The future of a nation depends on the health of its people. The health of its people depends on the health of its children. The health of a democracy depends on the health of its politics. Around 160 children died of encephalitis in Muzaffarpur in Bihar last week. Sickening the most is the politics around the deaths.
Being an NDA partner, the BJP has refrained from damning Nitish Kumar. It is likely that the coalition will remain in place until the Assembly elections in February next year. After that, it is anybody’s guess. The local BJP miscalculated; had it contested alone riding on Modi Magic in May, the majority of MPs would have been saffron.
From 2005 till date (except for a brief eight-day stint in 2000), Nitish has been at Bihar’s helm. However, the state’s problems go beyond his failure to turn its social services around. He has tried his best to boost Bihar’s average annual growth rate, promote connectivity, check crime, retain girls in school and increment women-centric schemes. But the past is a powerful detergent that could wash away the gains of the future.
In the ’70s, Jayprakash Narayan upset the traditional ruling order, which was controlled by the upper castes, as was the case in most states. India’s social revolution was fuelled by the rise of the backward classes: for example in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, et al. Ironically, this rise, personified by regional leaders like Lalu Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, led to further decline of the very sections they represented. Bihar’s population is 89 percent rural and 76 percent agricultural. With the fall of the Congress party, leaders changed; but not the nature of leadership.
Dons such as Mohammad Shahabuddin and Raja Bhaiya replaced the exploitative zamindari order using the same old tactics of fear and violence. Under such netas, the heartland fell to corruption on a vast scale, led by a history of traditional economic deprivation. Crime rates rose as caste-franchisee politicians used mafia muscle to control elections. With caste on the throne, can communalism be far behind? The demands of this caste-communal axis hindered growth in UP-Bihar. Bribery and battery became the norm in agriculture, infrastructure, education, health and other parameters.
The encephalitis deaths only deepen this lengthening shadow. Power keeps a politician in office, and also allows him to bring progress. The tragedy of Muzaffarpur is being used as a political stick to beat, or to avoid beating, Nitish Kumar. The Railways Minister who quit over a train accident in 1999 has acquired the image of a chief minister who resigns only to stay in power. The moment has come for Nitish to rediscover a lost principle ransomed by the opportunistic habit of office. Perhaps then, Bihar can prevent another Muzaffarpur in future.