Nitish Kumar
Pradip Bhandari
It Is Not Just About Bihar

If the 2014 Lok Sabha elections signalled the arrival of the Modi-led alliance, Bihar would decide how fast it will move

On the eve of the Assembly elections in Bihar, we have seen an avalanche of rallies, raths and posters from both the BJP-led NDA alliance, and the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ of the RJD, the JDU and the Congress.

How is the situation on the ground and what could be the implications of the outcome of the elections on the national discourse?

Current Situation in Bihar

Bihar’s voters are optimistic about the future. That is understandable when seen in the context of its performance in several socio-economic indicators. The data findings paint a dismal picture, which is worrying.

The report of National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) titled “Energy Sources for Indian Households for Cooking and Lighting” showed that about seven out of 10 rural households in the country had electricity.

However, in Bihar, only about two houses and a half out of ten rural households have electricity. Moreover, it has the highest number of urban households without electricity connection.

The World Bank, in its recent report (February 2015), claimed that two out of three people in Bihar do not have access to electricity. This sorry state of affairs has made an impact on the availability of education, health and employment opportunities in the state.

A study conducted by Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM A) unearthed that as on March, 2014, Bihar had just 0.83 doctors per ten lakh population in Community Health Centres (CHCs), District Hospitals (DHs) and Sub District Hospitals (SDH) The truth about primary healthcare services (basic maternal and child healthcare services) is appalling with not even one community health centre (0.67 to be exact) servicing a population of 10 lakh.

The state has the highest number of rural households in the country (90 percent of Bihar is rural). Fifty-six percent of the population is landless and engaged in casual manual labour with one earning member supporting a family of five with Rs 5000 a month.

According to the Socio Economic Caste Census released in 2015, 65% of households own no land and only about 6% of households have a member with a salaried job. What this means is that the champions of caste-based politics have failed to provide the basics of “roti, kapda, makaan,” while employment is a distant dream.

The previous government under the influence of its ‘junior’ partner did try to stem the rot. The World Bank group acknowledged this in its 2010 report titled  ‘Bihar: Towards A development strategy”. However, post the breakup between the BJP and the JDU, the Gross State GDP witnessed a free fall from a high of 15 % in 2011-2012 to 8.82 % in 2013-14, a decline of 50 %.

Just when the state was emerging out of two decades of fear and darkness (remember 1990’s and early 2000’s?), the backward march away from development began all over again.

Options for voters

The emergence of RJD after post the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan won the trust of the voters. What followed very soon was the notorious ‘jungle raj’. The social contract between the State and the citizens was kept aside, the rule of law replaced by rampant hooliganism.

In a survey conducted by The Times Of India, between 1992-2011, 32 thousand cases of kidnapping were reported. If kidnapping was small, murders were routine. The state police record reveals that between 2001-2005, 20 thousand murders were committed. If roughly 20 thousand murders were committed in five years, what happened in the 1990’s can be merely imagined.

The duo of Sadhu and Subhash Yadav became notoriously powerful. Gangster-turned-politician Shahabuddin reached the peak of his power in late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Such was the environment that industries stayed away. ‘Rangdari Tax’ (loosely put, a compulsory periodic supply of money to the local goon) impacted the local businessperson. Punishment of refusal was death. Terror became a norm and deserted roads, an everyday reality. Youth lost out on education. Many were forced to enter the illicit business of kidnapping and murders for livelihood and social prestige.

If the RJD –JDU alliance passes the ballot test, this situation can come back. In fact, the probability is high since the two parties are fighting on an equal seat sharing formula. After the RJD supremo’s recent statements that ‘caste is the star’, and ’the election is about forward vs. backward’, a positive future of development is difficult to imagine.

In an alliance of the equals, one partner may not be able to comprehend the other’s agenda of survival. The RJD would take all the necessary steps to enlarge the divide between ‘us and rest‘ to keep it’s vote bank of Yadavs and minorities intact.

The good news is that Bihar had voted for development in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. The verdict was just not about a party, but the positive agenda of change. Should it come to power, this NDA-led alliance could hurt the vested interests of certain powerful classes. However, the State will be the gainer.

The Prime Minister’s package was a forward-looking policy initiative. Focusing on public investment, almost 100 percent of it is capital expenditure. This investment in roads, highways, electricity generation and rural infrastructure will be spent over many fiscal years. It is a long-term capability and a skill driven model.

Skeptics point at some of the populist measures in the vision document, notwithstanding the need for land for half of the landless population and power supply for two-thirds of the population. But the fact is that the vision document focuses on reviving the local economy and subdued agriculture growth rate.

Provision of entitlements like Scooty and TV for Mahadalits might come across as unnecessary at first glance. But the fact is that it allows them to enhance their prestige in a society fragmented along caste lines.

As the local economy revives, agriculture growth rate increases, skilled labour gets access to the market, and education provides high-skilled employment in the State, deep -rooted caste barriers will weaken. Access and improvement in the quality of life will force regional parties to focus on development to survive in the era of competitive politics.

Larger picture

If the NDA-led alliance wins, the reform process can get the direction it needs. Reforms of GST( Good and Services Tax) facilitating ease of doing business, disinvestment of certain loss-making PSU(Public Sector Units), reviving the agriculture growth rate, unpopular but necessary labour reforms (though a few steps on social security front of labour have already been taken) enhancing productivity of worker and the industry , and recovery of Non- Performing Assets(NPA) are some, which need to be taken expediently.

Such reforms need one year for the results to show on the ground to offset the incipient resistance and unpopular perception. A defeat can catalyze the rival camps and stall the reform process with visible political gains in the upcoming elections. Perception of loss of ground, consolidation of different voices, and an aggressive media campaign by rivals might make the government tread cautiously in near future.

As Bihar will vote, the nation will watch with bated breath. This is an important moment for India. Concerted steps are being taken by the government and RBI to leapfrog India into a 21st century market economy. This will create sufficient resources, avenues of employment and a better standard of living for the future generations.

It is a reality that still more than 90 percent of the country’s workforce is in the unorganized sector. It is in the shared national interest of all that the economy creates an opportunity for them. These are necessary conditions for them to lead a better life by getting skilled.

In 1991, we carried out reforms amidst crisis. A change in the political narrative will help us move into an era of “competitive development politics” where economic reforms become a necessity.

Power is not constant. It is natural in a democratic polity that treasury and opposition benches change when they do not perform.

However, amidst this change, the nation should move forward irrespective of party lines, and those who do not perform should be punished by the voters at the ballot.