Anand Sharma, a Nai (barber) works in a salon at Chandni in Kolkata. Immediately after the announcement of lockdown on March 24 late evening he, along with some of his co-villagers, set off to his native place in Nawada district in Bihar. They hired a private van to cover this 500-odd kms long distance and managed to slip through even before the Bengal-Bihar border was sealed.
More than 50 days later when one of his customers, Azam, a businessman in Kolkata, reached him over phone to inquire his welfare, Anand was all praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for “saving the country”.
Anand and his customer Azam, had, over the years grown quite intimate as the latter too has his roots in Nawada district. “Our family got Rs 1,000, a gas cylinder and ration,” he exclaimed adding that Modiji is almost like Bhagwan for him.
Ironically, on being countered as to how the state chief minister Nitish Kumar, is responding to the crisis, Anand simply burst out. He sounded extremely critical of the state’s boss, who is yet to appear in public for the last two months. “This time he is bound to lose,” the barber predicted. This is in total contrast to Nitish’s Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee, who is openly leading the fight against the Corona Virus.
Back in Bihar’s capital, Patna, when Amna Kauser, stepped out for the first time for marketing in a nearby crockery shop, its owner Bablu, in his 60s, appeared both apologetic as well as over-courteous. Though the shops in Patna were allowed to open on alternate days after the order of district magistrate, Bablu and other shopkeepers were upset over the highhandedness of police.
He had opened his shop only after the telephonic conversation with Amna. To avoid the ‘intrusion’ of police he partially closed entrance of his shop. He started off abusing the police for harassing the businessmen and went on to narrate as to how much loss he had suffered in the last two months.
However, he did not question the hasty manner in which the lockdown was imposed. Then he switched over to the cordial relationship he and his family had with certain Phua (a Muslim auntie), who in his childhood would sew ‘batwa’ for him during Muharram. “How good were those days,” he added while hinting towards the TV debates, which has a negative impact on the society.
“My landlord is a Muslim. We had about 60 years long relationship since my grandfather’s days. They hand over the keys of the home to me when they go out. Even my staff is a Muslim. They say no to do business with Muslims. How would this go,” he went on saying.
His lady customer listened to the monologue and just nodded. She was perhaps more keen to return home after buying certain crockery item for which she was there. Bablu went on to say as to how he had two sons, one preparing for civil service in Delhi while another undergoing medical coaching.
Then he suddenly changed the gear. “Look the BJP people are bringing the migrant labours back home, yet the Congresswale are claiming that they are paying for the tickets,” he quipped, making it amply clear as to where his sympathy lies notwithstanding so much trouble.
While Amna came out from the shop after doing the marketing her son, who was accompanying her, saw a bearded man with skullcap supervising the replacement work of the shop board displaying the name of the showroom ‘Shreya Telecom’ just beside as a police vehicle passes on. No prize for guessing the communities to which this mobile shop owner and the man working for him.
A furlong west in the same Mahendru locality of Patna two brothers in 30s have a big grocery store. When this correspondent entered his shop the youngest one Ravi while making a welcome gesture said: “Uncle, why have you come. Just give a call and I would send the grocery item.
I had to explain that I came out in this unusual situation after about 50 days only to get replaced my SIM which had developed snags just a couple of days after the imposition of lockdown on March 24.
Ravi, who is a graduate and a fairly informed young man, had his own quota of complaints against police. “The policemen are harassing us and asking us to seek permit for opening the shop. They are saying that this is a mall and thus should not be opened,”
When I tried to explain that, according to the district magistrate order shops can open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday the elder brother, Ranjit, cuts in to say: “Nitish Kumar is sleeping. DGP Gupteshwar Pandey is the chief minister.”
Upon this emerged a gentleman from outside to exhort that social distancing should be maintained. This rattled Ravi who yelled back: “How much social distancing are the crowd outside liquor outlets maintaining. What about the huge line outside the bank branches to withdraw money from Jan Dhan accounts.” He then turned his attention towards me: “Uncle what is your view on Corona Virus?” I just referred to my articles written on this issue. Ravi, who used to follow me replied: “You are right. Zika virus remained confined to Brazil and some other countries.”
As I cannot walk alone and was accompanied by my son I wanted to cut the long story short and took leave. Since Bihar is bracing up for the Assembly election due in coming Oct-Nov any such conversations and reactions leave a lot to interpret and speculate. As all those interviewed above come from the trading communities or are either from the Extremely Backward Castes–they both form a solid backbone of the NDA support base–the significance of their utterances can not be underestimated.
Incidentally, they are among the worst-hit social groups in the post-Corona Virus lockdown. Gauging the electoral mood of the common folk is no easy job when the battle-lines have not been drawn.
But one thing is palpable: there is hardly any word of praise for Nitish Kumar, his deputy Sushil Kunar Modi and their cabinet colleagues belonging to either Janata Dal United or Bharatiya Janata Party. In the upscale colonies of Patna the anger against the saffron party MPs and legislators persist since the fortnight long water-logging last monsoon. The state capital is considered as the strongest bastion of the BJP in Bihar.
The story is no different among lakhs of those who have returned to the state–be it students, especially from Kota or labourers from all the nooks and corners of the country. “The condition in quarantine centres is simply hellish. The bureaucracy and police are engaged in large scale loot in the name of Corona Virus,” conceded an official while talking to this correspondent.
More than 50 days after the announcement even the pro-NDA media in Bihar is highlighting as to how as high as Rs 2,400 is spent on each quarantined person everyday. Try to reach any migrant labour on mobile phone and one would get an idea of pent up anger against the Bihar government. As most of them are coming from other states they are saying that authorities elsewhere were not so indifferent than in Bihar, where the BJP and Janata Dal United leaders and workers are at loggerheads.
While in private JDU leaders are directly blaming none else but PM Modi for all the problems as he gave just four hours time before imposing such strict lockdown.
Yet even they have no courage to say this openly as they strongly believe that they can win election only because of him. So far Modi-bhakts are concerned they still root for him and see him as the last and only saviour. But perhaps much larger in number are those who would speak nothing against Modi even if you repeatedly prod them.
Since facelessness is the first casualty of electronic journalism, they are either over-awed by larger than life profile of PM Modi or are afraid of the local BJP leaders (if they utter a word against him). Anyway there is certainly a deafening silence on this count. Herein lies the failure of many analysts who rely only on the movement of lips and not on body language of the interviewer. These analysts hurriedly jump to gun that everything is hunky-dory for the NDA in the coming election in Bihar. The reality may or may not be the same.
(Soroor Ahmed is a senior journalist based in Patna. He is author of ‘The Jewish Obsession’. The views are personal.)