Journalists covering Bihar’s long assembly election campaign are almost unanimous that Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) will be re-elected. Let me add my voice to the chorus. Nitish very much looks a winner and the opposition—led by the once-formidable Lalu Prasad —looks in bad shape.
Lalu can justly claim that, after decades of upper caste oppression, he provided dignity to backward castes on coming to power in 1990. He also provided security to Muslims threatened by the Babri Masjid agitation. Economic development does not win elections, he declared, caste and sectarian alliances do. He aimed not to replace Congress misgovernance with good governance, but to give his own caste supporters the spoils of misgovernance.
Every year, Lalu returned unspent hundreds of crores of central development funds. The roads, schools and power lines of Bihar collapsed, but Lalu won three successive elections. Yadavs and Muslims accounted for 28% of the population, and by attracting another 7% to 8% from other sections, he could get 35% of the vote, enough to win in Bihar’s fractured politics.
However, Yadavs soon emerged as a creamy layer among backward castes. In disgust, Nitish and other politicians of the most backward castes split away to form their own party.
Yadav and Muslim goons dominated the state with impunity. Anybody applying for a car or building permit received a kidnapping threat the same evening. Economic activity shrank, and nobody went out after 6 pm.
This ultimately sank Lalu. His platform of providing dignity for the lower castes had become obsolete. Voters were fed up with his “jungle raj”. They now wanted personal safety, public order, schools, roads and other benefits of economic development.
These are what Nitish focused on after coming to power. Using the Arms Act imaginatively, he jailed more than 50,000 goons. This restored public confidence, spurring building and small business activity across the state. People now go shopping late into the evening, spurring the economy.
In the woeful absence of electricity, industrial revival proved very difficult. But road connectivity zoomed: 2,417 km were built in 2008-09 against just 415 km in 2005-06.
GDP growth averaged 10.4% in Nitish’s five years, against just 3.5% in the last five years of Lalu’s rule. Bihari migration to Punjab Haryana for harvesting fell dramatically, because of better economic opportunities within Bihar.
Development spending rose from Rs 2,000 crore per year to Rs 16,000 crore per year under Nitish. Construction was the biggest driving force, growing by a whopping 35.8% per year. Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel claimed Bihar was his fastest-growing territory. Telecom in the state grew by 17.68% per year. Trade, hotels and restaurants grew by 17.71%.
However, rapid economic growth in the state can be sustained only if power generation greatly increases and facilitates industrial growth. This will not happen if Lalu comes back. Bihar badly needs to give Nitish a second term.
Bihar remains pitifully poor and backward, yet most Biharis say Nitish has improved their lives, if only marginally. Once Biharis hid the fact they were from Bihar, but today Nitish has enabled them to take pride in their Bihari identity. Two decades ago, they happily tolerated gross misgovernance by Lalu in return for the dignity and security he provided lower castes. But today they clamour for better governance and development, something Nitish is providing.
This revolutionary change was predicted by Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul in his book “India: A Million Mutinies Now”. Naipaul saw democracy as forcing huge changes in caste power relations, enabling those at the bottom to get to the political top. `When people start moving, their first loyalty, their first identity, is always a rather small one…. When the oppressed have the power to assert themselves, they will behave badly. It will need a couple of generations of security and knowledge of institutions…before people in that situation begin to behave well.”
Naipaul was optimistic that the caste-based mayhem and misgovernance (typified by Lalu) would, in due course, give way to better governance (typified by Nitish). He was wrong in thinking the change would take two generations: it has taken only one.
What’s more, there are signs of similar change in Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati is no Nitish: her rule is replete with examples of corruption and misgovernance. Yet she has too has put Yadav goons in jail and improved road connectivity. GDP growth in UP in the last five years has accelerated to an average of 6.98%, well below Nitish’s achievement but only fractionally below the 7% benchmark for miracle economies.
To use Naipaul’s phraseology, the initial mutinies of the Yadavs are now being overtaken by the mutinies of the dalits and Kurmis and Koeries. Despite a thousand continuing flaws, this is an encouraging sign for the worst governed parts of India.