Demonetisation, Prohibition, Nitish and the current political equations of Bihar

Bihar has completed one year of the Mahagatabandhan government. From the State’s Health Minister and Lalu Prasad’s elder son Tej Pratap Yadav prescribing “horse-riding” to curb pollution and to skirt traffic jams to the Chief Minister banning alcohol with stringent rules, within an year Bihar has witnessed multiple pleasant and unpleasant surprises.

Recently I was traveling across a few cities of Bihar to attend wedding ceremonies of a close relative. Using this as a good opportunity, I interacted with locals from these places to know their views on political developments in India, in Bihar, and in their localities.

Demonetisation is the latest buzz everywhere. So is it in Bihar too. I heard people intensely discussing it at various places – the yellow building of Patna Airport, across the congested narrow streets opposite to Takht Sri Patna Sahib, on the dilapidated semi-functional Mahatma Gandhi Setu, and inside the villages of Siwan, which was once a stronghold of Mohammad Shahabuddin.

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The opinions were mixed. Since I was there to attend a wedding, I was also getting a first-hand experience of operational problems which people are facing due to cash crunch. Band wallas, decorators and caterers had to manage by taking a mix of cheques, old 500 notes and valid notes. There was inconvenience in the air, but things didn’t stop due to it.

I experienced similar atmosphere in the village of Siwan where the wedding was scheduled and where one could hardly find someone using net banking. Not only that, when I enquired some locals of Siwan (a traditional RJD belt), they told me that they are very satisfied with the demonetisation scheme announced by Modi. While many people were hopeful about demonetisation, many were expressing anger due to distress caused by long queues and unavailability of cash needed to pay to daily wage labourers. The ratio, however, was very inclined towards people who are supporting the scheme.

It was impressive to notice the penetration of WhatsApp into interiors of Bihar. People showed me WhatsApp messages related to demonetisation – some of which were official communications, some were rumors, some were nationalistic jibes, and most were jokes. One of my relatives read a WhatsApp joke to me which roughly meant: “मोदी का भरोसा नहीं। कल अचानक ये भी ऐलान कर सकता है कि ट्रेन की पटरी करंट बिछवा दिया जायेगा ताकि लोग उसपर शौच ना करें।” (Translation: Don’t trust Modi. Tomorrow he may also announce that railway tracks will be electrified so that people don’t defecate on them.)

Another interesting buzz which was going viral in Patna was that Narendra Modi’s official app start playing Modi’s speech when it is exposed to a 2000 rupee note. People were connecting it to the nano chip rumor which went viral after the first news on 2000 rupee note broke-out. Soon I found that some pranksters have created multiple variants of Modi KeyNote Apps which plays his speech.

Modi ke Note
Many were confusing it with a feature on official Narendra Modi app – the rumours are of all kinds.

So in essence, Bihar was dealing with demonetisation with overall support, some complaint, some anger, and some fun.

On politics inside Bihar, people said that the mahol (ambiance) is not the same as it was after the announcement of assembly election results. The jingles of “Bihar mein Bahaar ho” are no more soothing to their ears. Despite several claims by Nitish Kumar that crime has dipped inside Bihar, people say that crime has gone up. Gundagardi and Rangdaari are back. Only a few days back, a correspondent of Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar named Dharmender Singh was shot dead outside a roadside tea shop in Sasaram. People are keeping a track of such incidents.

As far as prohibition is concerned, Nitish has won the heart of many Biharis by banning liquor inside the state. Contrary to editorials of magazines and newspapers, contrary to outrages on the social media, and contrary to debates on news channels, people, in general, are very happy with ban on liquor. The biggest beneficiaries are women, who are acknowledging decline in the domestic violence due to prohibition.  The ban has poorly impacted the “fast food” businesses inside the state, but it has certainly won goodwill for Nitish Kumar.

Perhaps one can claim that the sentiments towards demonetisation and prohibition are similar – there is inconvenience, there is negative impact on some businesses, and there are valid criticisms of the moves based on economic or democratic principles, but people are largely in support of these as they feel that the positive outcomes outweigh the negative ones.

The popular sentiment in Bihar is that the Mahagatabandhan Sarkar won’t last for long. Nitish, in his recent speeches, has not only praised demonetisation from multiple platforms, but he has also distanced himself from protest organized by his political friends like Mamta Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. People in Bihar anticipate political shift in 2017. The national equations will become very interesting if Nitish joins hands with BJP again.

Only time will tell which direction will the wind blow.


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