I remember a discussion a few years ago at a strategic planning session of a multinational consumer goods company on how people of India were changing. A lot was said about the positive effects of liberalisation and all its spin-off effects, on the attitudes of the people of India. Until someone suddenly broke the spell by asking, "If all this is true, then why do millions of people vote for Laloo in Bihar? Do we even know for sure?"
An expat sitting through the meeting asked for clarification on Laloo and Bihar. And, with huge relish, got told all the Laloo and Bihar jokes and war stories, starting with an introduction to the word Bimaru. The joke about how we would happily hand over all of Kashmir to Pakistan, provided they took Bihar as well; the one that said that Laloo asked the people of Bihar why they needed roads - did they have cars? Motorcycles? Even bicycles? "No? Then why on earth have roads on which the rich man can drive along in a car and spit on you?" The old favourite one of Japan offering to turn Bihar into Japan in three years, and Laloo scoffing and replying that with his superior efficiency he could turn Japan into Bihar in just three months.
Another told us the (unverifiable) story of how he was being taken to Singapore for a road show by CII, and how he is supposed to have worn his suit and called a "railla" ("rally" being too effeminate a word for his rallies), and said to his people that he was going through all this pain just for them. A journalist friend of mine witnessed one of his earlier election rallies, and said it was a bizarre combination of a mega rock concert ambience and shockingly poor illiterate people who comprised the audience. Why then, asked the expat, do so many millions of people vote him, in the progressive and rapidly progressing India that you have just described?
Total silence for a while. Because the Laloo brand, said one person, is about giving identity to an underclass that has been exploited by the upper class forever. It is a brand that emerged to innovatively serve the needs of a post-Mandal society in a state that was the most deeply impacted by virtue of its caste demography and caste history.
A qualitative researcher said, "Because he tells the poor that it's okay to be who you are, it's okay to come riding on your cow, carrying your spittoon, you don't have to strive to be like Them." The sales manager explained: "Laloo created bonding through innovative rituals like the 'chhat' festival, making it to Bihar what Ganapati is to Maharashtra; a ritual that even the Shiv Sena borrowed to serve its Bihari migrant vote bank, with a mega-event at Juhu beach earlier this year!" A media researcher said, "because they only have 20 per cent reach of television in Bihar, far lower than any other state", so they don't know any better about the world outside. "Because they are Biharis," said someone else, and clinched the argument.
But what of the Bihar and the Bihari brand? The Bihar brand was, till today, perceived as a blot on the New Indian landscape. Perceived as a place that was stuck in a time warp, a bullock cart in a world of cars and jet planes, a jungle of lawlessness where power came from the barrel of the goonda's gun, and a land which was the feudal fiefdom of a ruthless and eccentric raja, lording it over his half-starved, uneducated, 80 million-plus people. What was worse was that this eccentric raja was repeatedly being elected back by his subjects, who seemed to want to be trampled all over.
But some people were quick to point out, that the "wanting to be trampled all over" view is an uninformed, elitist, chattering classes view. That in reality, Bihar was the land of the brave that chose, as NDTV said yesterday, perhaps dignity over development. Somehow, when you look at all economic and human development metrics of Bihar, this view is a bit hollow - where's the dignity? Also, when you see all the migrants from Bihar, it appears that it is defeatism rather than dignity that was the hallmark of the brand.
In the past two days, I have read and heard a totally different view of the image people seem to have of Brand Bihar. It has become a re-launched, new improved Bihar. It is seen to be someone who after many years is stirring to life, has shaken off its shackles, woken up from its deep hibernation, and decided to join the rest of India. One of the key shifts we have been seeing in the rest of India, post-liberalisation, is the shift from "demanding social justice" to "grabbing economic opportunity". It is the shift best epitomised by Amitabh Bachchan. The shift from fighting for the social justice underdog in Deewar and Coolie to grabbing the economic opportunity of Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Frankly, consumer marketers are relieved. If aspiration for a better life can triumph over everything else even in Bihar, then we know that this brand is in sync with the rest of Consumer India, and there's no looking back on the onward march to deepening consumption. The safety perception of Brand Bihar has just gone up several notches. If bijli, sadak, paani, padhai, vikas and governance are what people want here too, and not caste-based revenge as in "an eye for a past eye", then the Bihar brand is not an unpredictable time bomb that could blow up in the face of the rest of India at any time, but a regular guy, who is wanting to do what regular guys do to improve their lot in life.
However before we bring out the champagne and look forward to the Bengal elections, there is this nagging feeling in some of our minds: is this just another trick of electoral arithmetic and split votes? Of upper classes, revenging themselves by voting out the patron saint of the lower classes? To borrow a line from an Indian Express editorial, has Bihar truly cast its vote or is this version 2.0 of the state voting its caste? Either way, there is a window of opportunity and I hope we seize it and make our early impressions of a New improved Bihar a reality.