The voters of Bihar, India’s poorest state, have a difficult choice deciding who to vote for in current assembly elections if they put aside their usual caste and religion-based preferences and go for the party that will be best for development.
They can choose a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar, chief minister for the past 10 years, who has transformed many aspects of daily life in what was a mafia-ridden basket-case society. Or they can choose Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who has dominated the BJP’s election campaign but who has not announced the name of the regional politician whom he would anoint as chief minister.
This suggests that the voters’ safest choice is Kumar, the capable leader they know, who can be expected to expand the roads, bridges, electric power and other government-funded infrastructure developments that have been built, along with improved basic education and law and order.
Modi has no such track record, but he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do understand and promote private sector business and entrepreneurship, which Kumar has neither done nor talked about beyond some hopes of food processing factories. Modi would also bitterly resent what would be a humiliating defeat by Kumar and could be expected to restrict central government help for the state.
Bihar is now ready to expand from its largely government-funded economy, and from farmers producing mostly for their own consumption, to productive private sector business activity, says Shaibal Gupta, who runs the Bihar-based Asian Development Research Institute. This means encouraging local small endeavors ranging from roadside outlets to industry with inward investment from companies based elsewhere. There is virtually no such investment, and tens of thousands of hard-working Biharis emigrate elsewhere in India and abroad to find employment ranging from menial manual labour to software engineering.
Nationally, this is an important election because Modi desperately needs to win, for two reasons. First, he cannot afford politically for the BJP to repeat the devastating defeat that it unexpectedly suffered in Delhi’s assembly elections early this year. His image has been hit both by the government’s lack of tangible achievements and by his failure to rein in his Hindu nationalist extremists, and neither he nor his unpopular henchman, BJP president Amit Shah need another setback.
Second, the BJP needs a clear victory in order to begin to build up its minority status in India’s Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament whose members are indirectly elected via the states. The government’s ability to implement urgently needed new legislation will be curtailed until the BJP has a majority of the seats, which will not be till 2017-18 at the earliest, and even later if it loses in Bihar.
My hunch is that Kumar will win, but I’ve heard about the possible advantages of a BJP victory while visiting Bihar in the past week. I asked in the capital, Patna, and elsewhere, “which party does Bihar need,” rather than journalists’ more usual “who will you vote for” and “who do you think is winning.”
Bihar’s politics are sharply polarized around caste and by the unbridgeable and politically—sharpened divide between the majority Hindus and the Muslims who make up 17 percent of the population. That divide was dramatically illustrated when Amit Shah, reflecting the BJP leadership’s fear that it was losing, brazenly tried to rally the Hindu vote on October 29 by saying that “crackers will be burst in celebration in Pakistan” if the party did not win.
Bihar has been one of India’s poorest states for decades. Some 80 percent of the population are “multi-dimensionally poor” compared with a national average of 55 percent, according to estimates based on a UN Human Development Report index that includes levels of health, education, and standard of living as well as income.
A social and political revolution was set in motion by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a populist politician who parades his roots by keeping cows in his Patna garden. He became chief minister in 1990 and ruled for 15 years together with his uneducated wife Rabri, who stood in for him for nine years after he was banned from office and briefly imprisoned for corruption. He empowered his own backward Yadav caste and others, replacing the established high caste social elite that had thrived under British rule and continued to dominate after independence.
He ignored economic development, seeing no need to do anything more than caste empowerment. He is still regarded as a hero by many Yadavs who make up 14 percent of the population, even though he led the plunder of the state’s exchecker in a fodder scam which he inherited from his predecessor. That cost the poverty-stricken state and its government the equivalent of US$200million in lost revenue.
Bihar was therefore desperate for economic development when Nitish Kumar came to power in 2005 with his Janata Dal (United) party. He headed a National Democratic Alliance coalition with the BJP, which allowed him leeway to establish and implement policy. Starting from such a low base of neglect, Kumar made rapid progress that still continues.
Economic growth, which had been almost stagnant from 1990, has averaged 10 percent since 2005. Crime – notably robbery and kidnapping, which were double the national average, have dropped significantly, partly helped by speeding up cases and creating an auxiliary police force of ex-army staff.
