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Bihar Breakthrough: The Turnaround of a Beleaguered State

Rajesh Chakraborti

Rupa Publications

Pages: 264 Rs. 295

A breakthrough here and there, but mostly good ol’ PR

Rajesh Chakrabarti’s book, while not quite an in-your-face hagiography, does gloss over many of the difficult questions that Nitish Kumar currently faces, writes Abhimanyu Kumar Singh.

ABHIMANYU SINGH  22nd Jun 2013

Nitish Kumar

he story of Bihar's development in the years following Nitish Kumar's anointment as Chief Minister in 2005 is well-known. Apart from statistical evidence often cited in this regard, the perception of development in the state ensured a second term for the incumbent chief minister in 2010. It also emboldened Nitish Kumar to pit his model of development against that of Gujarat's, led by BJP's Narendra Modi, who has ruled his state for a longer duration than Kumar and is now, for all intents and purposes, his party's prime ministerial candidate. Nitish Kumar is eyeing the same position in case a third front government – with the support of Congress – comes into being after the general elections in 2014. This is clear after JD (U), the party Kumar leads in Bihar, broke away from the National Democratic Alliance, after its main coalition partner BJP declared Narendra Modi as its campaign chief for 2014.

A lot thus rests on this perception of development that Kumar has managed to create during his rule in Bihar. Despite its influential role in shaping national politics, Bihar has 40 Lok Sabha seats, half of what UP has. Even if JD (U) manages to consolidate the Muslim vote after its move away from BJP, it would be lucky to maintain its present tally, as the upper-caste voters associated with BJP may ditch it. Hence, it is on the basis of his state's improved development indicators that Kumar is aspiring to beat contenders like SP's Mulayam Singh Yadav, for example, in case a third-front government comes to power. It is for this reason that the story of Bihar's development has acquired strong political overtones.

Possibly aware of the greatly politicised nature of his material, Rajesh Chakrabarti, author of Bihar Breakthrough: The Turnaround Of A Beleaguered State, claims right at the outset that the "focus here will be on public policy and administration. The goal is to understand how a state can be turned around through conscious governance changes, rather than to celebrate the success of the particular instance or to eulogize the change agent concerned."

The aforementioned focus is maintained in the first few chapters of the book. The writer starts with the elections held in November-December 2005 that brought the BJP-JD (U) alliance to power in the state. He points out that the polls were largely peaceful, in marked contrast to previous electoral malpractices conducted through the threat of or actual violence, and takes this as his point of departure. Although Chakrabarti starts building up the image of Kumar right away, by praising him for his uprightness and thoughtful, erudite persona, as opposed to the allegedly corrupt and loud, boisterous persona of previous CM Lalu Yadav, he manages to begin his story in a compelling manner.

The inability of the writer, for whatever reasons, to engage with topics that do not give a good account of the CM, diminishes the supposed neutrality of the book.

Chakrabarti first tells us how the state's senior police officer Abhayanand tackled the state's much-lamented law and order situation. Bihar was well-known during Lalu Yadav's time to be a dangerous place with criminals roaming the streets and large number of kidnappings conducted with impunity. Chakrabarti illustrates how Abhayanand adopted the simple tactic of convicting criminals for possession of fire-arms, instead of wasting time over more serious offences that rarely led to convictions. This started the decline in kidnappings in the state and statistics, provided by the author, bear out the assertion. Abhayanand's decision to hire retired personnel from the armed forces to police the state also bore fruit and is duly reported by the writer.

However, he seems to shy away from criticising Kumar for the dubious approach he adopted with regard to bahubalis (criminal-politicians): to keep giving them tickets while not providing them with political protection when it came to their travails with the law. The writer himself mentions the resultant contradiction that while criminal-politicians have been seemingly contained in the state, over-all crime rate has gone up. He also points out that wanton violence occurred in Patna last year after Brahmeshwar Mukhiya, leader of Ranvir Sena, a Bhumihar militia, was murdered. But as before, he refuses to rigorously analyse the material which may put the CM in a bad light. The approach taken by the CM, which Chakrabarti terms as "pragmatic" may very well be termed "cynical" by his detractors. He states at the end of the fourth chapter that what Kumar achieved was to create a 'feel good' factor, about the crime situation in the state. "While it is possible to quibble about the statistics, it is undeniable that the new dispensation has accomplished a regime shift in terms of public perception of law and order in Bihar," he writes. We will return to this point about this perception which lies at the heart of this book.

Chakrabarti's case begins to unravel when he writes about the state's initiatives in the field of education and health. Despite some encouraging statistics in both fields, the writer admits that, "Bihar still has miles to go in improving its health infra-structure." He conducts fieldwork in a village called Sasaula but it is very patchy and he relies on conflicting testimonies from locals without arriving at a conclusion. He states that the reality could not be ascertained without a careful investigation, making the reader wonder if that was not the task of the writer in the first place. In the case of education, he mentions the loopholes along with the progress but refrains from asking tough questions. Teachers on contract in the state have long been protesting the policies of the government. The issue recently caught public attention when they were lathi-charged in the state capital in March this year. But this topic remains conspicuously absent from the narrative. Also, he over-emphasises the PPP approach whose efficacy over other models of governance has not been empirically established.

he writer touches absolute nadir when he writes, in a subsequent chapter called Industry and Economy, that due to the government's keenness to be nice to big business, "for the first time Bihar was being mentioned in a hopeful light at corporate cocktail parties, if not in boardrooms." This appears to be stretching the argument about changing the perception of the state to an absurd, and if one may say so, ridiculous extent. He follows it up by stating that as far as new industrial projects were concerned, "To an extent the approach of industries department towards these projects is almost like that of a venture capitalist." This is curious to say the least and does not tally with what Nitish Kumar said on the day he won the trust vote in Bihar: that his government, unlike Modi's, is not swayed by corporate sentiments. This makes one suspicious if the writer is actually plugging on his own the capitalist model of governance which relies on privatisation and a diminished role for the government, even in matters of welfare of the people. One is not sure if this is due to some bias on the part of the author that his analysis seems decidedly at odds with the stated economic agenda of the government of the day.

A very important aspect of that agenda was land reforms in the state. A few months after he took over, Kumar told Karan Thapar in an interview that he was committed to it. But it is now 2013 and the promised land reforms never took place. For a state that has the majority of its populace involved in agriculture, with the landless, mostly lower-castes, working on the fields of the upper-caste minority, reforms would have meant genuine empowerment. It is an oft-repeated view that Kumar refused to bite the bullet as he did not want to antagonise the influential upper-castes. However, the writer does not delve deep into the issue and blames the media for misleading reports which killed the scheme.

In a similar vein, the writer does not explore the allegations against Kumar, who was termed Editor-in-Chief of the state by a news magazine, for his ham-handed ways in dealing with a critical media. At the end of the day, Nitish Kumar's government has achieved more in terms of perception than in reality, going by the account given in the book itself. It is the local media which created this perception, to start with. If the media was not free in the first place, it raises grave doubts about the over-all claims of the government regarding development.

To sum up, the book has some sections which are well-researched, analysed and explained. However, the inability of the writer, for whatever reasons, to engage with topics that do not give a good account of the CM, diminishes the supposed neutrality of the book. He also resorts to some clear eulogising of the CM as the "change agent", despite stating in the beginning that his book was not for that purpose.

While it is undeniable that Bihar has progressed, it is still early to call it a turnaround. The caveat with Bihar's growth story is that it should not become too tied to Nitish's aim of becoming the country's next PM. While the book claims to study Bihar's growth story dispassionately, it makes exactly the mistake it said it did not want to.

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