Mr Kumar's Janata Dal (United) a few years back but is now contesting him tooth and nail, put up another hoarding right beneath it, trolling: "Kal tak ke jaani dushman, aaj satta ke yaar hain; haan bhaiyya, Bihar mein bahar hain (Enemies of yesterday are now friends in search of power. Yes brother, Bihar is prosperous)."

The relation (friendship and enmity) to which the BJP refers to in the hoarding is well-known - that between Mr Kumar and former chief minister Lalu Prasad. Friends of their youth, both began their careers as student leaders during anti-Emergency movements led by Jaya Prakash Narayan; led the backward castes in their state on the path of self-determination; fell out and fought each other, with Mr Kumar crafting the downfall of Mr Prasad from a seemingly invincible citadel of power; and now, are united yet again to stall the juggernaut that is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's electoral success.

Senior journalist Sankarshan Thakur presents the fascinating story in this volume - an updated edition of his previously published biographies of Mr Prasad (Subaltern Sahib: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav) and Mr Kumar (Single Man: The Life & Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar). Not all of it is updated, though: for instance, Laloo Yadav has long reinvented himself as Lalu Prasad. But there is enough new material to draw older readers back, and they always were fascinating enough to attract new readers.

Mr Thakur's volume is a definitive history of the state that was (in)famously described as "the sewer of India" by The Times, London, journalist Trevor Fishlock in the 1970s and became a basket case of complete administrative failure in the 1990s, under Mr Prasad's government. Yet, over the past 10 years, Bihar, under Mr Kumar's stewardship, emerged as an example of recovery, clocking high growth figures. Mr Thakur chronicles this nonlinear narrative in a rich, nonlinear style but it gains poignancy through a personal investment in the fate of the state.

In the Introduction, he writes: "I am attached to the Bihar story because I was born a Bihari and proudly remain one. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be a Bihari." Born in Patna, Mr Thakur moved with his family to New Delhi during his teens, midway through the Emergency. "Patna is not a nice place to be. It is home to me and I cannot stop wanting to go back every once in a while." So, he claims the privilege of being an insider telling the tale, but also feels the pains and pleasures of exile. Discussing their similar positions with writer Amitava Kumar, also a Bihari, Mr Thakur writes: "We agreed… that you came to a juncture in Patna when it began to arrest and restrict. Leaving helped." This insider-yet-outsider perspective, informs the narratives, taking them beyond the limitations of their genre.

At an interview during the Patna Literature Festival in 2013, historian Gyan Prakash told me: "The essential difference between the Lalu era and now is that earlier people used to make fun of Biharis; now, being Bihari is a matter of pride." Mr Thakur's books seem to confirm this perception. When Mr Prasad's biography was first published in 2000, it was called: The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar. The title is telling. Though Mr Prasad inherited a state blighted with decades of mismanagement and corruption, during his regime the rot spread to everything in Bihar.

In the nineties, a joke was very popular: when Mr Prasad met then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he managed to solve the Kashmir issue in a jiffy. This is the deal he offered: "If you want Kashmir, take Bihar with it." Naturally, Mr Sharif baulked. This is what makes Mr Kumar's achievements more remarkable. As Mr Thakur writes: "A lot of what changed in the years that Nitish Kumar helmed Bihar seemed merely cosmetic - smooth strips of road and road lightning, families out late and unafraid to show off their finery… What was really changing was that hope was born again."

One can split hairs with Mr Thakur and argue that BJP was as responsible for this development as Mr Kumar. Senior BJP leaders such as Sushil Kumar Modi and Nand Kishore Yadav held important Cabinet posts such as finance and roads in the state government. There is hardly any mention of this contribution. But to be fair, that's not the big story anymore.

Mr Kumar put all this hope at stake by breaking away from the BJP - whom he needed to oust Mr Prasad - in 2013, after it became apparent that Mr Modi would be the prime ministerial candidate of the NDA. Mr Thakur provides an explanation for this move, for which Mr Kumar had to pay dearly in the Lok Sabha elections last year: "'I cannot work with this man,' he (Mr Kumar) told me… 'Narendra Modi goes beyond electoral battles, it is a battle of ideas.'" Now this battle is playing itself out in the polling booths of Bihar. It will possibly determine the political future of the country. Will the Nitish-Lalu duo be able to arrest the progress of the Modi juggernaut, like Mr Prasad had stopped L K Advani's rath yatra?

That could possibly be a sequel to this fascinating story.

First Published: Wed, October 28 2015. 21:25 IST