Roads have been transformed, as I saw on my visit, with smooth tarmac surfaces, even on usually rough village roads, that rival anything I have seen elsewhere in India. Five-year build-and-maintain contracts encourage quality work by contractors who usually do shoddy work and make money out of constant repairs. A three-hour journey to the north-east of Patna was only blighted by a 5.8 km semi-crippled bridge across the River Ganges that is gradually being repaired, though far too slowly.
Electric power, which was only available for a few hours a day and was unavailable in rural areas is now on tap for 12 hours or more in over 36,000 of the state’s 40,000 villages, with some, I was told, getting 20 hours. Supplies are bought on the national grid and there has been some improvement in Bihar’s power generation.
Attendance at schools has improved dramatically, encouraged by a national mid-day meal scheme, and by a Kumar initiative to provide girls at secondary schools with money to buy bicycles so they can cycle safely to school.
In Keota village, near Dalsing Sarai just north of the Ganges, Rajeev Chaudhary, the head of a girls’ school told me that an average of 400 of 670 registered pupils attended every day and were persuaded to stay for afternoon classes after the midday meal. State-level incentives included Rs1,800 cash pay-outs to those who achieved 75 percent attendance, though that had been relaxed during the election.
Corruption has however remained rampant because Kumar handed power back from Lalu Prasad’s Yadav mafias to civil servants who, unrestrained, have cashed in, demonstrating how endemic graft and extortion are in India. Kumar has not been interested in developing non-government social society organisations that might provide some offset, so the civil service is dominant. Tertiary education colleges have declined.
Despite these problems, this is a remarkable development record, showing what can be done by a determined chief minister. It compares for example with two other poor states – Orissa where a popular though somnolent chief minister has little drive, and crime-ridden Uttar Pradesh where there is no reforming zeal.
Kumar was re-elected in 2010 at the age of 59, when his coalition with the BJP won 206 of 243 seats in the state assembly, routing both the Congress Party, whose campaign had been run by Rahul Gandhi, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal party led by Lalu Yadav (though he personally is banned from active politics).
By this point, Kumar was even seen as a possible prime minister of a future coalition government. But his political stock declined when he broke with the BJP in 2013 because he could not accept Modi’s personal brand of overt Hindu nationalism. He meekly stepped down from the chief ministership, handing over the post to a party colleague whom he later ousted, taking the job back himself. That has led to a redrawing of political alliances. Kumar has teamed up with his old political opponents – Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal party and the Congress Party – against his old ally, the BJP.
But Kumar has his drawbacks. He is said by those who know him to dislike new ideas that challenge his views, let along criticism, and he deals roughly with those who challenge him. That is most graphically illustrated by an astonishing new Bihar Museum that is being built on a vast site in central Patna at a cost equivalent to US$70 million.
Designed by a Japanese architectural firm, the structure now being built looks an anachronism in such a poor state and has been widely criticized. Kumar is said to see it as a foundation for his laudable aim to build mass tourism around Bihar’s Buddhist sites, though critics say he sees it as a monument to his reign.
Kumar’s political ego is however mild compared with those of Modi and Shah whose faces dominate election posters as if they, not some un-named politician, would be chief minister. A former deputy chief minister, Sushil Modi (no relation), is regarded as the front runner, but he has not been named partly because he comes from a small minority cast and others might object that he had been chosen, and partly because, some people suspect, Modi wants to name someone else.
Modi has put a lot of political capital into the campaign, addressing some 25 rallies which is far more than any other prime minister has done in a state election for decades. That is a measure both of how he and Shah regard him as a potential winner, and also how desperate they are to win.
Whether they have calculated wrongly, and the BJP is heading for defeat, will begin to emerge when exit polls are broadcast on the evening of Nov. 5 after the last day of polling ends. The count then takes place on Nov. 8. Experts say the result is too close to call and, with 30 percent of the 66 million electorate under 30, 3 million of them first time voters, anything could happen.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right hand corner of Asia Sentinel’s face page.