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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bihar hits the Tunnel at the End of the Light

Uncharacteristically the mainstream media in Bihar has been reporting news on Bihar’s corruption and urban chaos in Patna for the last few months. While the muck raised by the opposition on the score of  dozens of scams could  be dismissed as malicious propaganda,  the admission of Sri Jitan Ram Manjhi the CM of Bihar, that corruption had gone up in and in fact as a minister in the previous  government he  himself  had to pay a bribe of Rs 5000 to get his  electricity bill rectified cannot be dismissed lightly.1  Bihar’s mythical rise from the ashes as the model of good governance- its peace and tranquility, double digit growth, transparency in governance -had caught the imagination of the nation.So the two views of the Bihari reality are deeply confusing . Is it a crisis in mimesis or is this apparent free fall for real?

In November 2005  the Nitish Kumar government came to power in Bihar  riding the popular wave of anger against the RJD regime which had acquired a place in the history of political infamy  for corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness. An abundant fund of goodwill had accrued to the incumbent regime even before it had given any account of itself- good or bad- merely because it had dispatched the seemingly invincible RJD regime into oblivion. It also carried a heavy burden of public expectation and the government did take up the task of rapid development and good governance in right earnest.

The post AH scam RJD regime had severely  restrained public spending; it was difficult to get past the treasury for anything but the most essential housekeeping expenses and regulatory functions like police  etc . Deferral of financial decisions became the norm in bureaucracy for anyone who valued his career.  However, a confident government armed with peoples’ trust and mandate for rapid development was not afraid to unshackle its bureaucracy and the financial rules were liberalized much beyond their dreams. The several fold increase in public spending in Bihar dramatically enlarged the “corruptive interface” for the public servant. More and more areas of our concern became the subject matter of bureaucratic scrutiny and control  due to the enactment of many new, legislations and regulations etc. The opportunities for rent seeking and corruption increased enormously.  So did the need for much greater vigilance. But there was a huge asymmetry between the capability of the anti corruption agencies- ill equipped, poorly staffed, unprofessional, disheartened and above all placed   largely under risk averse officers- whose own past record could not bear much scrutiny-and the enormous challenge at hand. The situation was ideal for the loot to commence and the need of the hour was to crack the whip in earnest.

The government   seemed to be serious about its efforts. But at the same time it was even more serious to be perceived to be doing that much – often more - to earn the maximum political dividend. So with equal energy it set about the task of building its image on a global scale. In a professional manner it set about projecting the change in government as a millennial event. 25th November 2005 became the temporal marker separating two distinct periods in history, two different modes of being in Bihar. As a matter of considered strategy Biharis were never allowed to forget the nightmare that they had left behind nor of the ever present danger of reverting to the same state of undifferentiated chaos, should the government’s hands be weakened.

Aware of the huge potential and global reach of the social media the nonresident Biharis were feted and treated by the government like royalty at the state sponsored annual conclaves. They in turn, became the greatest messengers of the gospel of resurgent Bihar to the four corners of the earth. They patrolled the social media sites with great energy and hundreds of guardian spirits would materialize from the cyberspace to stamp   out with finality even mildly critical references to the government on the social network sites. (They seem to have departed now or have they taken up other causes.) It was a fertile climate for mythologies and superstitions to grow and proliferate! One of them was that the public sphere had been cleansed and this transparent government free from corruption was a model to be emulated.

The media was more than compliant in reinforcing the beliefs. Its efforts were supplemented by the implacably hostile elements of privileged society , civil servants industrialists businessmen and intellectuals who had been tirelessly reporting about the misrule of Laloo Prasad .Their opinion constituted the common sense on Bihar and now they became the self appointed troubadours, the intellectual outriders of the new rĂ©gime. The media appeared keener than the government itself to propagate its drive against corruption. It recycled and endlessly highlighted seizure of one house, raid against one IAS or IPS officer creating an illusion of a hyperactive vigilance. Instead of  deploying its resources to verify the extravagant official claims, expose the fake and fictitious and of course endorse the sincere efforts, a large section of the media generally took the government hand outs as the authorized version of truth. Non official versions of reality were all but obliterated through a clever sleight of hand. Reporting of news can make inroads in the public consciousness only if relayed on particular frequencies; there are levels above which they are reduced to being endless background chatter just as the low key positioning of others drowns it in a cacophony of insignificant verbiage. This became a specialized media industry. On the other hand to advertise the Bihari millennium became a collective, coercive creed imposing a moral obligation linked as it became with the issue of Bihari pride. Some said it was voluntary servitude; others called it paid labour. That Bihar was in the grips of a different kind of tyranny was soon evident - the tyranny of (manufactured?) public opinion.

Sadly the government of the day had begun to live by the image of its infallibility and incorruptibility created by the media. The consequences were disastrous. In absence of uncomfortable questions to the government, as the years passed by, the crowd sourced version of the extent of corruption in Bihar diverged more and more with the official reality, much to the delight of the corrupt. In the fissure between the fact and the projection of it they could operate peacefully, thank you very much.
The same tendency to earn money through misuse of public office made worse by a noticeable slide towards unashamed casteism, whose reality no one had imagined or foreseen, became evident to neutral and impartial observers quite early. But those who reported contrary to the official line ceased to be credible witnesses. In the absence of standard outlets it spawned a samizdat whose co-evolution took place with the over ground story. But this one was whispered behind the years. Or published in little known news portals-notably Bihar Times – which kept flagging off issues of urgent concern for the more resourceful media to pick up. They rarely did. 

To illustrate the point two quotes from media “insiders”, reporting back to us about what they think, and also as outsiders, as shocked and angry about it as ordinary citizens might be   quite apposite. Amarnath Tewari quoting2 Press Council of India wondered aloud: “Has the fourth state in Bihar been sold out ?...The state government is using media for its own publicity and propaganda and the newspapers in the state have totally surrendered to the government for their only sources of revenue, government advertisements”. Saroor Ahmad3 another well respected journalist from Bihar was even more forthright and blamed the media for being complicit in the loot by refusing to “highlight”  “…repeatedly ..rampant loot right from secretariat to panchayat level …. …”
Nine years down the line there was the devil to pay on both sides. The ruling party took its punitive drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections 2014 for rampant corruption as a verdict against transparency and good governance. So it appears to  have , more or less, abandoned the agenda of good governance  and  reverted to its old terms of appeal: in caste identity, in the priming of the latent psychological markers, and exploiting the innate hostility and suspicion between castes. We in Bihar discovered at considerable cost to ourselves that if the media essays the role of a lap dog instead of its appointed role of a watch dog it can have disastrous consequences for democracy as well as for media itself. Marching confidently all the while, to the applause and encouragement of a large section of the media, we have hit the tunnel at the end of light!