Failing to read Bihar

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 07/12/2015
A few brilliant reports apart, the preconceptions of the English press prevented them from grasping what was happening in the Bihar election.
JYOTI PUNWANI reviews the coverage a month after the Bihar results

 Ravish Kumar in the "girls on cycles" episode of his NDTV series on the Bihar elections.  


“If one asks me to draw a picture of Bihar during my term as CM, I will not draw any building, road or bridge but of girls cycling their way to schools.” - Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, quoted in The Indian Express special correspondent Santosh Singh’s book Ruled or Misruled: Story and Destiny of Bihar.

Singh’s book was released at the Press Club of India on October 6, before the first of the five phases of Bihar’s Assembly elections began. TV personality Rajdeep Sardesai and JD (U) general secretary K. C. Tyagi were at the panel discussion held on the occasion. It was a well-publicised event, at least among the media, and well in time for journalists covering the elections to read the book.

Had they done so, "girls cycling their way to schools’’ would have been the special story of the Bihar elections.

As it happened, only NDTV’s Ravish Kumar devoted an entire episode of his Prime Time programme to ``girls on cycles’’, as part of his `Yeh Jo Mera Bihar Hai’ series on the elections. The idea came to him, he said on the programme, from a girl he saw cycling at 5 am, distributing newspapers. Perhaps the sight had become too commonplace for Bihar’s journalists to notice. But what of the other outside reporters who’d camped in the state for the election? How did they miss this story?

But this important story – the phenomenon of girls on cycles influencing the poll results – wasn’t the only thing the English press missed. A month later, looking back at the day the Bihar poll results were announced one can still remember how they knocked all of us over. How come the English press hadn’t anticipated this? Despite the volume of stories coming out of Bihar, how come they missed the big picture?

Were they dazzled by the BJP’s massive drive, the PM’s rallies? Did party president Amit Shah’s reputation as an election winner overwhelm them, despite his failure in Delhi? Or was it the English press’ scepticism of all things Lalu that blinded it?

One man who wasn’t blinded by Amit Shah or any other of the heavyweights  fighting the elections was Kumar.  His series must rank among the best coverage of the Bihar polls. Refusing to take the beaten path and follow politicians, he preferred to show viewers life in the state: ``bheetar ki zindagi’’ as he put it.

So apart from girls on cycles, he had an episode on Muslim girls training at a computer centre run by the well-known institution Imarat-e-Shariah in Phulwari Sharif. He took us to small towns and villages famous for traditional crafts or agricultural produce and those where the coming of electricity has changed life; to the magnificent but neglected Sher Shah Suri mausoleum in Sasaram;  to Patna’s old markets; and interviewed youngsters changing their lives through innovative ways. Breaking the stereotype of lawless Bihar, Kumar showed us a Bihar of hard work, enterprise, civic sense and a pride in its heritage.

Why did he not do the routine politician-centred stories? The NDTV India anchor declined an interview but his remarks which ran through his series were indicative: he wanted nothing of the ``gai-bakri’’ politics that Bihar’s campaign had degenerated to.

Yet, his themes were deeply relevant to the elections. Among his memorable episodes was the one on Musahars, the poorest of the Dalits, the caste to which Jiten Ram Manjhi belongs. The episode traced the long journey of the Musahars of Sekhwara village from living with nothing to being poor but not hopeless today.

Kumar interviewed activists of the Jayprakash Narayan-inspired Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, who had led the movement against the Bodh Gaya Math in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The powerful priests of the Math had held the Musahars in slavery for generations. He also got a rare interview with 94-year-old  Dwarko Sundrani who’s been working among the Musahars since the 1950s, inspired by Vinoba Bhave.

The Musahars were the focus of much attention in the English press, for Manjhi was a star in these elections. But  no report matched Kumar’s depth. What’s worse, most reports identified them as the ``rat-eating community.’’ The word Musahar is reportedly connected to their traditional occupation of catching rats. Poverty made them eat rats too. But did they need to be identified as ``rat-eaters’’? An Economic Times story even had this headline: ‘Rat-eating Community Looks to Manjhi for Salvation’. Would a Musahar journalist have given this headline?

The story itself, by Rajiv Singh, was a sympathetic account of a Musahar woman’s futile attempt at cooking a special meal for her husband back from working in Punjab. Failing to find fish despite hours of effort, she resigned herself to cooking the usual snail curry. Her angry question to the reporter: "Why are you taking pictures? Is it because poor people like us eat doka (snail) and rat," obviously meant nothing to the sub-editor who gave the headline. 

The Times of India was among the few which didn’t identify the Musahars as rat-eaters, even though Alok K. N. Mishra’s story ‘Woven into Vote Politics, Musahars Live a Terrible Life’ mentioned their diet. The Indian Express’ Muzamil Jaleel’s story: ‘Dashrath Manjhi’s (the man who singlehandedly built a road through the mountains) Village is No Country for Young Men’, didn’t mention their diet at all yet managed to convey their terrible conditions.

