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PATNA, India — In the early 1990s, a British travel writer described Patna, capital of the northwestern Indian state of Bihar, as the capital of hell on earth. There is indeed something rotten in the state of Bihar and things have only gotten worse. People live in a Hobbesian world, where life is nasty, brutish and often short.

Bihar happens to be my home state, and a recent visit to my mother coincided with general elections in the state (and in neighboring Jharkhand, which was split off from Bihar relatively recently).

In the five years since the last elections, there have been 19,375 kidnappings — and not a single solitary conviction. Police estimate there are about 20 criminal gangs involved in the racket. Moreover, there has been a steady rise in the number of kidnappings each year, from 2,605 in 1999 to 3,931 last year.

The statistic is as much a comment on the idiom of politics as on the lack of law and order in the state. Elections generally lead to several political killings. Many known criminals contest elections at the point of guns — the ballot and the bullet merge in this surreal exercise — to make vast sums of money quickly through political patronage. Otherwise, the most potent force of political mobilization is caste and religious identity.

The family that had ruled Bihar for 15 years owed its dominance to the formation of a winning coalition of the lower castes and Muslims. It preyed on the latter’s fears of the chauvinistic Hindu agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Infrastructure has been more or less completely gutted throughout the state beyond Patna. It took us five hours to drive the 120 km from Patna to my mother’s town. On much of the route there was no road — we drove through farmland, passing fallen bridges that had been built by the British during the Raj. How ironic and tragic that the ruins of their infrastructure should proclaim the beneficence of the colonizers’ governance: We cannot even maintain that which was bequeathed to us.

Electricity is similarly conceptual more than real. Not once during my weeklong stay did we have even a two hours’ continuous supply of power. Voltage fluctuates violently; in one power surge, my laptop’s AC adapter burned out. As a legacy of the old socialist mentality, the power grid, instead of providing 100-percent supply reliability to a small base and then expanding as more electricity is produced, has been distributed over many locations so that the paperwork shows a high percentage of electrified villages. The result is that no one is assured of a continuous electricity supply at a stable voltage and current, and most people purchase inefficient generators that spew out more pollution into the atmosphere and add to noise pollution.

In the past, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ruling party had boasted of this situation with the argument that electricity, cars, telephones and such were the privilege of the rich upper caste — “the forwards,” in the local vernacular. Let “them” learn what it is really like for “us” ordinary “backwards.”

This time around the other parties neutralized the RJD’s stranglehold on the lower castes, dented its hold on the Muslims and made a campaign issue of the state’s backwardness. As the lack of roads breaks backs and lengthens travel time, many leaders used helicopters to hop from one election rally to another. In one speech, a BJP leader remarked that his Bombay-based pilot had been scared to land the copter in a field among loose electric wires. The politician assured him that in Bihar “electricity comes rarely and goes off more often.”

As industry and capital have fled the deteriorating infrastructure, the most profitable growth industry has been kidnappings for ransom, which is paid in about 90 percent of the cases. This too became an election issue as schoolchildren began to be kidnapped at an alarming rate in the month before the election. A senior state policeman explained that the politicians’ need for money escalates in an election campaign.

In this unique democratic environment, the Election Commission used the full force of its status as a constitutional body to administer the elections. It shifted district administrators and police officers to offset 15 years of handpicked strategic appointments by the RJD government. Some of the district officials — bureaucrats — then proceeded to prohibit even elected lawmakers from entering their parliamentary constituencies!

The media reported that, as a result, citizens were able to vote without fear for the first time in four elections. This happened, for example, in the district of Siwan where federal member of Parliament M. Shahabuddin, who has “30” criminal cases including murder pending in the courts, was barred from entering Siwan until after the state elections. In how many other genuine democracies do bureaucrats act as protectors of citizens against their own elected lawmakers?

Although the RJD suffered major setbacks in Jharkhand and Bihar, no pre-poll party or alliance won a majority. Thus, a fortnight later, horse-trading continues in Bihar, with the most likely immediate outcome being direct rule for a brief spell by the central government.

Meanwhile, in Jharkhand, the governor — an appointee of the central government and a party hack — swore in the defeated party leader, with only 26 seats in the 81-seat legislative assembly, as head of the state government even though the BJP alliance won 36 of the 81 seats in the legislative assembly. This might come unstuck on the floor of the house. It has produced a huge political backlash for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, wiping away the image of a self-sacrificing leader.

The political controversy has distracted attention from what seems to have been a good budget presented at the end of last month, one that reconciled the requirements for sustained economic growth with the political compulsions of a fractious coalition government. It has revived powerful memories of Congress as a ruthless, unscrupulous, arrogant and power-hungry party that systematically damages democratic and constitutional norms in its insatiable lust for power and money. This must be personally wounding to the prime minister, who appears unique in the pantheon of contemporary Indian politics for his reputation of public probity.

The affair has been so unseemly that three former prime ministers — Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral — have jointly suggested that state government heads be chosen by the legislative house itself. In their view, “the partisan and unprincipled role played by some of the governors either on their own or under political pressures from outside is a danger signal for the future of freedom and democracy in our country.”

The situation attests to the unique depth and resilience of India’s democratic culture in the Third World. Prime ministers are chosen and replaced at the ballot; defeated prime ministers are not thereafter liquidated, jailed or otherwise silenced by their successors; the people engage in a vibrant and robust political discourse in the open; and the people get and deserve the government they vote for.

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