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Where's democracy in all this?

The scrimmage for the Chief Minister’s post in Bihar is on, after a deeply fractured mandate in the elections allowed Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi’s Rashtriya Janata Dal the dubious face saver of its status as the single largest party. The eventual ‘victor’ will emerge, presumably after every sordid stratagem and combination has been tried, but in the interim, it is useful to ask a more fundamental question – does it matter?

Bihar’s plunge into chaos has been sustained over nearly five decades, after it began to lose its initial sheen as one of India’s ‘best governed states’ by the early 1960s. Since then, a succession of Chief Minister’s has driven its administration, its economy, its institutions and its infrastructure steadily into the ground. The last fifteen years of this hurtling descent into destitution and disorder have, of course, been ‘led’ by Laloo Prasad, till 1997 as Chief Minister, and subsequently, after the fodder scam made his continuance in that position untenable, by proxy, through his wife – but the trajectory had been fixed long before. With the manipulation of castes and communities having established itself as a permanent strategy of political management in the State, it is far from clear whether any change in incumbency could have a significant impact on what V.S. Naipaul has evocatively described as "the end of the earth", and The Economist, brutally, as India’s "armpit".

Even in far better-run States, few Chief Ministers have ever been able to leave a radical mark for the better – and the rare exception was Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab, who laid such secure foundations for the State’s prosperity and development that decades of subsequent mis-governance and political waywardness have not been able to unravel the processes. By and large, however, the general trend in a State has seldom been transformed for the better by a change of leadership, though the list of Chief Ministers who have led their States into rack and ruin through populist and ‘vote bank’ politics and administrative incompetence would certainly be long. Given the profile of the various aspirants and contenders in Bihar today, there is little reason to believe that any one of these could forge a new direction for the State, and in this, there is little difference between one party and another. The only gainers from any change in – or the persistence of – the ruling order would be small coteries of politicians, bureaucrats and their hangers-on, who would profit from the enveloping patterns of corruption and nepotism that afflict Bihar, fattening like ticks on a buffalo’s belly.

Indeed, the dynamic of a ruinous politics has become so deeply entrenched in Bihar that it is difficult to imagine how the people of this blighted State can be rescued from their unrelenting poverty and growing misery. Bihar is India’s poorest and most ignorant State. As much as 42 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line, and per capita incomes in the State are a third of the national average of Rs. _______. Bihar has the lowest literacy and female literacy rates in the country, 47.53 per cent and 33.57 per cent respectively.

Bihar’s leaders have constantly complained of the ‘exploitation’ of the State’s resources, and the ‘step-motherly’ treatment they have received from the Centre, and there is some truth in these claims. Nevertheless, almost all States have similar grievances. What is more significant is that, the sheer state of administrative collapse has prevented the efficient utilization – indeed, any utilization – of a large proportion even of available resources. Thus, out of the cumulative allocation of Rs. 15,411 crores under the Ninth Plan, Bihar failed to utilize as much as Rs. 5,490 crores. Similarly, as against the allocation of Rs. 2,964 crores in 2003-03, the State failed to spend Rs. 737 crore.

Even where the State ‘utilizes’ the funds, the benefits are questionable. A Central team assessing the status of rural electrification in Bihar in 1999 found that 46,000 villages (of a total of 67,000) had been electrified ‘on paper’. However, at least 12,000 of these ‘electrified villages’ showed no evidence of such electrification – apparently because all the equipment had simply been ‘stolen’. Even in villages that were supposedly ‘connected’, electricity was a ‘sporadic luxury’ and one report claims that ‘satellite photos o India at night show Bihar at the centre of an area of darkness.’

That darkness goes beyond the physical absence of light and increasingly consumes the psyche of the people. Bihar is the most violent State in the country. Though terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir grabs headlines far more frequently, the truth is, far more people suffer violent death in Bihar. There are, on an average, as many as 11 murders and seven abductions, three rapes and four dacoities a day in Bihar (the data is for year 2002, and the numbers have been increasing continuous). Worse, 29 of the State’s 38 districts are now afflicted by various intensities of Maoist insurgent activity, and at least 10 of these are ‘highly affected’ – areas in which the writ on the government would be questionable. The sense of fear is pervasive.

As is the sense of a total loss of purpose and direction for a vast majority of the people. Unemployment in the State is the highest in the country; schools in rural areas are non-functional, in urban areas, they barely function. Universities and colleges are closed much of the time, and, in any event, what passes for education in most institutions in the State today is near worthless. Businesses are collapsing everywhere, and a recent report suggests that at least 80 companies, businesses and corporate houses have shut down their offices in Patna and shifted out of the State in just the past two years. Most bureaucrats in the Bihar cadre are simply desperate to get out of the State on deputation. The desire to flee the State goes from impoverished migrant workers and well into what passes for the Bihar’s elite. The only exceptions are those who are direct beneficiaries of the systems of corruption, nepotism and disorder that pervade the State – and even these send their children out for their education and, in most cases, for their careers.

If at all this corrupt creaking, crumbling system still manages to fitfully deliver something, it is not because of its politicians, certainly not because of its Chief Ministers, but because a few good bureaucrats, a few district and police officers still manage to do at least part of their jobs in spite enormous interference, disruption and pressure that is exercised on them by a venal political class.

Where is ‘democracy’ in all this? Where are the ‘aspirations of the people’? Elections alone create nothing. Those who speak of constitutional or democratic governance in Bihar on the authority of the fact of elections delude themselves, or deceive others. Nor, indeed, is there any real consolation in the academic fiction that all this violence and disorder is part of a ‘churning process’ of ‘social transition’ and that an inevitable and utopian future will emerge. Those who have being ‘churned’ for decades now cannot find succour in this myth.

(Published in The Pioneer, March 5, 2005)





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