Interestingly, a story on the website CatchNews  by Atul Chaurasia had this revelation by Shrikant, a researcher on Bihar’s Dalits – that Manjhi’s influence was restricted to his assembly constituency; he became important only after Nitish Kumar removed him as CM. Anil Kumar of The Hindustan Times also reported the community’s anger with Manjhi for having done nothing for them. 

Didn’t the BJP know this, before they gave Manjhi 20 seats to contest?

In fact, reading these pre-poll reports from Bihar, one wonders what Amit Shah and his team were doing.  A report in July in The Telegraph by Piyush Kumar Tripathi spoke admiringly of a select team of highly qualified researchers assigned by Shah to do exhaustive analyses of all constituencies. These ``silent soldiers’’ worked incognito, the report said, unlike Nitish Kumar’s hi-tech Prashant Kishor-led team. Their inputs were to decide the BJP’s poll strategy, including who should get tickets.

Well, both Shah and his team obviously got it all wrong. 

As did a substantial section of the English press, who echoed the BJP line – surely without intending to - that the Lalu-Nitish alliance would surely fail (Hindustan Times’ Anirban Guha Roy was a lone voice that reported that seat-sharing would be easier for the Lalu-Nitish alliance than for the NDA); and that Nitish had sunk his chances by aligning with Lalu. 

Four months before the elections, when the Lalu-Nitish alliance was just emerging, The Hindu’s Varghese K. George wrote that such an alliance would be welcomed only by Muslims, leading to polarisation that would benefit the BJP, and further: ``The social chemistry of a Lalu-Nitish-Congress combination is such that it is certain to create a lot of gas and noise, but may not necessarily lead to any political alchemy that will add new shine to the soulless and clichéd narratives on offer against Mr. Modi’s politics.’’  Indeed.

Even Lokniti (a research programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) scholars got it wrong. A report titled ‘Good Arithmetic but No Chemistry’  in The Hindu dated September 23, just three weeks before the polls, predicted that animosity between their respective voters could scuttle the chances of the Nitish-Lalu combine. The opposite happened.

Some reports did mention that it was mainly the upper castes and the middle class who feared the return of Lalu’s `jungle raj’. Yet, those were the predominant voices in the English press. How come?

An interesting report by the Times of India’s Abdul Qadir showed that Yadavs were, for both alliances, the ``most politically pampered caste.’’ Why did the English press not think it worthwhile to devote at least one entire article to their views even while, in article after article, they lambasted the Yadavs’ leader?  Parth MN’s piece in DNA: “In Yadav strongholds, Lalu’s charm still endures” came closest to it.

And what exactly was `jungle raj’? Nistula Hebbar  in The Hindu (‘What’s Past is Prologue in Bihar’) explained what  the BJP’s bogey of `jungle raj’ meant to different castes. A report by the Times of India’s Abdul Qadir gave a glimpse of what it could mean to have jungle raj once again. The report’s unwieldy title: ‘RJD Strongman Roams Around in his Constituency Despite Pending Criminal Case’ said it all. But what was more interesting was the strongman’s rival saying he was ``least interested’’ in following the case as his was a ``political battle’’ with his rival. Equally interesting was the DIG’s observation that  ``certain infirmities in the investigation had come to light’’.

(Incidentally, by the same token, couldn’t the recent withdrawal of the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case against Amit Shah by Sohrabuddin’s brother, also be a token of `jungle raj’?)

Analyses by Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph, Vandita Mishra in The Indian Express, and Varghese K. George and Vikas Pathak in The Hindu provided fascinating insights on the complexities of this election and the role of caste in it. A report that stood out for putting things in perspective was Abdul Qadir’s bluntly headlined ‘Lalu Does to Upper Castes What BJP did to Muslims’ (The Times of India). In the same paper, Alok K. N. Mishra threw light on a sad story about how the universally loved Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu’s name was being used to garner the votes of his caste, by his son and by the BJP.

But the most sensitive piece on caste in Bihar was Muzammil Jaleel’s Sunday feature in The Indian Express (‘Let’s Talk Caste’), in which he interviewed students from three universities on how caste defined their lives. He passed no judgments while including every anguished and frustrated voice, including that of so-called upper castes, females and Muslims. To readers outside Bihar, the story brought home vividly just how caste hung like an albatross around people’s necks in Bihar.

Any number of reports showed how seriously the BJP was taking caste, and not just for deciding its candidates. It had formed an OBC wing  as early as July, reported Gargi Parsai in The Hindu;  while singer Mukesh Sahni, who called himself  `Son of Mallah’ was sharing the stage with the PM in his campaign only because of his caste (Diwakar, The Times of India). Santosh Singh in The Indian Express reported on both camps trying to win over EBC and Dalit mukhiyas,  and the BJP  trying to split Dalit votes. The party had kept the caste of its leaders in mind when allotting campaign areas, said the piece.  It quoted a BJP leader on the need for ``our caste leaders to ensure aggression among voters.’’

Significantly, the headline of this article was: ‘Five New Sides to BJP’s Poll Strategy’, assuming that for the BJP, factoring in caste was a new thing. Had it ignored caste in any election?

