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The demand for good governance in Bihar and the rise of Nitish Kumar January 11, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

People expect three things from a government: a) external defence, b) law and order, and c) general public welfare. All Indian political parties are perceived to be equally inefficient on the external defence front, whereas external defence is not an issue in provincial elections. So, both in national and provincial elections, people assess a political party’s capacity to deliver good governance with respect to the last two. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the 2004 and 2009 General Elections to the Indian National Congress. Large sections of the electorate realized, particularly after the 2002 Gujarat riots, that the Congress cannot be worse than BJP on the law and order front, whereas both are equally pro-market with the Congress having greater commitment to redistribution.

But the calculus is complicated at the provincial level. There are three reasons for this. First, national politics is essentially bi-polar with both the leading parties having support bases in a number of ethnically unconnected provinces. However, in most provinces multi-polarity is the norm with at least one of the key parties being largely confined to just one province and one ethnic community. (Ethnic is used here in a broader sense to denote any ascriptive affiliation.) Presently, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan are exceptions to this rule. Second, India is ethnically more heterogeneous at the national level than at the provincial level. So, the central government has been, by and large, ethnically non-discriminatory due to a delicate balance of forces. However, unless otherwise checked by a strong central government, provincial governments have a remarkable propensity to indulge in ethnic discrimination. Third, provincial governments know that the Centre will step in if things go wrong dramatically, which in turn artificially suppresses the cost of bad governance at the provincial level. In short, if good governance has to establish itself as the decisive selection criterion in elections then that has to happen at the provincial level, including in economically backward large North Indian provinces like Bihar, hitherto known for corruption and caste and religious conflicts.

For quite some time after independence, the demand for good governance was muted in North India because people preferred authentic leaders,  with whom they identified on the bases of ethnic identity. Political parties could easily harvest vote-banks by courting ethnic leaders. But it seems that things are changing. The recent victory of the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar (November 2010), the second in succession, is a case in point. This victory was driven by three factors that have created a demand for good governance in Bihar cutting across community boundaries.

First, hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from Bihar are bringing home miraculous growth stories from Southern and Western provinces. A natural corollary to these stories is that if Bangalore and Hyderabad can transform then why not Patna? Second, while local options for Biharis has been very bad for quite some time their outside options were lucrative, and they pursued them with zeal. But now thanks to successive weak central governments even the outside option has been vitiated. For instance, recurring attacks on Biharis in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, have driven home the message that Biharis can be excluded from participating in the boom in other provinces. Thus even after spending years contributing to another province, Bihari migrants remain outsiders at the mercy of provincial chauvinists. So, investing in the development of Bihar is a necessity rather than a choice. The 24×7 electronic media has accentuated both the above effects. Also, the rapid economic growth in other provinces has instilled a sense of urgency, which was not there in the pre-liberalisation era of Hindu growth rate.

In short, circumstances slowly prepared Biharis to accept efficient leaders. After all if they can live in ethnically different provinces, which invariably have ‘others’ in power, then they can as well choose the best person for the job at home irrespective of his/her ethnicity. But an efficient leader voted to power can indulge in ethnic discrimination. So, the first two factors alone could not have supported political change in Bihar. Fortunately, a third factor is reinforcing the demand for efficient leaders across the country. Over the years people have begun to trust public institutions’ capacity to protect them from ethnic discrimination. As a result, even if an efficient leader belonging to another community is voted to power, people can rest assured that s/he cannot systematically exclude them from the fruits of development.

Over the last few years the demand for good governance in Bihar has been robust. However, the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a provincial party dominated by a middle caste, continued to be stuck with slogans meant to work in the era of the politics of authenticity. In 2005, after 15 years of ruinous RJD rule, Nitish Kumar emerged as the face of NDA in Bihar. He came to power with the support of a rainbow coalition of Bihar’s diverse communities, many of them hitherto RJD supporters. Nitish Kumar’s campaign was effectively built around ‘we can make it big together’. Once in office, he focused on law and order and public infrastructure. He managed to rid Bihar of the vicious cycles of religious riots and caste violence for which it was more often than not in news.

His commitment to safeguard the rights of minorities was reflected in his decision to re-open the Bhagalpur riots case, closed by RJD government, and not allow Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister known for condoning anti-Muslim riots, to campaign for BJP in the recent assembly elections. On the other hand, he directed massive funds to public schools and hospitals and roads and checked corruption to ensure proper utilization of funds. Improvement on these two fronts paid rich dividends. Bihar joined the league of best performing provinces, with a growth rate of 11.03% between 2004-05 and 2008-09. And this, it should be noted, is despite the separation of resource-rich Jharkhand from Bihar, the usual floods and famines, and the recent global financial crisis. No wonder Nitish Kumar returned to power with a thumping majority.

To conclude, Nitish Kumar has managed to break free of the politics of authenticity and claim votes on the basis of efficiency in a province that was one of its strongholds. Interestingly, his clash with Narendra Modi, who also wants to be recognized as an efficient leader, was a prelude to the contest for the leadership of the prospective non-Congress alliance for the next general elections. Nitish Kumar may, however, soon face a more formidable contender. The Bahujan Samajwadi Party’s Mayawati, endowed with impeccable authenticity, could emerge as the Nitish of Uttar Pradesh in 2012 assembly elections, if not earlier. But that is a story for another day.


1. B.N.Patnaik - January 11, 2011

An excellent analysis. Very persuasive. In the context of Bihar, the case of Odisha may be studied. Navin Patnaik is the Chief Minister now for the third time. One thing that has mattered in his case is that he is viewed as a clean politician. No favouritism, no nepotism. That is, the image of the person matters, or it has in his case. Is it not true of Nitish Kumar as well?

2. Raj - January 12, 2011

Do you think a common man will think of a) external defence, b) law and order, and c) general public welfare? I think bihar’s literacy rate is not so good…so people won’t think that much…
Are you missing the vote for money concepet widely followed in elections???

3. Vikas Kumar - January 13, 2011

Mr. Raj,

I’m not denying the importance of money in (Indian) politics. But fortunately it is still not the key variable. If money is the key determinant then Lalu’s RJD should have won in 2005 because it had amassed a lot of wealth through numerous scams during its 15 years long reign (1990-2005).

Do illiterate people have the ability to think about external defence, law and order, and general public welfare? If they did not have this ability they would not have thrown the Congress (1977 and 1989) and BJP (2004) out of power. One doesn’t need to know advanced calculus to figure out that things are bad (and therefore the government needs to go) if (a) foreign armies (overtly or) covertly bomb one’s hometown, (b) girls are not safe after sunset, and (c) roads are bad.

So, why was RJD not thrown out earlier? Whether we like him or not, in the early 1990s Lalu played an important role in symbolically empowering the weaker sections of the society in Bihar. Lalu managed to win elections in mid-90s without actually delivering good governance because the weaker sections and minorities probably feared that his exit could lead to the return of the old regime. His party returned to power in 2000 through what we call jugad, i.e., management. By 2005, the RJD had exhausted the initial symbolic capital and also reached the limits of maneuvering. And that is when Nitish succeeded. His earlier attempt to displace RJD ended in failure. (Recall that Nitish served as Bihar’s chief minister in the first week of March 2000.)

Mr. Patnaik,

You are right that public image matters. People would not have taken Lalu’s efficiency based manifesto, if he had one, seriously because he repeatedly disappointed them. But Navin’s image is now under cloud due to his government’s not so careful processing of applications for industrial and mining licenses.