A week before the usually reliable and highly placed sources said that the state of Bihar is about to arise awake and take flight, this columnist was in the capital city of Patna. A faint feeling of boredom, or of waiting, pervades everything in most of eastern India. Patna is no exception. At the Patna College, where one was to deliver a talk on Hindi literature, the 1856 heritage building looked like a dishevelled collie asleep in the sun.
In the past, especially under the previous coalition government, scarcely a college in Bihar was left untouched by the sticky fingers of its increasingly corrupt and venal leaders. Apocryphal stories surfaced in the media about how an awesome “education mafia” that sold seats and degrees through dubious private colleges was patronized by powerful ministers and their families. Naxals and Maoists are still a powerful presence, exam papers are still getting “leaked”, and the degrees from Bihar universities are still looked at sceptically.
Advertisements, announcing growth and happiness with prominently displayed faces of the miracle-working leaders, are issued in the media by all state governments through the year. They tell us how under the able leadership of So and So ji, public welfare schemes such as NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), Education for All and Save The Girl child along with empowerment of women have become the big, audacious and hairy goals for the state.
Could a faith in the welfare state, in the essential indestructability of the soul of learning, have survived intact here? Could it be that even during the darkest years the chaotic secretariats, campuses and party offices in Bihar have somehow continued to hold out an invisible beam of sanity to the people, and now under the new chief minister all public welfare measures will suddenly begin to work and make Bihar an exemplary state within the next four years?
Actually all assertive messages in the media that seek to relaunch a backward area as a newly arrived miracle require a serious rethink. Relaunching anything from a flagging product to a failing state in India, mostly turns out to be an exercise in pouring old wine in attractive and expensive new bottles by clever copy writers.
Flights to all state capitals today carry tieless, fast-talking young ad agency reps, summoned to devise a saleable product relaunch. They then congregate to enact an expensive ritual behind closed doors in the best hotel in town, also known as a “presentation”. Despite their utter lack of ground knowledge or of the local languages, their presenters deliver hypnotic sermons in English, to an audience of Hindi or Bhojpuri or Maithili-speaking clients in all high seriousness using mysterious abstract terms such as— “brand identity”, “brand value”, “market share” and “core value”, just as the wily Brahmin priests once used terms such as swaha, swadha and namo namah!
The clients, by now happily soporofic after the substantial “working lunch” that must accompany each ritual in India, are usually quite pleased with the linguistically enhanced and flattering image of themselves and so the “relaunch” package is okayed. The success of bagging such contracts hinges on how convincingly the client’s goals can be made to “look” like a radical departure from their predecessors, even though substantially they may be no different. And how can they be, given the specific caste calculus and financial compulsions that drive state government formation from Chandigarh to Patna?
Sometimes such expensive exercises work, but mostly they do not because the product is substantially still the same. Remember how the National Democratic Alliance lost out despite its eye-catching “India Shining” campaign? The poor dears, it turns out, could not rectify the desperation that had led to planning the relaunch.
Ditto for the Rajasthan government’s campaigns that portrayed the state as a tourists’ paradise. The planners, it turned out, had not worked in variables such as angry caste-based clashes between Gujjars, Meenas and Jats, fears of a terror strike and inner party tensions in the copy, plus the usual delays in flights and trains and mauling of women tourists by local louts.
Oonchi dukaan pheeke pakwan (a spectacular shop with tasteless offerings), Boodhi ghodi lal lagaam, Aao logo karo salaam (come and salute to the old mare with a bright new scarlet rein)—these, one would like to point out to both the ad agencies and their clients, are age-old Hindi sayings. They indicate an ancient public resistance to the misplaced vanities and fancies of all rulers and corporates. Those who do not know their vernacular proverbs need seriously to rethink their planned relaunch.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org