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Resurgence of voices

Bihar elections 2020 not just indicated a tipping point in people’s tolerance for the usual rhetoric — but also exhibiting a rare consolidation of the youth; writes Anindo Banerjee

Resurgence of voices
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Notwithstanding the narrow margin by which the incumbent National Democratic Alliance won, this Bihar Assembly election was special for at least three good reasons.

One, it seemed to indicate a tipping point in people's tolerance for the usual electoral rhetoric — evident in the relatively lukewarm response to the usual politics of propaganda, promises and fear-mongering across a significant number of constituencies.

Two, it exhibits a rare consolidation of votes of a massive block of disillusioned young voters, who have emphatically thrown their weight behind their core existential needs of employment, education and a voice, blurring their diverse political colours.

Three, it evidences the resilience and longevity of an enduring legacy of social justice, which rose from the ashes once again to neutralise attempts to stoke up communal and jingoistic sentiments in the electoral process. Though, it was not so decisive in the third phase of the electoral campaign.

Overall, regardless of what the final tally of seats bagged by various parties suggests, it is a vote against status quo: Nearly two-thirds of the voters disapproved of the continuance of the incumbent alliance, and the principal party in Opposition emerged as the single-largest party the second time in a row.

The verdict delivers an important message for political discourse across India: it seems to reflect fatigue with the politics of rhetoric; it also voices disapproval of an apathetic ruling dispensation that showed no initiative to help thousands of stranded migrant workers during an unprecedented crisis, or to mitigate the sufferings of millions of flood-affected people in north Bihar.

Most importantly, it reminds governments that their trusted vote banks cannot be perennially held hostage at the cost of neglect of people's core development aspirations.

Unequal fight

Overall, the 2020 Assembly elections witnessed a sharp contest between three distinct phenomena on the electoral pitch:

The resurgence of the voice of the youth asserting their developmental rights

A relatively invisible pro-incumbency leaning in defense of status quo, especially among a broad section of women and urban electors

A devious plot to transfer anti-incumbency sentiments onto the dominant partner within the ruling alliance

The electoral verdict must also be read in the backdrop of the total absence of a level playing field; the media and corporate cronies of the ruling alliance spiked the electoral turf with a disproportionately massive infusion of propaganda and funds.

Gone are the days when elections used to be contested around real issues of people or even around ideological positions. Managing elections has evolved into a specialised craft that employs many dubious methods to manipulate the sentiments of voters, erode the vote share of opponents and consolidate votes using every conceivable trick.

In such a backdrop, the formidable resurgence of the voices of the youth comes as a shot in the arm for the health of democracy in Bihar. Any future government can ignore the message from the youth at their own peril.

Uneasy road ahead

Bihar's Economic Survey 2020 pegged its outstanding public debt liability at approximately Rs 1.26 lakh crore (2018-19) — a whopping 32.34 per cent of the state's gross domestic product.

Growth of the agricultural and allied sector, which has been the primary source of livelihood for the largest chunk of people in Bihar, especially women, was stagnant at only 0.6 per cent in 2018-19; this despite a high rate of economic growth over the last decade.

The biggest challenge that the new government will have to contend with is the colossal scale of unemployment, which peaked to 46.6 per cent after the lockdown in April 2020 (according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy).

The massive scale of migration of workers — prompted by an acute lack of livelihood opportunities — and a mass exodus of students — disillusioned with persistent delays in academic sessions — paint a bleak picture about prospects of employability. It needs to be addressed urgently.

On the social front, containing the spread of communal tension must be a key priority for the new government. Incidences of rioting have been high in Bihar in recent years, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

In 2019, nearly 30.7 per cent of communal riot cases in India were in Bihar. It also registered nearly 26.6 per cent of all caste conflicts in the country last year.

Besides the highest rioting tally (7,262 cases), the state also accounted for:

The most deaths due to negligence by medical and civic bodies

The second-highest counts for murders, attempted murders and dowry deaths

The third-highest cases of kidnapping and abduction

Strengthening public systems of healthcare, education, employment generation, safety from disasters, child care and access to justice must account for much greater attention in the years ahead.

The writer is Director, Internal Initiatives at Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices. Views expressed are personal

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