Bihar face-off

Bihar face-off

Will the state’s elections offer a new template for the state – or old wine in a new bottle?

India's third most-populous state, Bihar, goes to the polls starting 21 October. Over the following month, among a population of 90 million, the electorate will vote over six phases to elect 243 members of the state assembly. It is no exaggeration to say that this electoral drama is the most important one in the political careers of two of the state's most prominent figures, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. This is the first time Nitish is facing an election as a sitting chief minister, and the first time since 1995 that Lalu is fighting an election as a candidate for that post.

The ruling National Democratic Alliance combine of Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are approaching this election on a plank of sushasan or good governance. But how do the actual economic figures measure up against this claim? According to the state's economic survey for 2008-09, Bihar's gross domestic product grew by more than 11.4 percent in 2008-09 – following similarly tall claims about the two previous years. Further, the survey says that the construction sector alone grew by 43.9 percent in 2008-09 and now contributes 13.4 percent of the state's GDP, compared with 4.2 percent in 2003-04; while INR 7 billion have been spent on road-building.

As being widely noted, though, there are accompanying concerns. First and foremost, there are discrepancies between the numbers given by the Bihar government and those furnished by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), New Delhi from 2004-05 onwards. For 2004-05, while the CSO mentions the growth rate as nearly 12.2 percent, Patna's economic survey puts it at around 11.3 percent. Similarly, for 2005-06 and 2006-07, the CSO rates are 1.5 percent and 22 percent respectively, while those of the state government are 2.8 percent and 20.3 percent. Even starker differences emerge for the years 2007-08 and 2008-09. The CSO offers 8.0 percent and 11.4 percent, while Patna suggests -0.1 percent and 2.4 percent. Given the wild discrepancies between these figures, the least that can be said is that one needs to exercise caution before trusting the Nitish government's claims about Bihar's growth.

Second, when Nitish came into office, in September 2005, Bihar's share of all-India bank deposits with the Reserve Bank of India was 2.2 percent, while its share of bank credit, an indicator of business growth, was 0.9 percent. Yet after four years of Nitish's rule, in September 2009, the state's share of all-India bank deposits was exactly the same. If indeed growth in Bihar over 2005-09 has been above the all-India average, as claimed by the combine of the JD (U) and BJP, then that has neither been fuelled by bank credit nor has the resulting development led to an increase in business investments and the state's share of bank deposits.

Third, the share of agriculture in the Bihar economy has been declining, while recent floods and the current drought have affected the state's growth. If economic development is about the creation of durable income-generating structures and processes, then Nitish's government has not seen the spectacular success it has claimed. Manufacturing has remained stagnant; constituting 5.5 percent of the state's economy in 2008-09, similar to the 5.6 percent seen in 2003-04, while the power sector has been beset by corruption and inefficiency.

Finally, much of the funding for public works in Bihar is currently being given by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) central government. The much-trumpeted road-building has been largely due to the east-west corridor being built by the National Highways Authority. Patna's dependency on New Delhi grew from around 40 percent in 2003-04 (in terms of the ratio of gross transfers from the central government to aggregate expenditure) to an overwhelming 72 percent in the last two years. To give just one example, under the Indira Awaas Yojna for rural housing, the allocation for Bihar for 2009-10 is the highest among all states, at INR 30.4 billion (an indication also of the number of poor in the state). The survey shows that, in addition to the state's share of divisible taxes from the Centre, grants-in-aid have increased from 13 percent of total expenditure in 2003-04 to 26 percent in 2008-09.

Lalu Raj nostalgia
Let us leave aside these dubious statistics for the moment. The fact is that an election in Bihar cannot be about good governance and economic 'miracles' alone. This time, in addition to the old electoral issues – socio-political caste arithmetic, the use of 'money power' and 'muscle power' by candidates to influence voters, attempts to tamper with electronic voting machines and capture polling booths – a new factor is also possible, that of Naxalite violence and the disruption this could cause. Out of Bihar's 38 districts, 31 have been officially declared 'affected' by Naxalite actions.

The chief opposition is the bloc of Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) – a line-up that seems favourable for Nitish. After toying with the names of Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (former union minister for rural development) and Abdul Bari Siddiqui (MLA since 1995 and former state president of the RJD), Lalu finally decided to personalise the contest with Nitish by picking himself as the candidate for chief minister. His ally, Paswan, did not help matters by insisting on making his son, Pashupati Paras, the candidate for deputy chief minister. In a way, the voters now have a straight choice between the 'messiah' of the 1990s and the manager of the last five years. Confusion might have been a better tactic that such clarity. As the Patna-based seasoned commentator Surendra Kishore says, 'The NDA can now raise the "Lalu Rule" fear in a more pronounced way.'

