By Swapan Dasgupta
The elections to the Bihar Assembly are long drawn, and the country has to wait to till the evening of November 20 for the exit polls and a further five days for the results. Yet, the reports emerging from the constituencies seem to be unanimous on one count: that Nitish Kumar's re-election as Chief Minister is a near-certainty. It's the size of the National Democratic Alliance's majority that will be keenly watched.
The absence of uncertainty over the outcome hasn't, however, reduced interest in a state that was, just five years ago, held to be the epitome of everything that was rotten in India. Bihar then presented a most disagreeable capsule: sloth, indifference to development, rampant casteism, lawlessness, the debasement of education and outward migration. The drawing rooms of metropolitan India resonated with snide comments about Bihar being a state of mind. Bihar, it was generally agreed, was a nice place to get out of.
More than anything else, Nitish Kumar has to be complimented for demolishing this state of hopelessness. Bihar still has a long way to go before it comes anywhere near realising its actual potential but in the past five years Nitish has brought hope to the state by reversing the decline. By repairing the state's crumbling infrastructure and putting an end to lawlessness, the administration has created the conditions for the return of economic activity to the state.
The Bihar which Nitish inherited from the Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi combine in 2005 was akin to a war-ravaged zone. It was a state that first needed reconstruction before it could apply itself to the normal tasks of economic development. That Nitish succeeded in getting the state back on track without having to fall back of cheap populism, widespread corruption, caste conflict and 'cadre raj' is something that must not be overlooked.
The lessons from Bihar are simple but crucially important. They suggest that the proper utilisation of funds at the disposal of the state through administrative rigour and the exercise of determined political leadership can make all the difference. Efficiency plus honesty and a little imagination can do the trick.
The other lesson from Bihar centres on sustainable growth—the issue that should be Nitish's priority in the next five years. The role of the state in a state like Bihar is well defined: to maintain and improve infrastructure, to maintain law and order, to attend to some minimum social inputs for the creation and nurturing of human capital, and to provide a broad regulatory framework for economic activity. Doing these tasks well is good governance. If the state does these bare essentials, society will do its bit and create additional wealth.
Experience has shown that problems arise when the government ignores its basic tasks and becomes an agency for extraneous activities such as social engineering and/or paternalism. The spectacular growth India has witnessed in the past two decades—and in which Bihar's cumulative contribution has, unfortunately, been modest—has owed substantially to entrepreneur-led activity. It is important to not lose sight of this basic truth.
In the post-election analysis, after the magnitude of Nitish's electoral success is digested, the editorial class is likely to proffer the verdict that 'politics has changed' and that people are no longer swayed by divisive identity politics of the Lalu Yadav variety. Such conclusions are no doubt warranted. But what is equally important is to identify what exactly the people want.
On the one hand, there is the example of Bihar and, for that matter, Gujarat (at the other end of the economic spectrum) where growth rates have been built on a foundation of good governance. In these states, the premium has been put on the quality of political leadership, particularly the exacting standards of personal integrity set by the Chief Ministers, and the relative efficiency of the administration. In Bihar and Gujarat, Nitish and Narendra Modi didn't have to replace the existing bureaucracy with a parallel political cadre, as was done in West Bengal. If sufficiently motivated, the same set of babus can rise above indolence and sloth and do what is expected of them.
It is instructive to contrast the mood of optimism in Bihar and Gujarat with the gloom that is evident in Maharashtra, India's most economically advanced state. In Maharashtra, political venality and the inability of the state do its job has led to economic stagnation. With corruption creaming off a chunk of the surplus that in normal circumstances would have been productively invested, the state has fallen back on Centre-funded welfare measures such as the waiver of bank loans. The Congress, it would seem, has lost the capacity to earn its votes; it is dependent on buying votes with welfare sops—acts of misplaced charity calculated to kill initiative and entrepreneurship. What is particularly alarming is that this model of politics based on profligate spending (and, by implication, corruption) is being sought to be imposed on the whole country by a short-sighted Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council.
The country needs a viable national alternative to the political promiscuity of the Congress. Nitish's expected victory could be the catalyst for the emergence of a reinvigorated NDA built on a new 21st century politics. It will involve discarding some inherited baggage and it is a project that must draw upon the best practices and the best leadership of both Bihar and Gujarat.