Friday, December 17, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Bihar Leads the Way (Pratap Bhanu Mehta)

DECEMBER 16, 2010

Bihar Leads the Way
Nitish Kumar has been rewarded for effecting his state's dramatic turnaround.

For decades, Indian voters were unwilling to reward success in their
politicians—more than 80% of incumbent state governments used to lose
elections. While many Indian elected officials were incompetent,
surely some warranted re-election. So the anti-incumbency phenomenon
skewed incentives for politicians at the state level: If voters
weren't going to reward them with re-election for being good at their
jobs, why try?

This is finally starting to change. The rate of incumbents voted out
has fallen to approximately 50% over the past five years. Nowhere is
the trend more evident than in the northern state of Bihar, which in
late November re-elected Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Until the mid-2000s, Bihar held the reputation as India's
worst-performing state, where law and order had broken down and
kidnapping was the most vibrant industry. All the economic and social
indicators were at rock bottom and corruption was rampant. The state
government was so close to collapse that it was routinely unable to
spend the grants it received from the central government.

The state, and its reputation, have changed profoundly since Mr. Kumar
took over as chief minister in November 2005. His first victory was a
crackdown on crime. In the first year alone, his government secured
around 20,000 convictions for offenses ranging from kidnapping to
extortion, compared to fewer than 3,000 the year before. He made clear
that even members of his political party wouldn't be spared.

Mr. Kumar pushed the government to successfully prosecute marauding
caste militias that routinely terrorized lower-caste peasants.
Residents in Patna, the state capital, used to be afraid to leave
their homes after dark. Today there's a thriving nightlife.

Mr. Kumar also turned his attention to primary health care. An able
administrator, he revived Bihar's decrepit, primary health-care
centers by developing innovative contracting methods to secure
supplies—ensuring that at least some basic medicines were available in
rural areas. He also improved school administration; more teachers
were hired during his first five years in office than in the 20 years
previously. And Mr. Kumar improved the state's woeful infrastructure,
launching a rural roads program of an unprecedented scale—last year,
Bihar outspent all other states on rural road construction.

View Full Image
Associated Press

Nitish Kumar has been rewarded for effecting his state's dramatic turnaround.

A lot of this was accomplished by decentralizing power and
responsibility, something most politicians in India's state capitals
(and in New Delhi) are loath to do. Mr. Kumar re-energized local
governments in the form of panchayats or assemblies, by giving them
more responsibility for areas such as education.

All of this has translated into growth: In 2009, Bihar's GDP grew
faster than any other Indian state. Though a lot was due to increased
government spending—public works projects helped boost construction by
rates of more than 50% annually in the initial years of the regime—the
construction boom is helping Bihar's economy by connecting rural and
urban areas. While there have been allegations of graft in some
schemes, Mr. Kumar has acted swiftly to signal that he is serious
about combatting corruption. In a dramatic move this month, he used
existing laws to take over the property of civil servants convicted of

None of this was easy. Bihar has an intensely competitive political
culture. And Mr. Kumar had to contend with three sources of
opposition: Lalu Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister and leader of
a rival party; members of his own party who often felt cut out from
influencing government; and his coalition partners who were sometimes
reluctant to go along with his more radical proposals.

Of course, Mr. Kumar played politics too. He may have pushed for an
end to violence along caste lines, but he extended affirmative action
to some caste groups to garner their votes. Still, much of his
political maneuvering—such as an alliance with the center-right
Bharatiya Janata Party that is seen as upper-caste—actually ensured
that Bihar, for once, avoided polarization between upper and lower

Along the way, the alliance may have even showed the BJP, a party that
is often run along Hindu fundamentalist lines, that a moderate party
that stresses development and governance has better electoral
prospects than one beholden to Hindu militants. Thanks to its part in
Mr. Kumar's governance record, the state BJP picked up many Muslim
votes this election.

Mr. Kumar's re-election victory could help re-align incentives in
India's political system. Few politicians would be willing to shoulder
the short-term risks that come from launching a reform program if they
believe voters will never reward them. To Mr. Kumar's credit he was
willing to take that risk in 2005. His re-election victory could
persuade Indian politicians to make hard political choices on good
governance and reform.

Attention will now shift to Mr. Kumar's new term, where he faces the
challenge of making growth and upward mobility a permanent feature.
The pressing issues include strengthening property rights for
dispossessed sharecroppers, attracting more private-sector investment
and building electricity infrastructure. Progress will require taking
on special interests just as entrenched as those he battled in his
first term. Politicians in other states will be watching to see what
he achieves and how.

But, in some sense, Mr. Kumar has already won one major battle. His
most enduring achievement has been to convince the voters that the
state can work when it focuses on the delivery of key public goods and
services. By doing so, he has unleashed a politics of aspiration in a
state that missed out on the "Incredible India" hype of the last
decade. One program, distributing bicycles to female school students,
became his most popular because it gave girls a sense of empowerment
in a state where they are otherwise shunned. There is now anecdotal
evidence that people who left Bihar in despair in past decades are

The voters will now hold any future government in Bihar to higher
standards. Just that prospect gives reason for hope, not just for this
state, but for state politics all over the country.

Mr. Mehta is president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.


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