Sunday, March 30, 2014

In praise of new Bihar

Book Review: Non-fiction/The new Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Development by N K Singh and Nicholas Stern (edited), Harper Collins, 387 pp; Rs799 (Hardback)
Among India’s states, Bihar has long been considered something of a ‘political laboratory’, owing to how, during the anti-colonial movement of the 20th century or in the decades post-independence, it had hosted a series of political movements with overarching effects.

Most noticeable among these had been the JP Movement, which resulted in a national emergency, the imposition of which was proof of the intolerance of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for a new kind of reactionary politics, led by arch socialist and close friend of Nehru’s, Jay Prakash Narayan.

The movement produced many other leaders over time, including Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan—three individuals who have been at the helm of Bihar’s politics in the post-Mandal Commission era.

In the years between 1990 and 2004, Bihar had dropped alarmingly low on the developmental indices. But change was at hand when the people brought Nitish Kumar and his allies to power. And it’s the immediate impact of that shift, and the policies that made it possible, that the book The New Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Development, edited by NK Singh and Nicholas Stern, deals with. Comprising the input of well-known developmental economists and policy experts, this anthology aims to highlight the Bihar model of development.

In the 1990s, Lalu Prasad Yadav, an early beneficiary of Lohiaite socialism, had made Bihar a ‘governance-free’ entity of sorts. The state had been set on a downhill trajectory then, which was further sped up by Yadav’s conviction in a fodder scam, following which he passed the mantle to his politically clueless wife. In those years, India was growing at an unprecedented pace, but Bihar appeared to be losing out.

Then came Nitish Kumar. Unlike his predecessors, he took major initiatives to improve governance, infrastructure, education, health, power and agriculture—the reason why, in the last six years, Bihar has achieved such accelerated development compared to other states in the country.

In the book, eminent economists like Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Meghnad Desai, Shankar Acharya and Arvind Virmani analyse the remarkable turnaround witnessed by Bihar, while policy experts Tarun Das, Deepak Parekh, Lord Billimoria, KV Kamath and Isher Judge Ahluwalia speak of the opportunities and challenges ahead. Most pieces are written in praise of Nitish Kumar, particularly the steps taken in the initial five years of his governance that ensured the functional mainstreaming of the state.

The New Bihar comprises 29 essays altogether. Among these, Sen, who also heads the Nalanda University Project in the state, looks into its distinguished past; Basu, in brief, skims over the fall and rise of Bihar in the last few decades; Acharya, Virmani and Desai discuss the state’s journey to such high economic growth; and Ahluwalia stresses on the importance of urbanisation—although her remarks don’t really seem adequately well-informed regarding Bihar’s ground realities.

Also included is a piece by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, among the earliest endorsers of Nitish Kumar’s work, who identifies the critical role of leadership in shaping the developmental agenda against the many odds.

We also have Rukmini Banerjee, who follows the grassroots efforts in uplifting education around the country, and her essay incorporates a lively first-hand account of Bihar’s exceptionally well-functioning primary and girl education policies.

All the accomplishments enumerated in this book paint a picture of a state that was in shambles only a few decades ago, not just in terms of infrastructure, but also how firmly it was in the grips of identity politics back then. But Nitish Kumar and his friend Sushil Modi were able to take an almost bankrupt Bihar and turn it into a state of surplus revenue.

Maintaining this momentum, and reaching the next level of inclusive development, however, is a different story, and the book also touches upon what is to come. The Bharatiya Janata Party is no longer with Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), and it appears unlikely that he will be able to return alone after the assembly poll that has been scheduled in 2015.

However, it is certain that he will remain a key political figure in the state, and the legacy he leaves—particularly the notion that good work earns the good will and trust of the masses—will hopefully keep successive governments from straying too far from the development agenda.

Indeed, whatever Kumar and his ilk have done in the first five years of taking over Bihar have been extraordinary to say the least. He is an acclaimed leader, whose celebrity has stretched beyond India’s boundaries as well. Time and again, for instance, he has tried forging an understanding with Nepal on issues concerning the state and adjoining areas beyond the borders.

However, in a federal polity like India, the head of a state has limited say, more so when the centre is ruled by a different political entity. But there is much Nepal could take away from Bihar’s story—for a country that has been grappling with political deadlock for so long, and which has resulted in a sagging developmental track record, the Bihar model offers up a great many suggestions on how to bounce back with an eye on progress.

The book essentially recognises the passion and effectiveness of a doer, who did not take the luxury pass to power. But it’s also careful not to over-glorify, and stresses time and again on the hurdles ahead for the state and others like it.

The majority of the pieces in The New Bihar are engaging and thought provoking, and will no doubt take the Bihar story, and the story of Nitish Kumar—a ‘thinking politician’, as historian Ramachandra Guha was inclined to call him—to wider audiences than ever before.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on April12,2014)

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