No wonder then that, till the end, the myth that `Lalu=Mandal=caste’ (with Nitish Kumar a reluctant partner-in-crime), while the `BJP=Modi= vikas’ prevailed. The headlines pointed to that, the dominant theme remained that. Is that a reflection of the English press’ mindset?




If Yadavs, despite their political importance, found hardly any expression in the English press, women, who contributed so much to Nitish Kumar’s victory, were also neglected. Many reports mentioned that women were an important vote bank, while in two reports from Buxar, The Telegraph’s Dev Raj included very strong women’s voices indeed. Yet, there was no article reflecting women’s views from across the state.

The Hindu’s Rukmini S analysed electoral data to show the growing participation of women in voting across the country. But it was the scholarly piece by academic  Shamika Ravi in the same paper  that was the real eye-opener. Based on a study of Bihar’s electoral data from 2005, the article concluded that contrary to general belief, women voted differently from men, and more astonishingly, they voted for change, while men voted for the status quo. The article (`Women voters can tip the scales in Bihar’) was dated July 28, around the same time that master strategist Amit Shah had begun his meticulous preparations for victory. Did those preparations include reading articles not devoted to him? (His website contains press articles centred round him.)

The English press went seriously wrong on another front: the impact of AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi in Bihar. English journalists took him more seriously than his potential voters did! The most perceptive piece about Owaisi’s impact came from Alok K N Mishra in The Times of India: ``Owaisi uses ‘intolerance’ and Dadri to woo Muslims in Bihar’’. The report described one Muslim’s sudden disquiet after listening to Owaisi in Kishanganj, a Muslim-dominated area described by Mishra as `a cradle of Hindu-Muslim peaceful co-existence’. The Muslim had never felt he was a victim. Had he begun doing so after Owaisi’s speech, the latter would have won, even though he lost the election.

A mysterious omission was the content of rabble-rouser Akbaruddin Owaisi’s speech in Kishanganj. The press reported that he had been charged for hate speech. But what had he said? Did no English journalist attend his rally?  All reports said that two temple idols were broken after his speech, and the police were investigating whether the desecration was a fallout of his speech. Why wasn’t the press?

If indeed the English press ignored Akbaruddin while focussingon  Asaduddin, they completely misjudged the latter’s political strategy. As suave as he may be, the election campaigns of the many-time winner of the Best Parliamentarian Award are incomplete without his brother’s charged speeches.

The Congress too got short shrift in the English press; just two stories, one in the Hindustan Times and the other in The Hindu, were devoted to the party that stunned everyone by its performance. As did the Maoists in a State  which was, in part, a Naxalite stronghold not long ago.




A number of unusual stories were done, moving away from caste and poll statistics. For example: `Dil Bihari: Eleven NRIs enrol as voters in state’ by Vithika Salomi , The Times of India; Travel Operators bullish on election tourism by Piyush Kumar Tripathi, The Telegraph.  Sonali Das of The Times  of India wrote on the neglected heritage of the historical Mithilanchal region (`As politicians wrangle for votes, Mithilanchal’s heritage wallows in neglect’). The Times of India and The Hindu carried a shocking report on hundreds of old trees being cut for PM Modi’s rally in B P Mandal University, Madhepura.

The series of short reports by the Hindustan Times’ SubhashPathak , The Times of India’s Kumar Rajesh and The Telegraph’s Dev Raj focussed on the economy of the regions they were reporting from. Dev Raj’s report evocatively titled `Get a Moo on, traders tell politicos’,  should have been compulsory reading for the BJP. It quoted Hindu cattle traders on how all the talk about beef in the campaign had affected their business and given the police one more avenue for extortion. Vishwa Mohan’s report in The Times of India: `In Seemanchal, Modi’s cattle call robs landless of income’ echoed this reality.

An unsung hero of this election was the state Election Commission. Only Ruchir Kumar in Hindustan Times, and The Times of India’s Vithika Salomi did stories on the Commission’s novel efforts to ensure smooth polls as well as increase voter turnout. Similarly, only The Hindu gave Sushil Modi the space he deserved, doing two articles on him.  For the rest of the press, it was as if because the BJP had switched off the spotlight from the man who’d been their face in the state for eight years as deputy CM, he no longer mattered.  

To conclude, despite a feast of rich reportage and comment in the English press, what remained in mind was that Lalu was bad, Nitish was good but doomed, and the BJP had the perfect combination of caste and vikas. Some doubts began to be raised in this narrative after voting began, but not enough.

The results were therefore a complete surprise to readers. Had they paid more attention to two reports: The Telegraph’s Radhika Ramaseshan’s report on Oct 17: `Tough fight  in Bihar election, says BJP’  and The Hindu’s `It’s not about caste or beef but vikas’ (Oct 28, 10 days before the results), they may not have been so surprised. The former said that after the first two phases of voting, the BJP had realised things weren’t going according to plan. In the latter,  Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan from the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, analysed with facts and figures, why Biharis were happy with Nitish. Bihar under him was the only state to have spent more than 40 % of its GDP on welfare.


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