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Restoration of Bihar's fortunes

The electoral outcome in Bihar has surpri+sed pundits and destroyed many a myth, but it is far from novel in the message the people have sought to communicate. Many pretentious and convoluted theories have long been advanced by analysts regarding the mysteries of the voters mind, but the truth is, the Indian electorate has repeatedly and clearly issued warnings to the nation's leaders and has articulated its aspirations without ambiguity. It is just that the leaders refuse to 'get it', and to deliver the goods.

The result is that Government after Government has been turfed out, both in the States and at the Centre, as regimes fail to tackle basic administrative issues. This has happened with such regularity that analysts invented the 'incumbency factor' as an alibi for the disastrous electoral performance of parties in power. But in any State that has seen even a modicum of good governance, the 'incumbency factor' does not operate.

There is, indeed, no such enigmatic force; there are, rather, simple public expectations that leaders will do the jobs they have been elected to do, and when this does not happen, they are thrown out of power. This is simply a rejection of the endemic incompetence of regimes everywhere in the country, and a reflection of the fact that political formations today appear to lack the most basic capacities for administration.

For a decade and a half in Bihar, however, Lalu had been able to escape public ire by the shameless fraud of his slogan of 'social justice', and the cynical manipulation of caste and communal sentiments, to the exclusion of any measure of acceptable governance, political probity, and personal integrity. Indeed, Lalu has played the caste and communal puppeteer so brazenly that he has, on occasion, explicitly rejected development and governance as potential electoral issues, and has systematically driven his State into the ground.

Today, Bihar fares disastrously on virtually the entire range of developmental indices: it is the country's poorest State, with per capita incomes at a third of the national average, and over 42 per cent of the people below the poverty line (as against the countrywide average of 26 per cent); illiteracy stands at 52 per cent as against the national average of 35 per cent, and female illiteracy is worse, at 67 per cent. Urbanisation - an index of productivity and modernisation - stands at barely 11 per cent, against a national figure approaching 28 per cent. Bihar has lost almost its entire industrial base and mining belt after the creation of Jharkhand.

Most of the State's 54 public sector units are in a terminal state - 32 are 'not working' and another 13 have been declared sick - and there is little private enterprise (unless one includes extortion and organised criminal activity in the definition of 'enterprise'). Though the land is fertile, agricultural yields are low, with small areas under irrigation, and an annual cycle of floods and drought inflicting enormous suffering on the people. Most of the rural population remains dependent on primitive subsistence agriculture - nearly half the farmers still use bullock carts to plough their land and nearly 96 per cent of all farmers operate at subsistence or below-subsistence levels.

For years now, the administrative system has been moribund, the Government has failed repeatedly to pay salaries to a significant proportion of its employees, schools and colleges are virtually non-functional, and the future of an entire generation has been destroyed.

The outcome of the current election creates an opportunity to restore the integrity of governance in the State, and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised that this will be his first priority, declaring that he would destroy the myth "that there can be no governance in Bihar." In an age of fractured mandates, the NDA coalition has secured a clear majority, and there can be no alibis for failure now, beyond the incapacity of the leadership.

A frisson of hope is sweeping across Bihar today, but a measure of caution is necessary. The administration in the State has been so completely subverted, its restoration will be a Herculean task. Worse, it is not clear whether the State's new leadership really has the vision or capacity to engineer a strategy of revival - it is sobering to recall that both Nitish Kumar and his deputy, Sushil Kumar, trace their political roots to Jai Prakash Narain's disastrous 'total revolution', as did Lalu, and there remains the danger of a lapse into half-baked and populist ideologies of confused socialism.

The record of new regimes in the recent past, across the country, has also been poor. With most political formations in the State and Centre lacking basic administrative experience and competence, radical policy changes do not follow changes of regime. Successive governments, at best, try to tinker with the system; at worst, they are transient regimes of looters who make the most of the limited time and opportunity they have at their disposal. It remains to be seen which pathway Nitish Kumar's Government in Bihar will choose to tread.

Bihar's destiny cannot be a matter of indifference for the rest of India. The State has now become an Indian test case. For some time now, it has been exerting a disproportionate and perverse influence on the nation's political culture and psyche, even as its growing disorders jeopardise India's ambitious quest for economic transformation. If the challenge of restoring the rule of law and basic administration - including the entire state paraphernalia for social welfare, health and education - meets with success, the impact will reverberate across the country.

Bihar's misfortunes have graphically demonstrated the fact that you cannot cater to particular castes and communities in the quest for development - in this, it is all or nothing. The restoration of Bihar's fortunes could demonstrate to the national political leadership that, while caste and communal combinations may work on voters for some time, it is, in the end, efficiency, governance and development that the people aspire to.

India's future will be defined by its capacity to transform its neglected peripheries and its marginalised millions. Bihar has, for long, been an area of unforgivable neglect and active deterioration. For those who are imagining a vision of 'India unbound', it is necessary to remember that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the country's two most populous States, are today its worst governed, and have maintained a continuous spiral into disorder and administrative chaos for decades.

There will be a temptation at the Centre - particularly among certain constituent elements of the ruling UPA - to undermine the new NDA regime at Patna, and such an inclination will be actively encouraged by Lalu - though his capacity to pressure the Manmohan Singh Government has been substantially eroded by the elections. It is crucial, here, to appreciate that Bihar's voter has had the courage and acuity to rise above communal and caste platforms and to do what it could for governance; India's leadership must now demonstrate that it has the sense to do the same.

Delhi must, in the national interest, rise above the seduction of partisan politics at this stage, and give Bihar's unfortunate people a fighting chance to pull themselves out of the morass into which they have been immersed by the Lalu-Rabri order. If we have a stake in India, we have an equal stake in Bihar's future.

(Published in The Pioneer, November 30, 2005)





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