Bihar: A lesson in development that Congress and BJP may have failed to understand
Development might have triumphed over petty caste politics in what was once a ‘backward’ state, but has the ruling party at the Centre and the NDA-led opposition learnt the right lesson?
The sweeping re-election of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s coalition government is a solid confirmation of the development he has worked to bring about in the hitherto poorly-governed, deeply caste-ridden state. The election verdict in what was once considered the poorest state in the country, will most likely reverberate across the states, ringing the warning bell for both the ruling Congress party at the Centre and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main national opposition and the principal partner in Mr Kumar’s government.
“This is a victory of the people of Bihar,” the chief minister declared in a victory speech on national television. “The mandate is to move forward. The people of Bihar have decided not to go back to the old, dark days. I promise that I will work hard for five years and try to do more. This is a victory for development.”
The two-month long campaign was watched closely for the old divisive caste politics that has dominated much of northern India, and kept large sections of the population in large states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh backward for more than two decades.
It’s worth recalling a description in The Economist five years ago, when the previous government of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi was voted out after 15 years in office. “Bihar (had) become a byword for the worst of India, of widespread and inescapable poverty, of corrupt politicians indistinguishable from mafia-dons they patronise, caste-ridden social order that has retained the worst feudal cruelties.”
Nitish Kumar may not have totally ignored caste, but his campaign focused on his efforts to improve the lot of the roughly 90 million people of the state. During his five years in office, the chief minister tightened governance by fighting crime and corruption, and took serious steps to revive long-neglected development through investments in education, healthcare and infrastructure.
The BBC appreciated the progress in a recent report titled “Where ‘backward’ Bihar leads India”, which said that the state has also made strides in the areas of women’s empowerment, judicial and tax reforms, and public safety. Between 2003 and 2008, even the inflow of foreign tourists in Bihar rose nearly six-fold from 61,000 to 3,46,000.
The measures have helped to turn the state’s economy around. According to information available, Bihar’s economy grew an average 11.35% each year between 2004 and 2009, compared with 3.5% in the prior five years and well above the national growth average. The figures are reflected in the election result.
This evening, election authorities reported that the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition appeared likely to win nearly 200 of the total 243 seats in Bihar’s legislative assembly, a huge jump from its previous 143 seats.
The result will be a big setback for the Congress party which is trying to rebuild in the northern states. Its leaders made a bold effort to increase the nine seats it had, but it appears that they may have lost a few instead. Clearly they didn’t get it—they criticised the chief minister without gauging the impact of the changes he has been able to make.
Already, the Congress party is embroiled in the 2G spectrum allocation scam of historic proportion, it is finding very difficult to get out of. The party rules in several states, where some of its governments are bogged down with leadership squabbles and major corruption cases, while others don’t have much of a record to boast about. Today, the chief minister of the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh said he was resigning for health reasons
It’s not a very different story for the BJP. It can boast of the progress made by its poster boy Narendra Modi in Gujarat, but it has little else to show. The result in Bihar, where it is in a coalition, may boost the party’s confidence, but it doesn’t seem to have taken the lesson from the verdict. Today, the party’s leadership decided to retain its chief minister in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, who has been battling a challenge to his leadership amidst a series of land scams.
The next parliamentary election is only in 2014. But the Bihar result is a clear verdict against the policies of caste and corruption that the Congress, BJP and other political parties will be sorry not to learn from.