Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why Nitish is the flavour of the season

Patna is probably the most dishevelled and chaotic of our state capitals, a rough-scruff town that often lends itself to being conferred a reputation worse than its reality is.

William Dalrymple’s cameo Patna tale in At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess got away with a charming bit of exaggeration — it’s madness to be on the roads in Patna after dark. Not true, of course; were that so, three-fourths of Patna would have to be carted to lunatic asylums each night.

But Dalrymple’s alarmist advisory aside, few familiar with Patna would much quarrel with bleak, often panicked, portrayals of Bihar’s capital. They make a formidable catalogue, and they run fore and aft Dalrymple, his is merely among the more engrossing.

Perception often rings truer than the truth. Bihar is a widely accepted metaphor for humongous and irreparable ill — Bihari, manufactured defective. You must be Bihari to feel the rough rub of it.

And Patna has obliged well, playing rowdy-ramshackle showcase. It’s not a nice place to be.

But anyone who’s known Patna over time would tell you how much nicer it has turned lately. It is still quite the shabbiest capital we have, but spare a thought for the depths it is having to claw its way up from.

To insider and outsider alike, Patna was forever a place you sought escape from — the former lived eternally hoping, to the latter it was a necessity as soon as they got in. Patna! Cataclysm.

To the likes of us — insider-outsiders — it was cataclysm revisited, time and time again.

The old grandeur of its colonial quarters overrun by shacks and shanties and their attendant life forms — cows, buffaloes, pigs, mongrels.

Its new polish stained by the mucky residue of para-rural urge mating semi-urban chaos. An SUV marooned in a procession of handcarts and rickshaws. Hungry platoons from ruralia roving about that solitary island of glitter called the Dak Bungalow Chowk in search of work and food.

The aroma of freshly dropped dung wafting into ice-cream parlours. Highrises sans electricity. A towering cardboard Lalu Prasad with a lantern bathed in the blaze of diesel-powered bulbs.

Should you happen to be in Patna today, you’ll probably be assaulted by a similar slideshow of cracked contrariness — perhaps not Lalu Prasad, because he doesn’t stand so tall anymore and the glow of his lantern has been admonished into dimness, but a lot of the same unpacked grimness.

But should you have a practised eye on Patna, you’ll also see much that is changed and changing. Birchand Patel Path, Patna’s power street which houses headquarters to most political parties, has not merely evolved into a spanking dual carriageway, it has also acquired service-lanes on either side.

The Circuit House, long dilapidated and crumbling, wears new sandstone cladding. The Boring Road neighbourhood — pig-ridden Patna posh — actually has garbage vats on streetcorners and streets freshly cobbled into walkways. There are more cobblestones piled up in other, less fortunate parts, work’s been ordered. After dark, Mr Dalrymple, a sodium vapour glow spews down on most of Patna.

Along routes leading out to the heartland in every direction --- north and south of the Ganges --- there’s a new clamour of construction; dust, concrete, tar, earthmovers and roadrollers.

Being on the road in Bihar is still an unnerving thing, but there’s the ring a qualitative change to it --- what’s unsettling today isn’t about stagnation and decay, it is about regeneration. And much more than regeneration, it is about the news of its impending arrival.

A lot of what has changed in the three-odd years that Nitish Kumar has helmed Bihar is merely cosmetic --- smooth strips of road and road lighting, families out late and unafraid to show-off their finery, cleaner kerbs and facades, public utilities such as bus-stations and schools where you’ll see, more and more, schoolchildren and, at long last, teachers, too.

But to note that and nothing beyond is to miss the point of what is changing. What is really changing in Bihar is not the visible or the tactile; the real change is happening invisibly in minds and psychologies, the dusting of corrosive cobwebs --- cynicism and resignation.

What is really changing is that hope has been rekindled --- roads can be built, streets can be lit and broken bridges built, schools can become busy, criminals can be jailed, promise can be delivered, if only slowly, if only patchily.

Crime has not be erased from Bihar or its politics --- the squeaky clean Nitish himself unabashedly harbours the likes of Anant Singh and Munna Shukla --- but, equally, the sense is it is being contained.

Power is yet to reach most of the state’s darkness, but there is renewed expectation it is on its way. Old sub-stations in C-towns are under repair or replacement, new power projects have been assured.

They are merely assurances, no doubt, but the difference is when Nitish makes an assurance, many tend to believe. With Lalu Prasad, it was most often the opposite.

Lalu Prasad’s record in Bihar betrayed little evidence of his inclination to matters of governance. On the contrary, he systematically dismantled governance during his 15 years at the helm, either directly or through proxy. He discouraged ministerial excellence and bureaucratic initiative; he displayed a positive disinterest in governance and a dislike for those who tried to nudge him in that direction.

Among the many reasons for his rupture with Nitish Kumar was this as well. Nitish wanted the government to govern and was ready to shoulder the responsibility while Lalu Yadav extended the Mandal revolution from the pulpit. Lalu Prasad thought Nitish meant to undermine him. In the process, what got readily undermined with the state itself. Corrections were urgently required, and they have only just begun to happen.

“No one has ever called Patna a beautiful city,” Dalrymple wrote at the peak of Lalu raj, “but revisiting it I found I had forgotten how bad things were.” The temptation today is to invite him back for a rickshaw trawl through Patna by dark; it’s always been a safe bet, today its probably also going to impose a few revisions on Dalrymple’s tale.

Come, we’ll pay for the ride --- and the risks involved.

Source : The Telegraph


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