Whoever wins, Bihar needs time to excel

Bihar is due for Assembly elections; in a six-phase schedule spread over a month, 243 legislators will be elected. The speculation on which of the two main contendors will win — Lalu Prasad’s RJD or Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) — is making the rounds.

Bihar elections always draw attention because of its flavour, much of which is contributed by Lalu and his zestful remarks. Lalu has already proclaimed that he will be the next chief minister.

Bihar has much to offer now than earlier. It has shown 11 per cent GDP growth and remarkable increase in agriculture production. The fund flow from the Centre has increased from Rs 37,341 crore in 2000-06 to Rs 55,459 crore in 2006-09. The transformation of the state —from being ‘backward’ to becoming ‘booming’ — has been remarkable, especially given the flood and the drought situation that rocks the state frequently.

Nitish Kumar claims that Bihar is shining because of him. He promises to take Bihar to newer heights, if given another term. He is, at present, considered one of the best performing chief minister in the country. But then, the ethos in Indian politics does not profess to link performance with votes. Two of the one-time contenders to this title Chandra Babu Naidu and Digvijaya Singh, lost subsequent elections in their home states on various ‘other’  grounds.

Panchayats’ role

Post-debacle analysis of the aforesaid chief ministers indicates negligence of panchayats as one of the contributing factor. In contrast, Nitish Kumar, has been making efforts to strengthen the panchayats. He has raised the constitutionally mandated 33 per cent reservation for women in the local bodies to 50 per cent. With the panchayat elections held in 2006, Bihar has placed 63,983 women representatives at 38 zilla parishads, 531 panchayat samithis and 8,463 grama panchayats.

Women’s representation in politics is, however, resented by men representatives with comments on surrogating by the spouse. Bringing in gender role changes is difficult, given the role model at the state from 1997 to 2005 as chief minister was Rabri Devi, who in reality, extended Lalu’s term of 1990. In the ensuing elections, Rabri is contesting from two constituencies — Raghopur and Somepar. That this is to facilitate Lalu’s backdoor entry remains a foregone conclusion.

Remnants of Lalu’s rule remains impinged on people’s psyche. As a rule, the grama panchayat mobilises local resources by levying tax. The mukhiyas — panchayat presidents — are reluctant to impose tax. They fear that this would invite public displeasure, much of which would be fuelled by the opponents. They however affirm the need for resources — to build drains, get electricity and other amenities to the villages but have resigned to the situation — ‘ye Bihar hai, yeha aisa he chalega’ (this is Bihar, things will go on like this).

But change is what Bihar needs. The left-party run West Bengal has a case to prove as effective decentralisation, combined with land reforms has enabled reduction in poverty from 73 to 26 per cent over three decades. Like West Bengal, Bihar too is predominantly rural — with 89 per cent of the population living in villages. The rural poverty ratio is 44.3 per cent, second highest in the country, after Orissa. The landless and marginal agricultural households contribute to the rural poverty. The skewed land distribution remains a major problem. Many of the local feuds are because of this.

The feuds do not get sorted locally though there are grama katcheris (justice tribunals). This is another uniqueness of the panchayat raj system in Bihar, continued from its earlier tenets. Grama katcheris have the limited use of equalising political forces at the grassroots level.

Bihar has also introduced legal measures to curb criminal and anti-social elements at local body elections. Disqualification to contest in elections and hold the office, if found corrupt, if convicted by a criminal court and sentenced to imprisonment and so on.

This election will be a small pointer to which way the state will move in the near future. Whether the now-teething panchayats will support Nitish Kumar or will Lalu return like the proverbial aalu in Bihar’s samosa — one of his famous cliché — remains to be seen. The social stratification leading to caste wars have been apparent at the panchayat elections too, proving Bihar’s maxim of ‘voting the caste — not casting the vote.’ Bihar poses hoards of other problems too that need to be addressed. The Report of the Special Task Force on Bihar, 2008 points to 55.9 per cent of children being underweight, the national average is 42.5 per cent. The Human Development Index of the state ranks 32.

It would take decades for any of the political parties to bring back the glorious past to Bihar. It has become increasingly difficult to remember Bihar as the place where Vardhamana Mahavira was born and Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment.

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