Recalcitrant Indian state turns a corner


WATERLOO, Ontario — Writing here on March 13, 2005 (“The deep end of Indian state democracy”), I noted descriptions of Bihar’s first city Patna as the capital of hell on earth, its Hobbesian quality of life with large-scale kidnappings for ransom as the only growth industry, the destruction of infrastructure and collapse of law and order, and caste identity as the most potent basis for political mobilization under 15 years of misrule by the charismatic but destructive Lalu Yadav.

Inconclusive state elections then led to political instability until Yadav was defeated in fresh elections and a new state government took office under Nitish Kumar as chief minister.

Bihar has just held a new state election that turned into a referendum on Kumar’s five-year tenure. Yadav tried to re-create his winning caste-based political coalition with a cross-appeal to Muslims who make up one-fifth of the state’s 83 million population. His efforts were repudiated and his party and political allies decimated, winning only 29 of the 243 legislative seats. Kumar’s coalition increased its tally from 143 to 207.

The Congress Party had fielded candidates for all 243 seats but won only five, down from an already historic low of nine seats in the outgoing assembly. Party President Sonia Gandhi and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi had campaigned extensively and drew enthusiastic crowds but the big crowds failed to translate into votes. Yadav’s wife and two brothers-in-law also contested and lost.

Jubilant Kumar supporters commented that voters had chosen merit over dynastic politics. Should this trend away from family loyalty to governing record as the basis for voting spread, Indian democracy can only gain as it matures in the years ahead.

Make no mistake — Bihar remains one of India’s most backward, poor, violent, caste-riven states. Its social and economic indicators would place it in the bottom rung of sub-Saharan African countries. The complexity and challenges can readily be imagined from the fact that the state elections had to be conducted in five staggered phases.

If identity politics is losing its grip on voters even in Bihar, the implications for the rest of India are momentous. If leadership and development are to be rewarded and nonperformance punished, all political parties will have to readjust policies and priorities and be responsive to voter concerns.

What then are the performance indicators by which Kumar has been rewarded so handsomely? To begin with, in the past few years Bihar’s growth rate of over 11 percent has been second only to that of industrial powerhouse Gujarat state.

During the 15 dark years of the “Lalu raj” (1990-2005), it had become increasingly difficult to travel anywhere in Bihar after reaching Patna, and risky to stay for any length of time. Physical infrastructure and public safety were deteriorating while crime rates soared.

Kumar invested heavily in upgrading visible infrastructure such as roadways, providing much-needed employment to very low-caste groups who previously had voted solidly for Lalu Yadav. Equally impressive were the efforts to upgrade social infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of new schoolteachers were recruited and their salaries paid. Girls who stayed in the school system up to a certain level were rewarded with shiny new bicycles that they proudly rode to school on newly constructed roads. Health specialists and doctors could be found once again in public clinics and hospitals. Medicine cupboards were no longer bare.

The women of Bihar celebrated virtually overnight political empowerment due to the mandatory 50 percent quota at all levels of the panchayati raj (village council level self-government). Early indications are that more women than men voted in the 2010 state elections!

India is currently experiencing a spate of mega-corruption scandals. The misuse of public office for private gain is so pervasive and institutionalized as to leave most Indians feeling sick. Bihar is no exception to the national profile, but the scale, ubiquity and intensity of the problem has declined compared to the Lalu years. Kumar also made a point of standing up for the rights of Bihari migrants looking for work in other parts of the country.

“Nitish,” as Kumar is popularly known, would be the first to admit to the gravity of the challenges that remain. But at least his efforts and record to date have been recognized and rewarded, and he has been given a stable second term to keep moving Bihar forward. It gives concrete meaning to U.S. President Barack Obama’s comment during his recent visit that India has emerged as a global player.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, Australia.