Why India's Bihar is taking DNA samples to spite Modi

DNA samples being collected in Bihar Image copyright biharpictures.com
Image caption On Tuesday, the Bihar government launched DNA collection camps in 250 places in the state capital, Patna

Why is India's Bihar state planning to send the DNA samples of up to five million of its people to Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Because, according to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Mr Modi has hurt the pride of Biharis by casting aspersions on him.

With an eye on the key upcoming elections in the state, Mr Modi reportedly told a campaign meeting recently that Mr Kumar's decision to part ways with his BJP party - with whom it ran a successful coalition government in the state for eight years - proved something was wrong with Mr Kumar's "political DNA".

Mr Kumar has struck back fiercely on social media saying Mr Modi has to take back his words. As a part of protest, he said at least five million people of Bihar would "join a signature campaign and send their samples to Mr Modi for DNA tests".

"I am son of Bihar, so my DNA is the DNA of the people of Bihar. Now I leave it to the people of Bihar how to reply to someone who says their DNA is poor," Mr Kumar tweeted.

Image copyright biharpictures.com
Image caption A woman shows her DNA sample at a collection centre in Bihar

So, on Tuesday, Mr Kumar's government launched DNA collection camps in 250 places in the state capital, Patna, to pick up hair and nail samples of people who flocked there. On Thursday, camps will move to the state's 38 districts.

A journalist I spoke to said the queues at some of the camps were a kilometre long. Scissors and nail cutters were at the ready.

People, many of them workers of Mr Kumar's Janata Dal (United) Party, were being given plastic pouches to store the samples and hand them over to officials.

"I am proud to be a Bihari. Our DNA has no imperfection. If you doubt our claim, test our samples," screams the publicity material.

But when my friend asked a man in queue whether he knew what DNA was, he replied: "Why should I know? I was asked to give my hair and nail because they have to be sent to [Mr] Modi. So I have come here."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar are former allies who have fallen out in recent years

Mr Kumar is a popular backward caste leader, ruling one of India's poorest states.

A former ally of the BJP, he was a federal minister in the earlier BJP-run coalition government. In 2005, he won a landslide majority in Bihar in coalition with the BJP and became the chief minister.

Two terms in power and eight years later, in 2013, he threw the BJP out of the coalition after refusing to accept Mr Modi as the party's prime ministerial candidate for last year's general election. Things have been rocky for him ever since.

For long, India's regional parties have invoked local pride to woo voters, with mixed results. Identity, statehood, autonomy and development have been the traditional tropes. Mr Modi talked about Gujarati asmita (pride) on the stump last year; Mr Kumar seems to have borrowed a leaf out of his campaign book.

Bihar remains deeply divided along caste lines - 65% of its people belong to backward castes - but Mr Kumar has often invoked Bihari identity and pride to woo voters.

Some years ago, he told his biographer Sankarshan Thakur that he firmly believed that a "new Bihari identity has emerged in the last few years which is above caste and class", and that his purpose was to make it count.

Image copyright biharpictures.com
Image caption Reports said the queues at some of the camps were a kilometre long

However, Mr Kumar's optimism has not really borne fruit: elections in the state are still fought mainly on caste lines, and Bihari sub-nationalism has reared its head only occasionally, when, for example, its migrant workers have been attacked by the right-wing Shiv Sena party supporters in Mumbai.

"This DNA collection move is a gimmick and quite ridiculous," a senior journalist from Bihar told me. "I don't really have a clue how this churlish reaction will help Mr Kumar."

How the DNA samples of up to five million Biharis will help foster electoral unity among the voters is not clear. An amused BJP reckons it will cost more than $500m (£321m) to actually do the tests. Mr Modi is unlikely to pick up the tab.

Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan believes Mr Kumar is using DNA as a "metaphor to mean identity".

He told me: "It is about the essence of identity, and not really genetics." But, he cautions, invoking the primordial DNA to foster regional pride is really a move to "stir the pot, which is not a very good thing".

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