J-POD || Podcast || “Because of COVID very few journalists are on the ground, very few are travelling, very few are interacting the way they would. Take everything with a pinch of salt”|| Bihar veteran Uttam Sengupta

Generally speaking, political analysis on Indian television has been as reliable as the weather report and as insightful as astrological predictions—but just a little less fun than the comic strip.

The assembly elections in Bihar five Novembers years ago showed what a joke it was.

Even on the day of the counting, even as the votes were being counted, acclaimed experts and channels got it spectacularly wrong. And then did a U-turn at high speed, “live”.

Mukul Kesavan’s account of that screwball comedy is still a gold standard of column-writing. Search for “Calling their bluff” and try not to laugh the next time you see the names he roasts.

***

Since television plays on the short memory of the public, the circus is back in Bihar. But five years after that 9/11, the picture is no less different.

Court-approved stenographers have descended to offer the latest wisdom on which way the wind is blowing by talking to three people in a state of 13 crore during a one-night halt that their travel allowance permits.

Panna pramukhs are doing grand interviews with the admins of their WhatsApp groups.

And opinion polls are predicting the only thing they are allowed to predict if they want to stay in business—even while local journalists suddenly sense a shift in the mood.

***

So, why is Bihar, a poor state which has produced fine journalists, such a difficult puzzle to solve? Why is the political consciousness of the Bihari mind so inscrutable?

In this episode of J-POD, a veteran journalist with deep roots in Bihar throws light. Uttam Sengupta is currently a consulting editor for National Herald.

Uttam was a mere 18 years old when he took over his father’s bi-weekly newspaper The New Republic in Ranchi.

Over the next half a century in journalism, Uttam reported for The Telegraph newspaper and India Today magazine from Patna. And for the better part of the 1990s, he was the Editor of The Times of India in Bihar.

And in the 2000s, he was an editor at Dainik Bhaskar, The Tribune and Outlook.

In this podcast, Uttam Sengupta throws light on what pollsters miss when they go into Bihar and how COVID has hampered reporting. Whether it is a hung house or a landslide win, Uttam says Bihar will be the loser as it always has been for his home state.

***

“Things have been changing in Bihar very fast. A month ago, the TINA (there is no alternative) factor was working in favour of Nitish Kumar. It looked like there was no other option. BJP was hung-ho. NDA was very confident, they were in power, they had the resources. RSS was working on the ground. Opposition was in disarray.

“Something has dramatically changed in the last 10 days. BJP leaders are so jittery they are saying if RJD wins, Bihar would be flooded by Kashmiri terrorists, Pakistan will start celebrating, Naxals will be back and so on. Nitish Kumar is losing his cool, he is being heckled, people are shouting slogans at his rallies in favour of Lalu.

“For the last five years, the media in Bihar or elsewhere could not see anything wrong in Bihar or Nitish Kumar. They took everything the BJP was saying as gospel truth. The fact that the same media can no longer ignore the crowds at Tejaswi Yadav’s meetings, and is reporting that Nitish Kumar is facing a hostile audience, tells you something. That despite their best efforts, they are no longer in a position to ignore it.

“The lockdown and the migration crisis, when Biharis were left to fend for themselves, was probably the turning point. That and a change of demographics. A higher proportion of the electorate—from 25% to 30%—is between 18 and 29. These are not willing to work in the fields or as masons.

“The anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar has been reported. Nothing happens without a bribe. The allegations of corruption in the Srijan scam, the Muzaffarpur shelter home scandal. Prohibition was a huge plank and earned goodwill from women. But it has backfired. There is a parallel black market.

“Law and order has collapsed in Bihar in the last three years. It is as bad, as lawless as it was earlier. If it was “jungle raj” in the 1990s, it is not much better now, with gang rapes and loots and robberies and dacoities. It is back to square one.

“The poorest of Biharis have immense faith in Narendra Modi. They believe the PM is working 24 hours a day for their welfare. If their lot is not improving, they think it is not because of Modi, it is because of Nitish Kumar. It is a pardox difficult to explain.

“Nitish Kumar spent thousands of crores on vanity projects. He spent 400 crores for a park in front of Patna railway station. He spent 300 crore for an international convention centre. He spent money on building a human chain to get into the Guinness Book of records.

“Nitish Kumar spent Rs 500 crore on advertising. People say you spent money on all this but you don’t have money to create jobs, pay salaries.

“A journalist called Pushyamitra has written a book recently titled ‘Ruktapur’. It’s an allegory to Bihar, where everything stops. Development stops, investment stops, education stops. He says in Bihar there are 12,000 sanctioned posts for doctors in government hospitals, but the actual strength is 2,800. For a population of 13 crores.

“You are not getting affordable education, or affordable healthcare. You are not able to live without having to pay a cut. You are not getting livelihood or job opportunities. All leaders address the moment. Nitish Kumar addressed the moment. In 2020 they are over the hill. They have done what they could and have reached their level of incompetence. They cannot improve it further. You need a new imagination, a new drive. Nitish Kumar has run out of ideas.

“Nobody is going to win. Nitish Kumar will be a loser. BJP will be a loser. Probably the people of Bihar will be a loser. Pollsters will definitely be a loser. My gut feeling is we are in for a surprise. If the pollsters are anywhere near the truth, then we are probably heading for a hung house.

“Some in Bihar believe BJP will not mind if there is a hung house. They are so confident that they will have the resources to split any party—JDU or RJD or Congress—and cobble up the numbers.

“In 2015, a year after it formed the government in Delhi, BJP secured fewer seats in Bihar than RJD and JDU. BJP wasn’t taken seriously. Modi addressed 31 election rallies. He made tall promise of Rs 125,000 package. and promised special status. If at that time, he failed to cut much ice with the Bihari voters, I don’t see how he can do so in 2020.

Tejaswi Yadav had a great one-liner to the BJP’s promise of free vaccine for COVID. He said they could not give sanitisers or masks for free, now they are promising free vaccine. This is going to boomerang, it won’t be taken kindly by Biharis.

“Whether RJD wins or not, Tejaswi Yadav is here to stay and is going to stick around for sometime. He has been able to speak and connect with the people in a manner unthinkable just six months ago. The energy at his rallies is in stark contrast to Nitish Kumar and Modi’s, where everybody is stiff, bored, listless and indifferent. In Tejaswi’s rallies, they are shouting, screaming, jumping, trying to touch him, take selfies with him, rushing after his car, trying to reach his helicopter. I have seen similar scenes in Lalu’s rallies but nothing like this. Nothing like the frenzy this time.

***

“Most of us journalists go to the ground only once in five years. Only at election time, we descend on a village and start talking to people and ask which way is the wind blowing. Election time is the only time they can call up and say, look, this is what is happening, that a slipper has been thrown at the CM. It is difficult to ignore the reality when 15 TV crews and 50 journalists are witness.

“What pollsters miss is the anger, the pain, the frustration of the voter. They don’t catch the inner ferment of the respondent. They don’t catch his past, what he is going through, whether he has had a full meal, all this is untouched.

“Because of COVID very few journalists are on the ground, very few are travelling in the state, very few are interacting the way they would. Everything you get you can take with a pinch of salt. It may be true, may not be true.”

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