Lalu first became chief minister in March 1990, and got his wife, Rabri Devi, to succeed him in 1997. At the beginning of that period, he was propelled to power on the issue of empowering the 'backward' castes. Later, in the elections of 1995 and 2000 (as best shown by Sankarshan Thakur), his success rested on his personal brand of populism, communication skills, charisma, aggressive assertion of caste pride and foxy demeanour. His knowledge of the nature of caste antipathy, social estrangement and constituency arithmetic – along with his political cunning and personal charm – led him to produce a successful socio-political combination of Muslim and Yadav support. He knew his constituency and gave voters a sense of political consciousness, social respect, security and involvement within the state's exploitative social structure. The image that Lalu sought to cultivate was that of a leader of the people – a rustic, anti-establishment outsider. His brand of politics meant that he never needed to govern Bihar in order to rule it. This, though, limited him as well.

Starting out with salvation politics and social justice, Lalu ended with social abuse and despotism, and this led directly to his fall. Already decayed, governance and administration under him rotted away malignantly. Among the heterogeneous caste/class groups within the 'backward' castes, the economically powerful and politically influential Yadavs cornered most of the benefits of the 'Lalu Raj', while the larger mass of this community remained poor. It took the voter until the election of 2005 to realise this and hand Lalu an electoral defeat. Now, Lalu is trying hard to break out of his own mould, making assurances that 'past mistakes will not be repeated.' This has prompted a quip from Nitish: 'Now that Laluji has decided not to repeat past mistakes, voters can decide the same!'

New social contract?
Nitish's second bit of good fortune is the fact that, in terms of image and style of politics, Lalu and Paswan appear limited in their social constituencies of Muslims, Yadavs and Dalits. Through his extensive campaigning tours across the state, grandly titled nyaya yatra (justice travels), Nitish has sought to carve a pan-Bihar identity for himself. Belonging to the Kurmi caste, which accounts for less than three percent of Bihar's population, Nitish is currently banking on his own 'social engineering' – which has produced two new categories of Mahadalits (21 of the 22 Scheduled Castes, leaving out the Paswans) and 'extremely backward classes' (34 percent of the total population). Importantly, though, the Mahadalit issue has special significance for Paswan as he considers himself, rightly, as the leading representative of the Paswan vote-bank in Bihar.

Then there are the disenchanted upper castes (16 percent), whom both sides are desperate to win over. Paswan calls these the 'bulldozers', whose disgruntlement would raze the government. The JD (U) state president, Vijay Kumar Choudhary, says: 'We leave it to the discretion of well-educated voters' – read: upper-castes – 'to judge Nitish's rule.' The Congress, currently led by a Dalit and a Muslim in the state, has only 10 seats in the 243-member house and hopes to benefit from some defections. For the first time in a decade, the Congress is going solo in Bihar, and hopes to do better.

The third factor in Nitish's favour is positive press opinion, which he has worked hard to cultivate through shrewd media management and large-scale paid content. Moreover, Nitish, who seldom mentions castes directly, looks better on the pedestal than Lalu, who deliberately cultivates a loutish persona. It has been a long time since Bihar suffered a bad public image, courtesy Lalu; now that the state is getting good notices, no one wants to question the basis of that newfound acclaim. Indeed, Nitish has brought home a sense of security for the middle class, and crime is down state-wide. Kidnaps and ransoms came down from 400 in 2004 to 66 in 2008; dacoit violence was reduced from 1297 instances in 2004 to 640 in 2008. In return, the middle class – that most morally manoeuvrable of classes – has handed over to Nitish their right to engage, scrutinise and disagree. Social audit and dissent have evaporated from Bihar as the institutions of civil society have stopped playing their adversarial role, and all this bodes well for the incumbent whose nose at the moment is well ahead.

The state of Bihar will be 100 years old in two years, and all the issues related to its recent image have had a long history. The first legal case of social discrimination was brought to court in 1914. The first political complaint of discrimination against Bihar as an entity was made in 1928. The first voice for reservation for Yadavs and Kurmis was raised in 1931. No less than half of the state's population has always lived below the poverty line. There are three perennials in Bihar politics: caste, land and poverty. Today, the question is whether social mobility in the state, getting another chance to express itself through the sphere of politics, will ultimately reflect a proper economic dimension – a new 'social contract' – and overcome the multiple challenges of 'land management' (economic), 'elite revolt' (social) and old-style political practices (political). If politics is an act of self-location, then the election season of October-November 2010 will provide a watershed moment in the political careers of both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.

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Himal Southasian